Watching President Donald Trump equivocate during his criticism of the recent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., many liberal Jews saw a new low for an administration they felt never occupied high moral ground in the first place.
But many of Trump’s most ardent Jewish supporters had an entirely different reaction, responding to his freewheeling commentary with little more than a shrug, as if to say, “What’s the big deal?” To them, criticizing Trump for a lack of moral clarity because he failed to single out neo-Nazis for condemnation was just another example of the liberal media and the Democratic establishment blowing his comments out of proportion.
“People were getting upset with him because he didn’t specifically say he hated Nazis,” said Warren Scheinin, a retired engineer in Redondo Beach. “He also didn’t mention that the sun rises in the east.”
For right-leaning Jews in the Southland like Scheinin, who have stood by the president so far, the media rather than Trump or even neo-Nazis pose the greatest threat to American democracy. To many Trump supporters, if Charlottesville mattered at all, it mattered far less than his promises to reverse the course of the previous administration at home and abroad, especially on difficult issues involving Israel, North Korea and immigration.
While it’s difficult to estimate the percentage of Jews who still support the president, it’s likely small. More than two-thirds didn’t vote for him in the 2016 election.
Among all Americans who cast ballots for Trump, however, many apparently continue to stand by him. A CBS News poll found that 67 percent of Republicans approved of his response to the violence in Charlottesville.
In a separate poll this month by Monmouth University in West Long Branch, N.J., 41 percent of those surveyed expressed approval for the president. Of those, 61 percent said nothing he could do or fail to do would cause them to change their minds about him.
Steven Windmueller, a professor emeritus at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles who researches Jewish political sentiment, said it is difficult to measure how many Jews continue to enthusiastically support Trump rather than merely accept his leadership.
“For those who are in bed and comfortable with him, and even with his quirks and his inconsistencies, there’s little that will push them away from him,” Windmueller said. “But for those who are troubled by at least some of his statements and actions, I think they’re simply hoping for some way out of this nightmare.”
Windmueller pointed to a “credibility gap” between those who put their faith in Trump and those who trust mainstream media outlets.
“Whatever he said, the media would twist it,” said Alexandra Joans, 66, a property manager in Tarzana who supported Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in the Republican primaries but shifted her support to Trump once he became the nominee. “If he said today was Friday, they would say, ‘You’re a damned liar, you should be impeached.’ ”
Benjamin Nissanoff, 45, the founder of a line of body-care products who lives in West Los Angeles, said the media are quick to label Trump a Jew hater, but they didn’t criticize President Barack Obama when, in an interview with Vox, he did not denounce a 2015 attack on a kosher supermarket in Paris as anti-Semitic. (In the immediate aftermath of the attack, Obama said: “Anti-Semitic attacks like the recent terrorist attack on a kosher supermarket in Paris pose a threat that extends beyond the Jewish community.” However, he did not refer to anti-Semitism in the Vox interview.)
“The media not only didn’t challenge [Obama] on it, they defended him against it,” Nisanoff said. “To me, that is almost an equivalent, analogous situation. Where this president, in my opinion, made a gaffe and — instead of defending him like they did for Obama — they went on offense and they attacked him for a poorly worded and phrased condemnation.”
For some Jewish voices that have defended Trump in the past or stayed silent while others attacked, the president’s comments on Charlottesville seemed to cross a line. But that put them out of lockstep with his base among conservative Jews.
Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, who delivered the invocation at Trump’s inauguration ceremony in January, said he wished that Trump had been a more effective communicator at a time of crisis.
“If he was concerned there not be any violence at the demonstrations, he could have said, ‘I appeal to all Americans to obey the police and not violate any of the rules,’ ” Hier said. “But instead, he seemed to draw a moral equivalency between perpetrators and victims.”
The Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC), which praised the president when he appointed a diplomatic amateur, David Friedman, as ambassador to Israel, and withheld criticism when he failed to mention Jews in an International Holocaust Remembrance Day statement, spoke out against his Charlottesville comments.
“People were getting upset with him because he didn’t specifically say he hated Nazis. He also didn’t mention that the sun rises in the east.”
Responding to Trump’s assertion that there were “very fine people on both sides” of the Charlottesville protests, the group’s national chairman, Norm Coleman, a former U.S. senator from Minnesota, and Matt Brooks, its executive director, contradicted him in an Aug. 16 statement, saying, “There are no good Nazis and no good members of the [Ku Klux] Klan.
“We join with our political and religious brethren in calling upon President Trump to provide greater moral clarity in rejecting racism, bigotry and anti-Semitism,” they wrote.
But other Jewish Republicans saw nothing objectionable in the president’s comments, only the backlash that ensued. After the California Jewish Legislative Caucus, a group of 16 lawmakers in Sacramento, rebuked Trump for his comments, the only Republican member, State Sen. Jeff Stone of Riverside County, resigned from the caucus.
In an Aug. 17 statement, the caucus said Trump “gives voice to organizations steeped in an ideology of bigotry, hate and violence.” Stone fired back hours later with a statement of his own, saying the caucus “receives state resources to merely criticize our duly elected President.”
Carol Greenwald of Maryland, co-founder of the grassroots group Jews Choose Trump, who supported him throughout the 2016 campaign, dismissed the criticism from organizations like the RJC.
“They’re a bunch of hypocrites,” she said. “They didn’t support Trump for a minute during the campaign.”
She sees the fallout from Trump’s Charlottesville remarks as part of a crusade by the media aimed at damaging the president.
“They ran out of the Russian collusion [story], that Trump is a traitor, because there’s obviously no evidence for it, and so they’re now trying to destroy his presidency by saying Trump’s a racist,” she said.
Scheinin also believes Democrats are running with the Charlottesville story to damage Trump.
“The only reason he’s being harassed about it is because the left loves to harass the president,” he said.
The former Northrop Grumman engineer agreed with the president that both sides in Charlottesville were to blame for the violence.
“I don’t know why people are making a mountain out of a molehill,” he said of the media coverage. “If the counterprotesters hadn’t showed up, nobody would have been killed. It would have blown over.”
Like Joans, Greenwald and others interviewed for this story, Scheinin said he sees far-left groups such as antifa, known for its use of violence to intimidate conservative speakers and protesters, and Black Lives Matter, which has equated Israel’s treatment of Palestinians with genocide, as more of a threat to democracy and Jewish life in America than the far right.
“The skinheads don’t really bother me,” Joans said. “They’re useless to me. I worry about the left more because they’re the true fascists.”
For Trump stalwarts, the perception that violence and hatred are rampant on the left makes it easier to sympathize with the president’s suggestion that both sides of the Charlottesville rallies should be targeted for condemnation.
Estella Sneider, a celebrity psychologist who campaigned for Trump and appeared frequently on television to support him, disputed allegations that Trump is a racist or a xenophobe, pointing to his Orthodox Jewish daughter and son-in-law, foreign-born wife and Blacks he appointed to positions in his administration, such as White House communications aide Omarosa Manigault. “Why are people not seeing this?” Sneider said.
Sneider’s family on her father’s side was almost entirely annihilated by the Holocaust. She said she was nauseated by the Nazi symbols and chants at the torchlight march in Charlottesville. After watching Trump’s remarks, however, she was satisfied that he had unequivocally condemned the white supremacists.
“It would be unfair to lump every single Trump supporter into being white supremacists and white nationalists and neo-Nazis, in the same way it would be unfair to lump all liberal Democrats into being antifa,” she said. “Trump was right in saying that not everybody there was a neo-Nazi.”
Nissanoff, the son of a Holocaust survivor, said he was offended by comparisons between Charlottesville protestors who chanted “Jews will not replace us” and Nazis.
“The word ‘Nazi’ is such a powerful idea that to dilute it and start to equivocate with a bunch of losers who run around with tiki torches I think diminishes what a Nazi and Nazism really was,” he said.
In Los Angeles, members of the Israeli community continue to provide a source of Jewish support for Trump.
Ari Bussel, 51, who runs a liquor distributorship in Beverly Hills, was born in the United States but spent his childhood in Israel. He described himself as a proud Republican and said he felt Trump has not been given a chance to lead the country. He said Trump has been “vilified as the greatest Satan, the actual fulfillment of imaginary fears and baseless accusations.”
“As for the latest accusations,” Bussel added, “whatever the president would have said would not have satisfied some people and the American-Jewish leadership — exactly those who vocally and fiercely fought against his being elected.”
For Adi Levin, 47, a homemaker in Woodland Hills who emigrated from Israel in 2000, Trump’s support for Israel is more important than his record on race relations. She said the coverage of Charlottesville has been biased against the president.
“They like to criticize Trump and will continue doing so no matter what he’ll say or do,” she said. “I never heard them criticize Obama the same way, even though he never criticized or said anything about Muslim extremists.”
However, Levin said she wishes Trump would pick his words more carefully.
“It’s obvious that the media doesn’t like him,” she said, “but I don’t think it will hurt to try and be more politically correct.”
The Orthodox community has been another source of pro-Trump sentiment in Los Angeles and beyond. For some of his observant supporters, Trump’s record on religious liberties and Israel far outweigh his handling of race relations.
Cheston Mizel, president of Mizel Financial Holdings and a congregant of Pico Shul, an Orthodox synagogue in Pico-Robertson, said the attention to Charlottesville and to other presidential controversies has distracted from Trump’s successes, including appointing the pro-Israel Nikki Haley to serve as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and nominating Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“While there are obviously things that are problematic about this presidency, Nikki Haley and Neil Gorsuch are two clear bright spots,” he said.
Rabbi Shimon Kraft, 58, owns the Mitzvah Store on Beverly Boulevard and goes to synagogue nearby at Congregation Kehilas Yaakov. He grew up in a liberal Democratic family in Kansas City, Mo., but in the 1980s, after meeting Ronald Reagan at a Kansas City Jewish country club where he was a lifeguard, he changed his party affiliation to Republican.
Although he originally supported Florida Sen. Marco Rubio in the primaries, once Trump made it to the general election, Kraft’s choice was clear, he said: He voted to make America great again.
Asked whether he feels Trump has adequately denounced white supremacists, Kraft pulled out his iPhone and played a YouTube video of clips edited together to show Trump repeatedly denouncing white supremacist David Duke in various interviews with reporters.
“It was sufficient,” Kraft said of Trump’s response to Charlottesville. “Those who hate Trump could not accept his condemnation of the violent left.”
Ayala Or-El contributed to this article.