A Conference on “Healing a Fractured World”

After the 2020 general election, many hoped that the days of hyperpartisanship were behind us. But the Jewish community, like so many others across the country, has still been trying to exactly why they remain polarized.

According to a new report released by Nishma Research, a sociology research firm focusing on the Jewish community, there’s a reason why: a vast difference in priorities between Democratic and Republican Jews. Nishma surveyed 449 members of the Orthodox community and asked Trump voters and Biden voters how important 35 issues were in their decision. Participants ranked issues as “not so important,” “somewhat important,” “quite important” and “my most critical factors.”

When it came to issues voters saw as “most critical” in their choice of candidate, Trump supporters appeared to prioritize foreign policy: 80% of Trump voters cited Israel as “most critical,” whereas only 29% of Biden voters did; similarly, 57% of Trump voters cited Iran as a “most critical factor,” but only 8% of Biden voters did so.

By contrast, domestic policy seemed to be a higher priority for Biden voters: 78% of Biden voters saw the coronavirus pandemic as “most critical,” whereas only 12% of Trump voters saw it as such; “bringing the country together” was a “most critical” factor in deciding the vote for 49% of Biden voters, but only 8% for Trump voters.

Given these clear divisions between Orthodox Jews, many Jewish leaders and community members are seeking ways to bridge the divide. And on February 15, 2021, the Jewish Alliance for Dialogue & Engagement (JADE) hosted a panel discussing exactly that.

Given clear divisions between Orthodox Jews, many Jewish leaders and community members are seeking ways to bridge the divide.

The event featured moderator Ari Goldman, professor at Columbia’s School of Journalism, in conversation with Jacob Kornbluh, senior political reporter at The Forward; Mark Trencher, founder of Nishma Research; Ester Fuchs, Professor at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs; Rabbi Barry Kornblau of Young Israel of Hollis Hills-Windsor Park and Doctor Elana Stein Hain, director of faculty and senior fellow at Shalom Hartman Institute.

Goldman opened the conversation by noting the historic divisiveness with the Orthodox community. He asked, when, for example, did “Orthodox become synonymous with right-wing politics?” How did so many Orthodox Jews embrace Trump, and why do so many cling to his legacy?

The Origins of the Divide

Trencher reiterated that there was more partisanship within the Jewish community than past decades — and even within the past four years. But he cautioned that when he looked back at previous surveys, “the emotional connection to Israel among [lean-Democrat voters] was pretty much the same as it was among people who vote Republican… The issues that guided voters might be different from the issues that underline the day-to-day importance.” When it comes to healing, there are areas of common ground, he observed.

Fuchs contextualized the divide Trencher’s survey observed. Jews still remain one of the most consistent groups of Democratic voters, but “as Jews became wealthier,” she noted, “they didn’t become Republican.” This was odd because people tend to vote their economic interest.

Fuchs argued that the Republican shift came before Trump, and could be attributed to Orthodox Jews becoming more well off and moving to the suburbs, where they became “more insular” and “less liberal,” favoring noninterventionist governments and lower taxes. Kornbluh agreed, adding, “I think the shift started [with] George W. Bush, where people … identified not only with the politics of the Republican party but also moved away from the ideology and policy [of] the Democratic party.”

Why Trump

Kornbluh theorized that one reason why Orthodox Jews voted for Trump was because he “upped the rhetoric” against Democrats. He also argued that Orthodox Jews see a “resemblance” between Trump and in their own rabbis. As a result, Orthodox Jews were more politically active in the past five years than ever before.

Stein Hain explained how Israel became a rallying point for Orthodox support of Trump. The Iran deal, she noted, was a major moment of “distrust” within the Orthodox community; also critical was anti-Semitism and criticism of Israel among progressives. Trump was the person who called BDS anti-Semitic, pulled out of the Iran deal and hired and appointed Orthodox Jews to manage Israeli policy; “Orthodox Jews sa[id] to themselves, ‘well here’s somebody who understands my story.’”

Mending Fences

Each panelist concluded with their hopes for bridging the divide. Stein Hain noted that when it comes to Orthodox communities with more internal divisions, such as the Modern Orthodox community, “we need to develop a way of discussing these issue through a lens of values and not just bickering.”

Kornbluh also touched upon discourse, noting that Orthodox Jews need to “engage based on data” and refrain from judgment. He shared that he was attacked while reporting on an anti-lockdown protest in Borough Park, what he attributes to his “channeling information” from what the community saw as untrustworthy sources (state and local government). Education on a communal and personal level, he shared, will be crucial.

Trencher agreed, arguing that the responsibility for creating healthy discourse lies with rabbis and schools. Fuchs echoed Kornbluh’s desire for respectful discourse, but noted that our fundamental goal is to “protect our democracy” and focus on anti-Semitism on the left and right.

Kornblau concluded that he draws faith from halacha, which speaks to obligations and duties, not rights. What we need to do, he said, is “listen without rancor” and express “ourselves and our motives without rancor.” He shared that he started an a group of like-minded rabbis and Torah leaders who are working to “liberate the Torah” from one political party versus the other and to revive dialogue.

COVID-19, Goldman said, gives us a chance to “reset” as a community and pursue these goals.

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