Why Ortho­dox Jews Iden­tify With the Christian Right

Forward Magazine - - Fore­ground - Batya Un­gar-Sar­gon

Ortho­dox Jews and evan­gel­i­cals have a lot in com­mon. Large ma­jori­ties of both com­mu­ni­ties say re­li­gion is very im­por­tant to their lives — 83% of Ortho­dox Jews and 86% of white evan­gel­i­cals. Both groups re­port at­tend­ing re­li­gious ser­vices at much higher mar­gins than their less fun­da­men­tal­ist brethren. And roughly the same num­ber of Ortho­dox Jews and evan­gel­i­cals — eight out of 10 — be­lieve God gave Is­rael to the Jewish peo­ple.

Based on this data, the Pew Re­search Cen­ter con­cluded in 2015 that “Ortho­dox Jews more closely re­sem­ble white evan­gel­i­cal Protes­tants than they re­sem­ble other U.S. Jews.”

We can now add sup­port for Pres­i­dent Trump to that list. Re­call that 81% of evan­gel­i­cals voted for Trump. That’s a lot more than the 54% of Ortho­dox Jews who voted for him. But only 24% of Jews over­all did, mak­ing the Ortho­dox out­liers among their co­re­li­gion­ists. And a Septem­ber sur­vey found that his sup­port has only grown since then among the Ortho­dox; 71% of Ortho­dox Jews re­ported ap­prov­ing of the pres­i­dent (as op­posed to just 21% of Jews over­all).

In the age of Trump, the sim­i­lar­i­ties between Ortho­dox Jews and right wing Chris­tians have turned into an out­right affin­ity, with Ortho­dox groups tak­ing po­si­tions on is­sues we tend to think of as Chris­tian. And in so do­ing, they are rene­go­ti­at­ing the mean­ing of the sep­a­ra­tion of church and state.

So says Shlomo Fis­cher, a pro­fes­sor of so­ci­ol­ogy in the School of Ed­u­ca­tion at He­brew Univer­sity and Ben-Gu­rion Univer­sity of the Negev. Fis­cher wrote an ar­ti­cle for The Jewish Peo­ple Pol­icy In­sti­tute’s An­nual As­sess­ment of 2017, ar­gu­ing that Ortho­dox Jews have started to see their place in Amer­i­can so­ci­ety in a way that’s at odds with their more lib­eral co-re­li­gion­ists.

“The no­tion that Amer­ica is a Chris­tian coun­try scares most Jews,” Fis­cher said. “Not the Ortho­dox.”

When you ask Ortho­dox Jews why they voted for Trump, one rea­son al­ways comes up — Is­rael.

“It’s no se­cret that the Ortho­dox com­mu­nity is more pas­sion­ate about is­sues with re­gards to U.S.-Is­rael pol­icy than other seg­ments of the com­mu­nity, and that the Ortho­dox com­mu­nity tilts to the right on is­sues of Is­rael,” said Nathan Di­a­ment, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Ortho­dox Union.

Is­rael also ex­plains Trump’s soar­ing ap­proval rat­ings, ac­cord­ing to Di­a­ment. “Anec­do­tally, what peo­ple talk about in the com­mu­nity is, Trump is not pres­sur­ing Is­rael on the peace process and not hec­tor­ing them about set­tle­ment ex­pan­sion, which was a reg­u­lar oc­cur­rence dur­ing the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion,” he ex­plained. (About Trump leak­ing Is­raeli in­tel­li­gence se­crets to the Rus­sians, Di­a­ment had no com­ment.)

The cen­tral role Is­rael played in choos­ing Trump is some­thing I’ve heard from dozens of Ortho­dox Jews. Oth­ers — both ex­perts and in­sid­ers — blamed ten­sions with African Amer­i­cans, or overt racism. But some of it wasn’t about world­view at all, says Sa­muel Heil­man, pro­fes­sor of so­ci­ol­ogy at Queens Col­lege of the City Univer­sity of New York. “A lot of Ortho­dox Jews have also felt that they’ve been on the wrong side, they’ve been out of power, and they want to stick it to the man, and there was some of that about Trump,” Heil­man said.

A po­lit­i­cal op­er­a­tive im­mersed in the Jewish com­mu­nity agreed. “It’s about main­tain­ing a seat at the ta­ble,” he told me. “Ev­ery­one wants to re­main rel­e­vant.”

Fif­teen years ago, pol­i­tics had to fit into your be­lief sys­tem, he said. Now, your be­lief sys­tem has to fit into pol­i­tics. And this came to a head un­der Trump.

What’s more, with their guy in power, the Ortho­dox no longer need to vig­i­lantly po­lice what was once a cen­tral tenet of their be­lief sys­tem: the sep­a­ra­tion of church and state. “The Ortho­dox are aban­don­ing the sep ara­tion of church and state be­cause now, it’s work­ing for them po­lit­i­cally to do so,” he said. “Be­cause they have Trump.”

Nowhere is the fit­ting of be­liefs into pol­i­tics as ap­par­ent as it is in Ortho­dox groups’ re­cent at­ten­tion to women’s re­pro­duc­tive health.

An Ortho­dox group called the Coali­tion for Jewish Val­ues, formed in the wake of Trump’s elec­tion, re­cently ap­plauded leg­is­la­tion out­law­ing abor­tion af­ter 20 weeks on the grounds that the “un­born child” can feel “fe­tal pain.”

The press re­lease broke from the tra­di­tion of Ortho­dox or­ga­ni­za­tions, which have his­tor­i­cally steered clear of abor­tion as a topic. “Abor­tion has al­ways been on the Ortho­dox radar but un­easily so, be­cause, while we value even po­ten­tial life, our po­si­tion does not neatly over­lap that of the Chris­tian right,” ex­plained Avi Shafran, di­rec­tor of com­mu­ni­ca­tions at Agu­dath Is­rael of Amer­ica. “The more rad­i­cal, re­ac­tionary part of the Chris­tian right sees a fe­tus as the equiv­a­lent of a born child, and in Ju­daism, for Jews, that’s

The Ortho­dox com­mu­nity is un­der­go­ing the same shift as the rest of Amer­i­can con­ser­va­tives.

not the case. We feel we must pro­tect a woman’s right to rely upon a re­li­gious de­ci­sion be­ing made con­sci­en­tiously to ter­mi­nate a preg­nancy.”

But CJV is not alone. The O.U. re­cently came out in sup­port of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s roll­back of Obama’s leg­is­la­tion forc­ing re­li­gious com­pa­nies to pay for birth con­trol.

There was a con­sid­er­able re­sponse to these or­ga­ni­za­tions tak­ing these mea­sures. Some peo­ple I spoke to viewed these new de­vel­op­ments as an aban­don­ment of the sep­a­ra­tion of church and state, while oth­ers viewed it as proof that it was never there to be­gin with for Ortho­dox Jews.

“They were never pro­tec­tors of sep­a­ra­tion of church and state,” Heil­man said. “We’ve seen at least since the days of Rea­gan that the Ortho­dox have con­sis­tently been mov­ing to the re­li­gious right in part be­cause they are on the po­lit­i­cal right. They share many of the world­views of the right.”

But this is not how the Ortho­dox or­ga­ni­za­tions view their work. Quite the op­po­site, in fact.

“Our sup­port for re­peal­ing the con­tra­cep­tives man­date was specif­i­cally about re­li­gious lib­erty and a sit­u­a­tion in which the gov­ern­ment has many other al­ter­na­tives in terms of af­ford­ing women ac­cess to con­tra­cep­tives that do not re­quire im­pos­ing on em­ploy­ers the need to vi­o­late their re­li­gious be­liefs,” Di­a­ment in­sisted. “Our po­si­tion on con­tra­cep­tives has noth­ing to do with Chris­tian­ity or im­pos­ing re­li­gious be­liefs on any­body but has to do with pro­tect­ing peo­ple.”

In this read­ing, the sep­a­ra­tion of church and state is not meant to pro­tect sec­u­lar folks from the im­po­si­tions of a re­li­gious gov­ern­ment, but rather to pro­tect re­li­gious folks from the im­po­si­tions of a sec­u­lar gov­ern­ment.

And ac­cord­ing to Mitchell Rock­lin, a

NIKKI CASEY

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