“In hindsight,” admits Nathan Diament, the executive director of the Orthodox Union’s policy arm, “our goal would have been better served by us doing it in a different way.” Diament, a longtime Washington player who has been navigating the partisan minefield for years, was referring to a rare bout of criticism his organization came under in reaction to a photo showing him awarding a plaque to Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The timing couldn’t have been worse. The Orthodox Union (OU) was seen as honoring the attorney general just as Sessions’ “zero tolerance” policy of separating children of asylum seekers from their parents burst into national headlines, tying the attorney general to a policy widely condemned as cruel and akin to child abuse.
Diament believes it was all about the optics, that instead of a plaque with the Deuteronomy 16:20 phrase “Justice, justice you shall pursue,” a verbal acknowledgement would have drawn less criticism. “The image took off on its own,” he said.
The June 13 incident, which was supposed to be the high point of the OU’s annual advocacy drive, brought about precisely the type of attention this organization would gladly do without. But whether it was no more than a visual misunderstanding perceived as a tribute to Sessions, or a misjudgment that led the otherwise cautious OU to weigh in on a hyper-controversial issue, the event highlighted a unique, and sensitive, point in time for the Orthodox Union: representing the most pro-Trump constituency among Jewish Americans, while trying not to endorse presidential policies that have made many in the Jewish community feel under siege.
Sessions, already a controversial figure even before instating his “zero tolerance” policy, was invited by the OU to speak about religious freedom during the group’s Washington blitz which included meetings with White House officials and with Democratic and Republican lawmakers. The group said it raised the issue of separating immigrant children from their parents in a closed door meeting they held with the AG and that the plaque with the biblical quote was not a measure of praise for Sessions, but rather a call for action. “Everybody in the room got that this was a respectful critique,” says Diament. But on social media, the image of a legacy Jewish organization, known in every household thanks to its OU kosher stamp, seemingly honoring the man in charge of pulling children from their parent’s arms, was unthinkable. “Today in the annals of desecrating God’s name, we see the Orthodox Union honor Jeff Sessions with a plaque that says, wait for it, ‘Justice, justice shall you pursue,’” wrote Rabbi Shai Held, the co-founder of Mechon Hadar, a non-denominational yeshiva in New York, in a Facebook post. “Staring at the picture of Jeff Sessions being honored at the OU, I found myself wondering what God must think of us, and about whether the stain of being in bed with such men can ever be wiped away.” A week later, a group of Orthodox activists staged a rally outside the OU’s New York offices, protesting the group’s decision to host Sessions.
The OU tried to explain that their meeting with Sessions was in now way an endorsement of his policies, made every effort to respond to critics on social media and in public statements, and announced it had co-signed a letter of Jewish organizations to Sessions, decrying his immigration policy. But while genuinely sorry for an ill-timed, and perhaps ill-planned, event, the OU is in no way shy about its support for many of Trump’s policies and for the open door it enjoys in the Trump White House.
Orthodox Jews, a broad category which includes Modern Orthodox represented by the OU as well as black-hat haredi Orthodox, whether Hasidic or non-Hasidic, are the most trusted GOP constituency in the Jewish world. At least when it comes to presidential elections. The last time a Democratic candidate won a majority of Orthodox votes was in 2000, mainly thanks to the fact that Joe Lieberman, himself an Orthodox Jew, was on the ticket. 54 percent of Orthodox Jews voted for Trump in 2016, according to the AJC survey conducted after the elections. In 2012, 48 percent of Orthodox Jews voted for Mitt Romney.
Why does this observant faction of the Jewish world, representing roughly 10 percent of Jewish Americans, lean increasingly Republican? As is the case with most Jewish voters, it is a combination of foreign and domestic policies. Orthodox Jews pay special attention to the candidates’ policy toward Israel and reward those who are aligned with the policies of Israeli right-wing government—whether it’s on the issue of Jerusalem, the future of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or the Iranian nuclear deal. And, as opposed to other Republican Jews, Orthodox voters also agree with many of the GOP’s domestic policies, including school choice, increased flexibility in directing federal funds to religious purposes, and a conservative approach to women’s rights and LGBT equality.
Here the Trump administration has a lot to offer Orthodox Jews and the OU, from Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s anti-public schooling policies to Sessions’ religious freedom agenda. The group did, however, actively oppose Trump’s effort to bring down the Johnson Amendment which would allow politicking from the pulpit. The administration’s Middle East policies, and its easing on the issue of Jewish settlements expansion in the West Bank, also fit well with the Orthodox agenda.
In return, the OU enjoys better access than many other Jewish groups to the Trump administration. Orthodox Jews have also been playing an increasing role in pro-Israel organizations such as AIPAC and in other communal organizations. One Orthodox activist described his own way of measuring the inroads made by Orthodox Jews to positions of influence in the Jewish advocacy world: “Look at where they serve kosher meals,” he suggested. AIPAC, though no longer in the business of holding massive dinners for thousands of participants, is more open to providing kosher food to its guests than it was a decade ago; the conservative CPAC conference has its own kosher break out meals; and the White House, of course, goes to great lengths to make its annual Hanukkah reception fully kosher, ever since the George W. Bush administration. Even the Republican Jewish Coalition is more attuned now to the dietary needs of its members, as well as to those who are Shabbat observant.
But for all the advantages the Trump administration has to offer, the Orthodox Union is careful not to turn its partnership with a controversial administration, into a warm embrace. In contrast to haredi Orthodox Jews and to diehard pro-Trumpers, the OU feels the need to keep bipartisanship in mind, even as its members shift gradually to the Republican side. Local issues of deep concern to Orthodox Jews in New York State will likely be decided by Democrats for years to come. And national policies are also bound to swing with the political pendulum. Diament knows that better than many others. Sure, the Obama years weren’t great for many of the OU’s causes, but good working relations with Obama (a former Harvard pick-up basketball teammate who appointed Diament to sit on his presidential Faith Advisory Council,) kept the OU in the game.
And that is probably why the OU was so startled by the Jeff Sessions moment. Enjoying the perks of a friendly administration is one thing. Buying into the MAGA agenda is a whole different story.