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The ethical cost of Jewish communal support for Donald Trump

Orthodox Jews can defend their support of Trump in several ways, but they risk losing themselves if they commit to this kind of problematic personality for the long run
A member of the Jewish Orthodox community wears a mask supporting President Donald Trump, Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020, in Borough Park, Brooklyn, New York. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
A member of the Jewish Orthodox community wears a mask supporting President Donald Trump, Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020, in Borough Park, Brooklyn, New York. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

As my wife and I sat down for Shabbat lunch, we heard the sounds of a celebration. We sensed that the networks had announced that Biden had won. After Shabbat ended, we learned that similar spontaneous celebrations had taken place around the country.

For millions of people, a dark cloud had been lifted. A majority of American voters had rejected a cynical manipulation that sowed division and fear.

* * *

After the election, we do well to consider why a choice was made, as the process itself can have ongoing implications.

President Donald Trump is a polarizing figure. The Jewish voters split their votes as a result of wildly differing attitudes toward his candidacy. In Israel, polls showed overwhelming support, reflecting the feeling that he was a consistent proponent of the policies of the Israeli government. Many Orthodox Jews in America agreed with this evaluation. Some Orthodox Jews supported Trump because of his approach to religion and state and his appointment of conservative judges. They considered these valid reasons to vote for him.

But many Jewish voters were disturbed by his personality. Trump openly defied accepted norms of behavior. He was crude and rude, disparaging those who opposed him and using name-calling instead of arguments. Cynically assuming that all are corrupt, he had no compunction about using his position for personal gain. Trump has been accused of serious sexual misbehavior, as well as financial illegalities.

Politics, for Trump, is a form of war where winning is all that matters. He sees life in transactional terms. He will support the policies desired by religious denominations, while not conducting himself in accord with their expectations of upright behavior. Trump prides himself as a businessman who beat the system. He went bankrupt many times, yet never personally paid the price.

Many of his Jewish supporters acknowledge these character faults, but argue that the policy gains outweigh them. Yet it is embarrassing to justify supporting a candidate because one benefits from his positions on issues that are particularly important to the voter, while knowing that the candidate’s flaws hurt others. Rather than appear uncaring, one easily resorts to explaining that these perceived flaws are not really as serious as they seem, and are even virtues when viewed from a different perspective. In Israel, no one wants to be a freier, which is loosely defined as a sucker, incapable of playing the system, who instead abides by the system’s rules. Someone who has successfully avoided paying taxes, has refrained from paying bills, and emerges stronger from falling business is seen as a winner.

A significant Haredi rabbi explained Trump’s crudity as normal for the rich. Perhaps an alternate rationale for excusing Trump’s behavior is that a non-Jew can do what he wishes, and not worry about criticism. Moreover, if dishonesty is a given, being open about dividing the world between supporters and enemies — who don’t deserve proper treatment — is an expression of authenticity. Since the other politicians are equally corrupt, Trump gets credit for not being a hypocrite.

In broader circles, knowing that Trump is vengeful, his followers have learned to accept his reality. We are witnessing, post-election, Trump essentially refusing to accept defeat. He asserts fraud without providing proof because it is inconceivable that the majority of voters chose his opponent, whom he had derided, and not him.

Pragmatic political alliances should not replace moral and ethical standards. When a religious community becomes committed to a problematic personality for practical gains, it risks losing its fundamental character. Mentalities develop over time and can become entrenched. Yet a single event will not by itself lead to national change. It may be an inflection point. Religious leaders may begin to reconsider a transactional relationship with government and show concern for decency and ethical and moral standards. In Israel, there may be a realization that the anti-freier doesn’t always win.

We hope that this support of Trump has been a unique situation and the religious leadership will communicate that it is limited; otherwise the future damage will outweigh the benefits.

About the Author
Rabbi Yosef Blau is the Senior Mashgiach Ruchani (spiritual advisor) at Yeshiva University, and a partial resident in Jerusalem.
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