Why Orthodox Jews Identify With the Christian Right
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