The Election: An Interreligious Analysis of Orthodox Jews and Evangelicals

Photo by Info Chrétienne via https://www.infochretienne.com/trump-premier-president-americain-exercice-a-visiter-vieille-ville-de-jerusalem/
Photo by Info Chrétienne via https://www.infochretienne.com/trump-premier-president-americain-exercice-a-visiter-vieille-ville-de-jerusalem/

Upon learning that 83% of Orthodox Jews support Donald Trump, I was not surprised. While 70% of American Jews vote Democrat, my denomination, Orthodoxy, my Jewish spiritual home, has trended further and further right-wing – towards ideologies and figures that pose an imminent threat to the Jewish people.

The last four years of Trump’s presidency coincided with my master’s studies at Yale Divinity School. While some of my friends are convinced that I am at Hogwarts studying magic, I am actually studying Jewish, Christian, and Muslim theology and history in an effort to build interreligious relations between these communities alongside aspiring ministers, priests, and religious leaders. Prior to my current studies, I studied counter-terrorism, international relations, and conflict resolution in Israel. Throughout my undergraduate studies, I was fascinated by the role religion has to play in exacerbating and resolving conflicts worldwide–as well as its role as a motivating factor – fueling some of the most powerful acts of altruism and violence across the globe.

From a deeply religious perspective, seven years ago, I would have voted for Donald Trump. After all, I was raised to be dedicated to Israel – not the modern state, but rather Eretz Yisroel (the biblical land of Israel) – my spiritual homeland. Each morning upon entering my Orthodox Bais Yaakov school in New York, I would face Jerusalem and pray for my needs and hopes. Central to all of the standardized prayers recited is an age-old desire for Jews to be gathered from the four corners of the earth and unite in the holy land, ushering in a time in which God’s presence will be revealed in this world; a time in which pain, sickness, and injustice cease and the epicenter of holiness – Jerusalem – will be rebuilt. These aspirations would culminate in rebuilding the Third Temple, one that cannot and will not be destroyed – an end to thousands of years of diaspora and longing for homeland.

As a young girl, I would dream of walking just four steps in Jerusalem, where my observances took on an amplified character. As stated in the Babylonian Talmud (Ketubot 111a) “Whoever walks four cubits in Eretz Yisrael is guaranteed entrance to the World to Come.” When I was taken to visit the Amshinover Rebbe at age nine, he asked me my favorite part of visiting the holy land. I said, “the streets on Shabbos (Shabbat) are so silent; they reflect my inner state of rest in a way that living in America never can.” If Jerusalem was my anchor, Israel was my ship, allowing me to sail through the messy waters of being a Jewish-American.

Seven years ago, I may have excused Donald Trump’s abhorrent behavior in the name of what I could only perceive to be the coming of messianic times and his benevolence towards Israel. Now, seven years later, I cannot sacrifice my derech eretz (social and ethical character) for a leader who undermines the basic decency I was raised with – as a human being, and as a frum (observant) Jew. In the words of Orthodox Rabbi Avram Mltoek: “The president’s racist language should be alarming for any Jew who takes shmiras halashon (guarding one’s language) seriously. The president’s shady business dealings should astound any business person who fears the treachery of gneyva (stealing) [….] The president’s inhumane immigration policies directly violate the Torah’s charge of ahavas hager and onaas hager (love of the stranger). His basic way of comporting himself is in direct contradiction to upholding kavod habriyos (respect for creation).

But many in the Orthodox community have asked, shouldn’t we support Trump despite his behavior? Aren’t his concrete actions benefiting Israel worth any indelicate rhetoric? Let me walk you through the immense problem with the perspective that the land of Israel should come before basic dignity and Torah values.

Trump has emboldened White Supremacists–the most dangerous group to Jews in the US and in world history.“At a rally in Minnesota, Trump told a crowd of nearly all-white supporters that they have “good genes,” echoing the views of neo-Nazis that white people are genetically superior.” The Ku Klux Klan’s official newspaper endorsed Trump for president. The White Nationalist conference in Washington celebrated Trump’s victory with Nazi salutes. Richard Spencer, a well-known neo-Nazi, opened the conference by proclaiming: “Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory!”

In the years since Trump was inaugurated, we have witnessed the shooting at the Poway Chabad and the Pittsburg Tree of Life synagogue – the two deadliest attacks on Jews in all of US history. But it is not only Jews who are threatened by White Supremacist ideology and its adherents. The 2020 edition of the annual threat assessment by the Department of Homeland Security warned that violent White Supremacy was the “most persistent and lethal threat in the homeland” and that White Supremacists attacks were the deadliest among domestic terrorism in recent years.” The shooters in the synagogue attacks and the White Supremacists rallying in unprecedented numbers across the U.S. in the last four years represent Donald Trump’s voter base. These groups state publically that Trump has emboldened them, providing a seemingly obvious explanation for the 61% spike in hate crimes since his presidency began in 2016. Only weeks ago when asked at the first presidential debate, viewed by upwards of 70 million Americans, the sitting president of the United States not only declined to condemn White Supremacy, but told White Supremacists to “stand by.”

The second group Trump caters to are Evangelical Christians. There is an overlap between White Supremacy and right-wing White Evangelical Christianity, as these ideologies share views about Jews. For White Supremacists, it is the belief that Jews are infectious to the White race, undercover as “White” but poisoning their pure ethnic identity. For some Evangelicals, it is that Jews are Christ-killers and the missing peg in the Battle of Armageddon, or Gog Umagog as the Jews call it. Such ideas, along with critique of legalistic, narrow-minded, Pharisaic (Rabbinic) Jews is a common feature in sermons. American Evangelicals consider observant Judaism to be erroneous while believing that their system of faith has a role in God’s plans for humanity. These Christian beliefs rely on “biological determinism,” derived from the notion that “1. White Northern Europeans are the true Israelites and through Christ, rightfully White heirs to a White, Christian, “Kingdom of God” to be established on earth. 2. Jews are imposters, “false chosen people” and are the children of Satan, involved in a global conspiracy to destroy the White race.”

These ideologies–White Supremacy and forms of dogmatic Christianity– came together in Nazi Germany when Hitler used the national church as his right arm to spread his lethal regime. Today, Trump is fomenting and promoting these ideologies–through his twitter feed and at podiums as the president of the United States–and emboldening their adherents.

But my friends who support Trump sidestep my answer to their first question, “isn’t Trump’s rhetoric excused by his actions,” by asking another: “ “why would Trump be such a great supporter of Israel if he hates Jews? And after all, his own daughter converted to Judaism!” Orthodox Jews, because of their insularity and failure to educate their children about the relationship of Judaism to other faith traditions, specifically those that are a response to our own–Christianity and Islam, have left themselves ill-equipped to understand a major portion of White Christian America. This religious illiteracy is proving to be very dangerous, but it is a silent danger, because without religious literacy it is impossible to understand the danger of religious illiteracy. Trump’s rhetoric isn’t just political incorrectness or rudeness, but tangibly perilous to Jews.

80% of White Evangelical Christians voting for Trump are an integral part of the United States – its political and social landscape, even if we have closed our eyes and ears, refusing to believe that a president so in sync with our religious-national needs could simultaneously be emboldening vehement hatred. This is my appeal to Orthodox Jews–please learn more about those who Trump touts and serves. We are a bi-product of a way bigger purpose. Trump has never hidden his love of his base. As he said: “Christianity will have power. If I’m there, you’re going to have plenty of power, you don’t need anybody else. You’re going to have somebody representing you very, very well. Remember that.” ” After moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem, do you know what Trump said? “We moved the capital of Israel to Jerusalem… that’s for the evangelicals.”

So who are these Evangelicals? What do they believe?
Evangelicals are a diverse group drawn from a variety of Christian denominational backgrounds, most of which pride themselves on a doctrine of Supersessionism–or replacement theology–the belief that through Jesus and the New Testament, a new covenant was made with Christians and that they are the new chosen people. This view attempts to erase Jesus’ Jewish roots and reinforce the dividing line between Judaism and Christianity, a religion that was inspired by Judaism, with as its core figure a Jew, born in Eretz Yisroel. Supersessionist teachings were disseminated throughout early church history and the doctrine is intimately connected to the idea that Christians were elevated by God to be the new chosen people as punishment for Jews killing Jesus. The persecution of Jews was promoted as the infliction of their rightful penalty for the worst possible crime — killing God.

“The deep-rooted anti-Semitic beliefs among some evangelicals as both cultural and theological, with the cultural beliefs coming from their conservative neighbors and the theological beliefs dating to early Christianity, when Christians first started casting themselves as the new chosen people replacing the Jews.” While some of the early Church Fathers considered “the persecution of the Church […] holy martyrdom, the persecution of the Jews is read as divine wrath.” If Orthodox Jews are angry at the fringe group called Black Hebrew Israelites for one lone wolf assailant, who attacked an ultra-Orthodox gathering in Brooklyn stabbing five Jews with a machete knife at a Chanukah celebration in January 2019, they should be fuming about this theology being used on a mass scale by the group that their presidential nominee is catering too.

Evangelical Christians have 200 different organizations committed to Christian Zionism in the U.S. and Canada that operate with Supersessionism. For example, Christians United For Israel (CUFI) represents more than eight million Americans and is run by John Hagee. Hagee’s “antisemitic attacks include many of the most dangerous myths of the modern era. Hagee has warned of an international plot led by the Rothschilds to undermine American sovereignty through controlling the federal reserve and international markets. He has described Hitler as a “hunter” sent by God to kill Jews who refused to move to Israel, and he described the Antichrist as a “half-Jew homosexual.” Blaming Jews for their own persecution, and connecting them with the Antichrist, is an obvious centerpiece of grotesque antisemitism.” Hilariously, this is the same man that has a page on combatting anti-Semitism on his website. For Hagee, the Jewish people are pawns in this theological theatrics. This organization tactfully claims to fight against anti-Semitism while promoting anti-Judaism that created every anti-Semitic stereotype known to man. The hypocrisy is painful and precarious.

When Trump moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, he invited many guests. Among them was none other than John Hagee, who was given the privilege of speaking at the opening ceremony. Not only did Trump choose to honor a notorious anti-Semite, but he gave Hagee a microphone at an official function of the United States government, and with it the veneer of decency and even respectability.

Following Second Temple Judaism, after the rupture between Pharisaic (Rabbinic) Judaism and the emerging Christian community, some of the early Church fathers, today lauded as saints, claimed that Jews killed Jesus – a sin that could not be repaired until the end of times, when Jews returned to Jerusalem with sovereignty over Israel which would be followed by the coming of Christ and the capitulation of Jews to the true faith – Christianity – finally recognizing Jesus as the son of God. If Orthodox Jews fear the notion of assimilation, this should terrify them, because it is a vision of the world in which every single Jew becomes a believing Christian.

If annihilation of Jewish identity is not enough, consider the allyship and alignment between these groups and neo-Nazis who seek the physical eradication of the Jewish people. “Politically, evangelicals find themselves sharing common cause with right-wing anti-Semites. They might have little else in common, but both groups are enthusiastic supporters of Trump. And Trump, who strives to court that evangelical fandom, has flirted with anti-Semitism. During his campaign, he retweeted and defended an image from a White Supremacist website, showing Hillary Clinton’s face over a pile of money and a six-pointed Jewish star.” This is one of many examples in which Trump explored the link between the right-wing and conservative Evangelical Christianity.

Here lies the linkage between anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism. A connection encapsulated too perfectly in the sanctimonious actions of right-wing Evangelicals and White Supremacists. There has long been a double standard in which theologians like Augustine claimed “love” for the Jews while simultaneously propagating anti-Jewish rhetoric, identifying all Jews with the evil Judas (who betrayed Jesus and led to his death). Love for Jews is intimately connected to conversion and hopes that they will (1) face the fact that Jesus is their savior and (2) repent for killing God. These ideas fueled the pogroms, crusades, and many of the atrocities towards Jews throughout history. This includes the rhetoric of Martin Luther in his book On the Jews and Their Lies, in which he calls Jews “venomous beasts, vipers, disgusting scum, canders, devils incarnate.” Do you know what else Luther said? “We want to treat them with Christian love and to pray for them, so that they might become converted and would receive the Lord.” These quotes by early church fathers, but especially by later theologians such as Luther, were used by the Reichskirche (German church) to support Hitler and weave the history of anti-Judaism into the anti-Semitism that fueled the Holocaust. Love for Jews in hopes of their salvation has long gone hand in hand with subliminal degrading tropes which inspire anti-Semitism.

It is this same love-hate relationship that many White Evangelical Christians have towards Jews today and that Trump is utilizing to get reelected. Trump’s cabinet Pompeo, Pence, and Robert Jeffress are all Christian Zionists. Christian Zionists are a powerful sub-group of Evangelical Christians (that also affect other denominations). The pro-Israel attitude of this presidency has a price and that is why Jews shouldn’t vote for him: Christian Zionism is a political ideology based in an anti-Jewish theology; a threat that parades around as our best friend. So, if you were critical of the Muslim groups sending money to the Tree of Life Synagogue after the shooting, calling it a public relations stunt, you should be outraged at the funding poured into Israel by groups such as the CUFI.

“What we are considering is not a racial anti-Semitism, along the lines of the pseudoscientific ideology that fueled Nazism and led to the Holocaust, but rather a Christian anti-Judaism rooted in the replacement theology that has its foundation in early Christology and grew in intensity over the centuries, often to lethal effect.” As I write this essay, having lived in Austria for close to a year, it is not as difficult to understand the unholy linkage between the right-wing, Christianity, and supporting leaders who gained immense power through such sentiments.

So no, it is no coincidence that today, in the swing state of Michigan, a Jewish cemetery was vandalized with the words “TRUMP” and “MAGA.” Just one year ago, a Michigan synagogue was vandalized with posters of Hitler saying “Did you forget about me?” and “A crusade against Semite led subhumans.” The weaponization of Christian terms like “crusades” alongside imagery of Hitler should not surprise you at this point, and neither should the term “subhuman” which is pointing to the racial supremacy of “biological determinism.”

I have seen many of my friends’ posts about Trump’s daughter and grandchildren being Jews. I hate to break it to you all, but Hitler had Jewish ancestry. Jewish ancestry or offspring do not stop someone from being an anti-Semite, just as adopting a black child doesn’t prevent a White parent from being a racist.

“How could I not have known this?” many of my Orthodox friends state astoundedly, in light of this information. It is not surprising that this gap in knowledge exists in Orthodoxy, the closed-off nature of the community is a direct result of the very trends and tropes I have described above. However, in choosing to be ignorant of the beliefs of our neighbors, we are perpetuating the discriminatory rhetoric and beliefs that led to that insularity in the first place. This time, shutting our eyes won’t protect us, it will be our downfall.

For Jews, an eternally tyrannized minority, Trump’s apparent affirmations are intoxicating. Finding that our religious-national interests are in harmony with the majority of the population of the United States is comforting. Collective trauma of oppression has haunted our history and things finally seem like they are looking up. I hate to burst the bubble of Orthodoxy, but it is time to wake up and see what we have closed our eyes to over the last four years. This is a critical moment in our history, and I pray we shatter preconceptions and burst our bubble before it is too late.

About the Author
Basya Gartenstein is pursuing her Master of Divinity at Yale Divinity School. She is simultaneously earning a Certificate in Educational Leadership and Ministry from Berkley Divinity School. After being awarded her Bachelor’s Degree in Conflict Resolution and International Relations from the IDC Herzliya, she served as the Jewish Service Corps Fellow through the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee with placements in Mumbai, India and Helsinki, Finland. Basya worked at the Muslim Jewish Conference from 2015-2017, facilitating dialogue between Muslims and Jews across the spectrum of religious and political identity. Interested in the intersection of scholarship and interreligious encounter, Basya is the president and co-founder of the Yale Divinity School Interfaith Club. In 2019, she was the recipient of the SALAM Sultan Qaboos Scholarship for Advanced Arabic Study and Intercultural Exchange. In 2020, she received the Critical Language Scholarship through the US State Department, to solidify her linguistic goals in the service of her broader vocational aspirations.
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