Think back to a year ago.
The Jewish wars were raging. Israel’s prime minister brought the fight over the Iran nuclear deal to the floor of Congress, directly confronting the American president. Israeli Jews stood with Bibi. American Jews were split. A slim majority backed the deal, an enraged and anxious minority fought tooth and nail against it. We were divided, weakened, uncertain.
And then came Donald.
Donald Trump’s rhetoric and behavior, his shape-shifting policies and free-style facts have derailed American politics. But give the man credit for one seemingly impossible feat: Donald Trump has united the Jews.
A year ago, if someone had asked you what will heal the deep partisan division between American Jews, what would you have said? An Arab war. A new season of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” The messiah. It’s a short list.
Who would have guessed the correct answer was a race-baiting billionaire from reality TV? I know I’ve written about this before, but Jewish unity is like Halley’s comet. You don’t get many chances in a lifetime to see it.
But if a poll released last week is correct, that’s exactly what’s happening. A survey of 500 Florida Jews found that if the election were held today, 66 percent would choose Hillary Clinton and 23 percent would go for Trump. That’s a steep drop from the 30 percent of Jews whom Gov. Mitt Romney won running against Barack Obama in 2012.
Keep in mind that Romney received between 5 and 10 percent more of the Jewish vote than did Sen. John McCain in 2008. Trump hasn’t just put a halt to the upward trend, he’s reversed it. These numbers show that whatever momentum Republican Jews had gained, Trump lost.
Even more telling is Trump’s unfavorable rating among Jews. The poll, conducted by Jim Gerstein from GBA Strategies, a progressive-leaning polling group, found that 71 percent have an unfavorable view of him. Seventy-one percent! I’ve been burning up Google trying to find another controversial issue on which Jews poll with such unanimity.
The only one I could find was Passover. A 2013 Pew study found that 70 percent of American Jews mark the Passover holiday. I can see Trump’s PR spin on this: “Vote Trump. He’s as Popular as Seder.”
The Iran debate was close. Those of us who supported the deal did so with deep reservations, with divided hearts and minds. But the numbers on Trump reveal no such waffling. In fact, I think they tell us a lot about who we are:
1. We believe in b’tselem Elohim — all people are created in the image of God. The poll found that Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric was a particular turn-off to Florida Jewish voters. They had “strong objections” to Trump’s plan to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the country. Only 19 percent supported it. Think about that: More Jews oppose Trump’s ban on Muslim immigration than celebrate Passover. Americans as a whole are split on the idea of the Muslim ban. It has to be telling for Trump that the people most hated by the likes of ISIS are the people least likely to scapegoat all Muslims.
2. We were once strangers. Trump’s singling out of Mexicans and Latino Americans fell even more flat with Jewish voters. According to the survey, only 12 percent approve of his call to build a wall between Mexico and the United States.
3. A strong America equals a strong Israel. Much is being made of the finding that Israel ranked near the bottom of concerns for Florida Jewish voters. It was ninth out of 13 issues, with the economy, ISIS and future Supreme Court nominees at the top. Only 8 percent named Israel as the most important issue. The lesson is not that American Jews care little about Israel, but that they take both parties’ support for Israel as a given, and understand that Israel’s security depends in large part on America’s strength.
4. Hiten zol men zikh far di freind, nit far di feint. Yes, I had to Google that. It’s the translation of a bit of ingrained Yiddish wisdom: “Beware of your friends, not your enemies.” I’m sure there’s a Ladino equivalent. Donald Trump’s friends, more often than not, disgust us. His popularity on the hate-right, his selection of Breitbart’s Steve Bannon as campaign manager, his love affair with Ann Coulter — you don’t have to think the man is racist or Hitler — which he isn’t — to feel he has given way too much cover to kooks.
These are the lessons of the 71 percent of Jews who disapprove of Trump, but of course they raise the most perplexing question: What’s with that 26 percent who say they’re voting for him? If so many prominent Republican Jews have vocally come out against Trump; if anecdotally we each know so few Republican or independent Jews who say they’ll vote for him, who are these people?
For that answer, I turned to professor Steven Windmueller, who has been studying American Jewish voting patterns for decades. Trump’s Jewish base, he said, are people still concerned by the Iran deal who want to “punish” Clinton for her support of it. They are people who prioritize Israel and believe Democrats in general and President Obama in particular put too much pressure on it.
“Trump is perceived as willing to take on Islamic extremists, the Iranians and others who are seen as threats to Israel and to American global interests,” the professor emailed me. “These are priorities for a core group of Jewish Republicans where international security is a driving factor.”
But Windmueller also pointed out that Trump is far less popular among Republicans despite these actual numbers: Not only are there those unfavorables, but he has done far worse than previous Republicans raising money from Jewish donors.
Why? Consider the words of Charles Fried, professor at Harvard Law School and former solicitor general of the United States under President Ronald Reagan — and a Holocaust refugee.
“This is a man about whom the best you can say is that he doesn’t believe anything he says,” Fried wrote on CNN.com. “After that, it’s downhill all the way.”
Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @foodaism and @RobEshman.