Do Jewish conservatives still have a home in the post-Trump Republican Party?

Attendees at the Republican Jewish Coalition’s annual leadership meeting hold up signs while waiting to see President Donald Trump speak at The Venetian Las Vegas, April 6, 2019.
Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Five months ago, Rabbi Alan Sherman appeared in a political ad draped in a prayer shawl and blowing a shofar ”as a wake-up call to all Jews, to wake up and vote for Donald Trump.”

Trump lost. And his bid to overturn the election, culminating in a deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and an ongoing reckoning within the Republican Party, has led to Sherman’s own wake-up call.

He no longer supports Trump. If the former president runs again, Sherman said he will change his registration to Independent.

“When I was in the Army for 28 years, I swore allegiance to this country through the Constitution, but I didn’t swear any loyalty to Donald Trump,” said Sherman, a retired chaplain.

“He’s going to try to be very influential in the Republican Party, which is completely turned upside down, and the Republican Party is going to have to decide who they are.”

The Republican Party’s identity crisis is taking central stage this week as party leaders weigh what to do about Marjorie Taylor Greene, the new Georgia Congress member who helped incite the insurrection and has advanced a variety of conspiracy theories, including anti-Semitic ones. Last week’s revelation that two years ago she peddled the theory that the Rothschild family started California’s devastating forest fires using lasers from space has drawn particular ire from Jewish groups.

The Republican Jewish Coalition, which produced last year’s TV ad starring Sherman, condemned Greene and said it was working with party leaders on “next steps” around her position in the House.

Whatever Republican leaders decide, the party’s Jewish members will have to consider the post-election tumult as they make their own choices about what they do next. A range of interviews with politically conservative Jews suggested that they are still in the throes of that decision.

Trump supporters proposed a number of paths forward: Move to Israel. Become Orthodox. Change the Republican Party from within. Start a third party. Wait until Trump’s rehabilitation. Preserve Trump’s foreign policy but jettison Trump himself.

Jewish Republicans found themselves torn throughout Trump’s presidency. Trump embraced the agenda of the Israeli government to a greater degree than any of his predecessors. But he also inspired explicit displays of anti-Semitism, evident in the symbology borne by some Capitol insurrectionists. His lie about that powered the insurrection — about a stolen election — has been taken up by extremist groups such as the Proud Boys and those who subscribe to the QAnon conspiracy theory, which is laced with anti-Semitic overtones.

Jewish conservatives describe a dizzying four-month arc from Trumpian high to low, from the normalization agreements that Trump brokered between Israel and several Arab countries to the deadly insurrection Trump incited in January, and its inclusion of anti-Semitic symbols, including a rioter wearing a “Camp Auschwitz” T-shirt.

Fred Zeidman, a major donor to Republicans who supported Trump last year after being skeptical of him in 2016, said candidates who embrace Trump’s claims of a fraudulent election won’t get his money.

“What [Trump] did for Israel is unprecedented, and that’s always been our priority,” he said, adding however that now it’s time for Republicans to work with Joe Biden, the actual president. “If you don’t help find the solution, you’re part of the problem.”

Trump’s Israel policies led Bethany Mandel, a writer for a number of conservative publications, to say in a Haaretz op-ed on election eve that she had changed her mind about her qualms in 2016, when she vocally opposed Trump.

“Just on Israel alone, one cannot pretend that the president has done anything less than move mountains,” she wrote on Nov. 2. Moreover, Mandel said, her fears four years ago of a white supremacist resurgence under Trump “weren’t just off-base, they were hyperbolic nonsense.”

Now Mandel is distraught and said she realizes the tradeoff had been too costly.

“There’s a feeling among a lot of Republicans that ultimately they got a really good package with Trump, and they were willing to offset with some terrible tweets, and I think that that was a reasonable position to hold until a cop was killed at the Capitol,” she said. “It’s not a fair trade.”

Mandel said that on social media she sees Jewish conservatives downplaying the riot, and senses that some feel that coverage of the insurrection is overwrought.

“I’ve seen a lot of denialism about what happened,” she said.

But Mandel said other fellow Jewish conservatives feel conflicted in the wake of the past few weeks. She described a recent conversation with a friend who was set to run as a Republican in a local election, but who was having second thoughts because of the turmoil. She advised him to drop out of the race for now, but to stay involved so he could bring in moderates to counter the Trumpists.

“I don’t know if it’s going to be successful,” she said. “It’s a lot easier to be excited about a stolen election and a conspiracy and all of these things than to support moderate fiscal policy.”

Eric Cantor, the Jewish Republican who nearly became House speaker before being ousted in 2014 in a primary by a right-wing challenger, said Friday in a Washington Post op-ed that the Republican failure to confront the far right predated Trump. Republican leaders needed to tell the base when pandering politicians trafficked in lies.

“You might just find that leveling with your constituents and getting to do big things is more rewarding than spewing a guaranteed applause line at a rally,” he wrote.

Even as some major donors like Zeidman are steering clear of Trump and the Republicans who took up his election lie, Republicans running for office fear that his grassroots influence will remain potent. A conventional wisdom taking hold is that a politician can’t win a primary without Trump and won’t win a general election with him.

For foreign policy conservatives, the challenge is reconciling Trump’s Israel policy, which they welcomed, with his depredations.

The Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a hawkish pro-Israel think tank, was blunt in a monograph completed just after the Jan. 6 insurrection on transitioning foreign policy from Trump to Biden.

The deadly raid on the Capitol was a “national disgrace,” the monograph begins. “And it would not have happened without the encouragement of the president of the United States, Donald Trump.”

But that’s not the whole story.

“There are important [foreign policy] wins to process,” the monograph said.

Jonathan Schanzer, a Foundation for Defense of Democracies vice president who tracked terrorism financing in the George W. Bush administration, is still processing the insurrection.

“I don’t understand, there’s no clear ideological barriers or boundaries for what’s going on here,” he said in an interview.

“Right now I don’t know where Trumpism stands. In terms of the direction of the party, will there be an attempt to resurrect Trumpism, either through Trump or some other figure, or will there be a determination that it is time to move in a different direction?”

Schanzer said a figure like Nikki Haley could emerge as a unifying leader. Haley, Trump’s first U.N. ambassador who campaigned for his reelection, has been critical of his role post-election, telling the Republican National Committee the day after the riot that his behavior since November “will be harshly judged by history.” (More recently, she told Fox News host Laura Ingraham that Trump deserved “a break” and advised Democrats to “move on.”)

“Obviously she served under Trump,” Schanzer said. “But I think she does seem to represent also a more traditional approach to American foreign policy and perhaps even Republicanism here at home.”

For Matthew Brodsky, a senior fellow at the Gold Institute for International Strategy, a hawkish think tank, Trump’s foreign policy was enough to keep him on board — even after the riots.

“I tend to compartmentalize,” Brodsky said. “I tend to vote based on foreign policy. So for me it was a no-brainer — the foreign policy that Trump had was in just about every single area actually far better” than that of his predecessors.

That still holds, he said.

“The Abraham Accords is going to be the biggest, longest-lasting positive legacy from the Trump administration,” Brodsky said of the normalization agreements Trump brokered.

“When it comes to the issue of the people raiding the Capitol, I don’t see that as a ‘me’ issue.”

Still, Brodsky said, Trump’s divisive presidency accelerated a process of polarization in place long before his election and sharpened an existing crisis for Jewish-American conservatives.

Brodsky described a gulf between the liberal Jewish majority who he said “don’t care about Israel” and conservative Jews for whom Israel’s security is central.

Jewish Democrats in polls say they are pro-Israel, and a number of Jewish Democrats in Congress often take the lead in advancing pro-Israel legislation. But there remain sharp differences over issues that Jewish conservatives say are the sine qua non of being pro-Israel, including rejecting the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and not contradicting Israel’s governments when it comes to settlement policy.

It’s a gulf, Brodsky said, that is spurring some Jewish conservatives, in the wake of Trump’s loss, to seriously consider moving to Israel.

— JTA News and Features

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