What turns many Jews away from Trump energizes his Jewish supporters
In August 2015, the American Jewish Committee (AJC) asked 1,030 American Jews to name their favored candidate in the following year’s presidential primaries. Hillary Clinton was the clear winner with 39.7 percent, followed by Bernie Sanders with 17.8 percent. Donald Trump came in third with 10.2 percent, more than any of the other nine Republicans named.
A majority of Jews will almost certainly line up behind the Democrat in the November election: The same AJC poll found 48.6 percent of American Jews identify as Democrats, compared with 19 percent who say they are Republicans.
But some of the same factors that have turned many voters off Trump — his unyielding stance on immigration and fondness for insult, for instance — are some of what’s driving another group of Jewish voters, even some in liberal Los Angeles, to support his candidacy.
“I like the idea that somebody fresh and new and a little bit vulgar is getting ahead,” said Culver City resident Leslie Fuhrer Friedman, who attends the Pacific Jewish Center on Venice Beach.
“Does he say uncouth things?” she said. “Of course. You know, he’s kind of like an Israeli in the Knesset. He’s a little rude.”
For all the offense many Jews have taken to the Republican’s musings, others have found a set of reasons, specifically Jewish ones, to support him — from his close relationship with his Orthodox son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to his disdain for an administration many feel has disrespected Israel.
And then there are some Republican Jews who see Trump’s candidacy as merely the lesser of two evils.
Brian Goldenfeld, a Woodland Hills paralegal who contributes to the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC), said he’s disappointed with both candidates but doesn’t view Clinton as an acceptable option.
“I don’t think just because you’re conservative you have to support Trump,” he said. “But what other alternative do we have?”
For its part, the RJC has offered Trump its lukewarm support: When it became clear he would be the party’s nominee, the RJC released a statement congratulating him, but it has yet to endorse him.
Yet there’s a sense, at least among the Jewish Trump supporters interviewed for this article, that his shoot-from-the-hip style allows him to speak political truths others avoid, especially on issues of foreign policy.
Clinton “has never admitted there is such a thing as Islamic terrorism,” said Phillip Springer, a World War II veteran who lives in Pacific Palisades.
Springer said he supports Trump because he sees him as the candidate most suited to protect the United States from terrorist attacks of the type that are increasingly common in Europe.
“He does not want New York to turn into Paris and Washington to turn into Brussels,” Springer said. “That will happen if the gates are opened to anybody that’s trying to get into this country.”
Among some of L.A.’s Iranian Jews, Trump has won support by loudly rejecting the Iran nuclear deal authored by the Barack Obama administration.
“It struck a very bad chord for us,” Alona Hassid, 29, a real estate attorney, said of the agreement. “The deal was no good.”
Hassid said many Iranian-American Jews like her parents, who fled the Islamic revolution, have trouble stomaching any kind of engagement between America and the current Iranian regime. Recent revelations that the U.S. leveraged a $400 million payment due Iran in order to secure the release of American prisoners only make matters worse.
“These are not people that you can negotiate with and make a deal with and hope that the deal will work out,” Hassid said.
Hassid said the great majority of her friends support Trump, though many shy away from saying so publicly for fear of reprisal.
Michael Mahgerefteh, 45, a Beverly Hills resident born in Tehran, said many Persian Jews fault the Obama administration for not projecting an air of strength that would help shield Israel from her enemies.
“A lot of us feel like Israel is our country, more than the U.S., or Iran even,” he said. “All the stuff that’s happened in the last seven or eight years, which I think Hillary will continue, is bad for Israel — not just the Iran deal, but just the way that when the U.S. gets weaker, the bad people in the world, the terrorists, feel stronger. They fill in the void.”
But Mahgerefteh doesn’t have to look past America’s borders for a reason to support the Republican nominee. Many Iranian immigrants feel the freedoms that helped them climb the socio-economic ladder here are under assault, he said.
“If you want to work hard or go to school or do whatever you want, there’s always been a lot of opportunity here,” he said. “But it feels like that’s changing, mostly in the last seven or eight years.”
He added, “It might be irreversible after that.”
Steven Windmueller, an emeritus professor at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion who studies American Jewish political behavior, predicted that Jewish support for the Republican will decline compared with previous years due to Trump’s unpolished rhetoric and his failure to adequately disavow anti-Semitic supporters such as one-time Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke.
But some Persian Jews, along with Israelis, Russian Jewish immigrants and the Orthodox, constitute a “Republican emersion” that defies the Jewish liberal mainstream.
“Persians and Israelis come to this out of a sense of grave concern for national security, for protecting Israel, for isolating Iran and all the sort of foreign policy pieces,” Windmueller said.
As for observant Jews, polling indicates they are more likely to take a politically conservative stance out of concern for Israel’s security. In a 2013 Pew Research Center poll, 34 percent of Orthodox Jews in the U.S. said they believe Jewish settlements in the West Bank help Israel’s security, compared with 16 percent who say they hurt it. Among Reform Jews, the numbers flip: 50 percent say settlements hurt Israel’s security while only 13 percent say they help.
Yet the majority of American Jews are not observant, and supporting the Republican candidate has long been a minority position in Jewish L.A. If anything, Trump’s candidacy has made it even worse.
After Friedman put up a George W. Bush lawn sign in 2004, an Israeli friend ripped the sign out of the ground and stomped on it to demonstrate his opposition. But this election foists an additional stigma on backers of the Republican candidate: that supporting Trump makes them bigots.
“That’s one of the accusations that they throw out,” she said. “You’re probably not educated or you’re married to your cousins.”
“People just try to bully you,” Mahgerefteh said of his experience as a Trump supporter. “They say, ‘Only certain type of people are behind Trump.’ ”
As a result, many Republican voters have learned to remain wary when political conversations arise.
“If it’s not going to be a healthy debate,” Hassid said, “I’m not going to bring it up.”