Trump’s Parting Gifts

November, 30 2020
Latest, Politics
Collage of images: Amy Coney Barrett, the Supreme Court building, Trump with a group of ultra-Orthodox Jews
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1. For Orthodox Jews, Trump’s Supreme Court is the gift that will keep on giving

Despite a failed reelection campaign, Donald Trump and his team registered several notable gains this election season. Trump slightly increased the share of Black and Hispanic Americans voting for him, alongside an impressive turnout from a small but well-organized subgroup: Orthodox Jews. According to polls and estimates, more than 80 percent of Orthodox Jews cast their vote for Trump, making them one of his most approving constituencies in the nation.

This week, a U.S. Supreme Court decision proved they bet on the right horse.

In a 5-4 ruling, the court delivered a win for religious groups, specifically for Catholic and Orthodox Jewish groups, who sought to overturn a New York State decision to limit prayers in houses of worship located in areas with high rates of coronavirus infections.

A similar case was brought before the Supreme Court earlier this year and was rejected, with the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg casting the deciding vote. This time, her successor, Amy Coney Barrett, tilted the court in favor of the religious groups. Coney Barrett was appointed by Trump only months before the elections, to the delight of conservative and religious supporters.

The decision bears very little practical importance since the neighborhoods in which limitations were imposed on religious gatherings are no longer considered danger zones. But it does mark a significant shift in the highest court of the land—a recognition of the primacy of religious freedom as a protected liberty under the first amendment, even when public health considerations could justify infringing on such freedoms.

Agudath Israel of America, the ultra-Orthodox group which filed the challenge, alongside the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, celebrated the decision as a “historic” one that reaffirmed “the bedrock American principle that religious freedom shall not be a second class right in the United States.” In its statement, Agudath Israel added that “this ruling is certain to have nationwide legal impact on the status of religious freedom for years to come.”

And this is where Trump’s legacy becomes so significant for the Orthodox Jewish community.

Overruling New York governor Andrew Cuomo’s decision is a notable feather in the cap of these Orthodox Jewish groups, which have been at war with the governor and the mayor of New York ever since the pandemic broke out.

But ramifications of the court’s decision are sure to be much broader.

The Orthodox community cares deeply about issues that put into question the balance between church and state, such as government funding for private, parochial education, support for religious institutions, exemptions from certain equal hiring practices, and easing restrictions on tax-exempt religious groups and institutions.

Trump has left America with a Supreme Court more open than ever to rule in favor of religious groups on these matters, and that, for many in the Orthodox community, means a lot.

You may wonder why this is a battle led only by the ultra-Orthodox community. Don’t non-Orthodox Jews want to keep their synagogues open? Of course they do, but non-Orthodox denominations have figured out ways to remain active while adhering to the COVID-driven limitations. They hold virtual services, offer online resources, and try new ways of engaging with congregants. These don’t work well for Orthodox Jews, who cannot use electronic technology on Shabbat and holidays, and who have built their communal life around daily in-person synagogue participation.

2. Trump cemented the alliance with Orthodox Jews

It’s not an obvious choice.

Orthodox Jews don’t usually care that much about issues that define Trump’s conservative base (tax policy, abortions, guns) and clearly share many political ties and contacts with the Democratic side (given their concentration in Democratic-run states.)

But in his four years, Trump succeeded in securing the overwhelming support of members of the Orthodox community.

How did he do it?

Mainly by paying a lot of attention to this subgroup, which accounts for about 10 percent of American Jews.

Perhaps it’s because most other Jews shunned Trump, or simply because members of the Orthodox community were less committed to the Democratic side, but Trump made them feel welcome. From commuting kosher meat executive Sholom Rubashkin’s sentence to holding holiday calls with mostly Orthodox rabbis and adopting policies supporting Orthodox concerns on education and funding.

Coupled with an Israel policy that sided with the government in Jerusalem, which is supported by Israeli Orthodox, Trump has left a legacy that Democrats will find hard to undo. The Orthodox Jewish vote, a small but presumably growing power within the Jewish community, is now entirely on the Republican side.

3. Mike Pompeo, Trump’s greatest gift to Israeli settlers

While Amy Coney Barrett may be Trump’s best parting gift for Orthodox Jews in America, his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, fills the same role for Israeli settlers. During his tenure, Pompeo has declared that the U.S. no longer views Israeli settlements in the West Bank as illegal and has backed the Kushner peace plan that would allow Israel to annex all settlements.

During his November 19 farewell visit to Israel, Pompeo took another big step toward establishing himself as the most significant American champion of the settlement movement (perhaps even worthy one day of a settlement named in his honor, just like Trump got one named after him in the Golan Heights).

Pompeo not only became the first high-level American official to visit a West Bank settlement, but he also issued a set of directives aimed at solidifying America’s shift in favor of Jewish presence in the Palestinian territories. He enjoyed a glass of Psagot wine, made in the West Bank, declared that any act of anti-Zionism and boycott, even if directed solely on the settlements, is equal to anti-Semitism, and changed the country-of-origin rules for imports to the U.S., allowing products from West Bank settlements to be labeled “made in Israel.”

Critics argue that what Pompeo had in mind were domestic politics, seeking to secure support from pro-Israel evangelicals for a possible 2024 presidential run. That may have played a role in his decision. But these symbolic steps perfectly encapsulate four years of the Trump administration’s Israel doctrine: a full and clear shift from seeking to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a manner agreed to on both sides to one that sidelines the conflict and seeks ways of securing Israel’s standing in the region, without compromising with the Palestinians.

4. What will remain from Pompeo’s overtures to Israel’s right-wing?

One of the nice things about lame-duck actions is that many of them are reversible. This is exactly what you can expect the Biden administration to do after January 20.

True, some of the steps taken by Trump are here to stay: The U.S. embassy is not going back to Tel Aviv, and America’s recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights is not about to be reversed. At least not now.

But most of the actions relating to the settlements are going nowhere:

The permission to annex, as detailed in the Kushner plan, will no longer be relevant in the Biden administration.

America’s posture toward the settlements—regardless of whether the declaration of them as legal remains or not—will swing back to what it was in the pre-Trump era: an active opposition to the expansion of settlements.

Biden and his designated secretary of state, Tony Blinken, may or may not bother reversing the decision to mark settlement products as “made in Israel,” but that won’t make much difference. Aside from small shipments of kosher wine and the odd product, there is no real import of West Bank settlement goods to the U.S.

5. Counting Jews in Biden’s cabinet, and why it’s controversial

The practice of Jew counting is as old as Jewish life in America. And so no one should have been surprised that in the world of professional Jews, the pen and paper were out and ready once president-elect Biden began announcing his cabinet members. 

For those checking, as of this week, we’re up to three: Tony Blinken for secretary of state, Alejandro Mayorkas at Homeland Security, and, though not yet announced, Janet Yellen for Treasury. (Not to mention Kamala Harris’s husband, Doug Emhoff, as the second gentlemen.)

Is there anything wrong in taking pride in members of the tribe who made it to the top ranks?

Of course there isn’t.

If anything, pointing out Jews in positions of power provides the community, especially during these times when anti-Semitism is on the rise, with the needed reassurance that Jews are accepted in all walks of life in America.

But—and there’s always a but—there is room to acknowledge some people’s discomfort with this public display of joy over the nomination of Jewish Americans to key positions.

Those holding these feelings range from individuals who (falsely) fear that highlighting Jews in positions of power will be used by anti-Semites to advance their hateful theories. This, any expert will tell you, is flatly wrong. Facts do not drive Jew-haters.

But some simply feel that one’s faith is a personal matter, and in any case, not an issue that should play any role in their professional life. In other words, all these three talented Jewish Americans who were nominated to Biden’s cabinet so far were chosen because of their talent. Their Jewish faith had nothing to do with it.

But the biggest mistake Jew counting could lead to is making assumptions about the president’s views and decisions based on the number of Jews serving in his cabinet. Almost all recent U.S. presidents chose Jewish Americans to serve on their cabinet (though some more than others). These cabinet members were as diverse as the face of America—from Henry Kissinger to Robert Reich.

Bottom line: Counting Jewish cabinet members is a fun game to play in Jewish gatherings, as long as you don’t try to read too much into it. 

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