The New Heimish Populism

The protests in Borough Park reflect a shift in Orthodox communities, long in the making, toward a Trumpian style of politics.

Joshua Leifer
October 15, 2020
A protester stands in front of Jacob Kornbluh’s home after Heshy Tischler’s arrest. Still from Fox 5 newscast via YouTube

LAST WEEK, in the middle of the Jewish harvest festival of Sukkot, a right-wing Orthodox revolt exploded in Brooklyn’s streets. For two consecutive nights, a gravelly voiced talk radio personality named Heshy Tischler led anti-mask, pro-Trump protests in the largely Orthodox neighborhood of Borough Park that ended in violence. It was a spectacular eruption of an aggressive, pugilistic Orthodox populism that seemed to take the president’s political approach as its model. But while exceptional in its extremity, this was not an isolated incident. It was, rather, part of a larger trend that has now become impossible to ignore: the alignment of many Orthodox communities with Trump’s agenda, and with it, their adoption of his political style.

More than any other American president, Trump has won widespread adoration in Orthodox communities. At the grassroots level, this enthusiasm has taken unprecedented forms: a Hasidic singer penning a Yiddish ode to Trump, a synagogue serving whiskey and cake to celebrate the president’s birthday, sleepaway camps hosting Trump impersonators. In August, the Orthodox pop star Yaakov Shwekey reworked his hit song “We Are A Miracle,” a schmaltzy ode to Jewish resilience in the face of oppression from ancient Egypt to the present, into “We Love America,” a pro-Trump anthem. (The new lyrics, Shwekey told the Haredi web outlet Vos Iz Neias?, had been written for a Trump campaign fundraiser early that summer at the New Jersey home of the late Stanley Chera—a Trump donor and friend of the president who died of Covid-19 in April.) And across Orthodox media, coverage of Trump tends to be fawning. Last November, a headline in the glossy Orthodox weekly Mishpacha proclaimed Trump “the first heimish president.” The literal meaning of the Yiddish word “heimish” is “homey.” But in the colloquial speech of Orthodox communities in the US, it has come to mean something like “one of us.”

For some segments of the Orthodox world, this pervasive veneration of Trump has become cause for alarm. In early August, Rabbi Avi Shafran—a writer who also serves as the director of public relations for Agudath Israel of America, a century-old Orthodox umbrella organization—published an open letter, titled “Sinai, Not Washington,” on his personal blog, calling for a return to rhetorical moderation and civility. The letter, which was signed by several other Orthodox rabbis and writers, decried the rise of “partisan posturing” within Orthodox communities and cautioned “against the reflexive identification of Orthodox communal interests with any particular party or political philosophy.” 

Though it did not mention Trump, the letter was clearly meant as a rebuke of the Orthodox alignment with the Trumpian mode of politics. Yet this was not a critique from the left. Like those Christians who have criticized widespread evangelical support for the president, the letter’s signatories stressed that they were motivated by their commitment to conservative religious values. “Shameless dissembling and personal indecency acted out in public before the country are, in the end, no less morally corrosive than the embrace of abortion-on-demand or the normalization of same-gender relationships,” the letter stated. “If we don’t seriously consider the negative impact of our community’s unhealthy relationship with the current political style,” it warned, “we risk further erosion of our ability to live lives dedicated to truly Jewish ideals.” 

Ironically, the call for a return to more civil discourse sparked intense, and occasionally acrimonious, debate across the Orthodox mediasphere. Shafran and the letter’s signatories were accused of defending the Democrats, of singling out Trump and the Republicans for criticism, and of attempting to push voters toward Biden. “The letter was decrying partisanism and clearly stated it was not intended to change anyone’s vote,” Shafran told me. “That the critics somehow overlooked those salient facts was, to me, evidence itself of the need for what the letter was pleading for.” (Shafran stressed that he signed the letter in an individual capacity, and not as a representative of Agudath Israel.)

As the November presidential election approaches, there are manifold signs that such pleading is failing to resonate. The rise of what might be called a new heimish populism has become undeniable. Yet the phenomenon has a much longer history. Over the last three decades, Orthodox Jews have become part of the broader Republican coalition. The perception that the Democratic Party represents a socially liberal agenda that many in conservative religious communities find anathema—gay marriage, abortion, secularism—has galvanized this realignment. Meanwhile, the renewed salience of Black Lives Matter has resurfaced old hostilities from more troubled days of Black–Jewish relations, like the Crown Heights riots. The rise of an assertive Orthodox politics, then, is as much about antipathy to the causes of the progressive left as it is identification with the conservative right.

Now, ardent support for Trump in Orthodox communities is threatening the delicate balance that Orthodox political operatives have long sought to strike between their conservative communities and the largely liberal cities in which most Orthodox Jews live. As Orthodox communities in New York have resisted, sometimes with force, coronavirus restrictions imposed by Democratic city officials, Republicans like Ted Cruz, who boosted Tischler on Twitter, have been eager to enlist them to their side. In a media environment where all politics are national politics, Orthodox defiance of New York’s Democratic elected officials has become another front in the partisan culture war taking place across the country. 

ORTHODOX SUPPORT for the Republican Party has increased steadily since the Bush years, when they were courted as potential members of the “value voters” coalition. The Obama presidency solidified this alignment: Many in the Orthodox world viewed the Obama administration, which clashed openly with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as insufficiently supportive of Israel. The perception that Republicans are more supportive of traditional religious values has also helped bring conservative-leaning Jews further into the party’s fold. Following the 2016 election, a survey commissioned by the American Jewish Committee (AJC) found that while Trump won just 18% of all American Jews, he won 54% of the Orthodox vote, with even higher levels of support in Haredi communities.

The last four years of the Trump administration has only made Orthodox identification with the Republicans stronger—and adoration of Trump more fervent. “Some people have become so hyper-partisan, so whipped up into a frenzy because of that guy,” Mishpacha columnist Eytan Kobre told me. And while hyper-partisanship and polarization “are not new problems,” he said, Trump “has exacerbated them to the zillionth power.” 

The list of issues on which Trump has delivered for Orthodox constituencies is long. His administration’s embrace of a pro-settlement, territorial maximalist position endeared him to many in the Orthodox world. The 2018 tax bill signed by the Trump administration enabled college saving plans to be used for private and religious day schools—a change lobbied for and celebrated by groups such as the Orthodox Union and Agudath Israel, which boast of close ties to US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. Trump has elevated Orthodox officials—among them his son-in-law Jared Kusher, and his personal bankruptcy lawyer David Friedman (now US ambassador to Israel)—into positions of power, and he has diligently courted Orthodox groups unaccustomed to such a warm welcome at the White House. Trump commuted the sentence of Sholom Rubashkin, an Iowa kosher meatpacking executive sentenced to 27 years in prison for money laundering, who had become an Orthodox cause célèbre. And when the Trump administration convened a meeting with Jewish groups on issues “impacting the community,” Orthodox groups such as the Orthodox Union, Agudath Israel, and American Friends of Lubavitch received an invitation, while the leaders of the three largest (and liberal) Jewish denominations did not. 

The combination of common causes and the president’s own proximity to Judaism has earned him a kind of familiarity among Orthodox Jews that no other US president has enjoyed. Trump is seen as someone who “gets” Jews, as Williamsburg businessman Yoel Klein told Mishpacha; his Orthodox supporters point out that Trump has Orthodox Jewish grandchildren, and that he spent much of his professional life working alongside Jews in the New York real estate business. He is a recognizable archetype—the gruff, ill-mannered businessman who nonetheless puts his money behind the right causes. When asked by Mishpacha deputy editor Yisroel Besser about his support for Trump given “the fact that the current president is sometimes less than a positive role model,” Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetsky, one of the most important figures in American non-Hasidic Orthodoxy, replied, “That’s because he’s a gvir, a wealthy man . . . Wealthy, powerful people have a way of speaking and acting that is not refined. That’s not a reason not to vote for him.”

Many in Orthodox communities freely acknowledge Trump’s personal failings. But the pervasive sense that he is on their side, fighting the same fight, has been enough to persuade people to overlook them. “The Orthodox have always seen themselves as us versus them,” explained Samuel Heilman, a professor of sociology at Queens College and expert on American Orthodoxy. And in many instances, Orthodox communities share the same adversaries as Trump. “Among America’s Orthodox Jews, a primary fear propelling support for Trump is the rise of the progressive left,” wrote Mishpacha editor-at-large Binyamin Rose in a pro-Trump op-ed for JTA. “Orthodox Jews see Trump as their man on the street, standing up for the causes they believe in.” 

The feeling that religion and the traditional way of life are under siege runs deep in the Orthodox world, where collective memory of persecution is strong. This abiding sense that they are under siege by hostile forces from without—whether secularism or the left-wing agenda—has been massively amplified by the Orthodox mediasphere, which, unlike other American media, has thrived in the last half-decade. The Haredi daily Hamodia boasts a readership of more than 300,000 people in North America; the glossy weekly Mishpacha, a print readership in the US of more than 175,000; the Yated Neeman newspaper, a print circulation of more than 20,000 in the New York metro area. Then there are the frum clickbait ventures such as Matzav, Yeshiva World News, and Vos iz Neias? (What’s New?), as well as more locally focused papers, like the Five Towns Jewish Times. These are only the English-language outlets; there is a lively Yiddish media world of newspapers and radio hotlines with reaches in the tens of thousands. And while there is a degree of ideological diversity, their coverage of US politics and Israel leans—often hard—to the right. 

Mishpacha has been a little more balanced, but largely the Orthodox media has created a hermetically sealed information bubble,” Kobre said. Yated Ne’eman, he added, “could just as well be a wholly owned subsidiary of the Trump campaign.” A characteristic news analysis for Yated Ne’eman by Rabbi Avrohom Birnbaum painted a grim picture of the threat posed by the “ultra-totalitarian” left to Jewish religious life. “Now, simply put, you are not allowed to even voice an alternative opinion to the Leftist orthodoxy that is in vogue, and if you do, you have no zechus kiyum [right to exist],” Birnbaum wrote. “Religion is one of the next things on the chopping block. When religious sensitivities that are halachichally [in terms of Jewish law] non-negotiable are deemed ‘archaic,’ ‘racially insensitive,’ ‘chauvinistic,’ ‘xenophobic,’ ‘insufficiently sensitive to minorities,’ and ‘improperly cruel to animals,’ we will not be given a choice. We will be thrown under the bus like dogs.”

In Community Connections, a popular weekly circular that serves the largely Hasidic communities of Monsey, New Square, and Spring Valley, Yiddish exhortations to vote in the Democratic primaries last summer described the stakes in stark, existential terms. “Remember, the future of Judaism in NY is on the ballot,” one ad declared. “If the radical progressives win and implement their dark anti-religious agenda, a Jew will not be able to live in NY in a couple of years.” Another ad played on the long history of Orthodox antipathy to left-wing causes, stretching back, long before their absorption into the GOP coalition, to 19th- and 20th-century conflicts with socialists and communists in Europe. “The local candidate for Congress is Mondaire Jones, who refers to himself as a socialist and member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA),” the ad warned. “We don’t need to tell you how dangerous the socialist tendency is. Just take a look at the dozens of countries where they came to power to see that their cruel agenda is a catastrophe for Judaism.”

Against the backdrop of decades-long tension with neighboring Black communities, issues of race have also become a prong of Orthodox support for Trump. Trump’s opposition to the Black Lives Matter movement has resonated with many in Orthodox communities, where BLM is seen as pushing a political program that is hostile to Jewish interests. When racial justice protests swept the country in the wake of George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police last May they were met in many Orthodox communities with a combination of suspicion and, at times, coarse hostility. On the Kol Mevaser Yiddish radio hotline in early June, two radio hosts, Velvel Shmeltzer and Rav Yitzchok Shlome Dresdner, discussed the Black Lives Matter protests in blunt terms. “The plundering,” Shmeltzer said, referring to reports of looting during protests, showed the difference between a Jew and a gentile. “When a Black man was killed and the response, the justice that they do is to rob shops,” he said. “The gentile when he has a chance his animalistic behavior comes out and he starts to act like a beast, simply like an animal! Would a Jew have done this?” 

AS RIGHT-WING IDEOLOGICAL IMPERATIVES have gathered strength within Orthodox communities, they have also come into acute tensions with concerns of realpolitik. As one Orthodox political operative explained, the vast majority of Orthodox Jews in the United States live in cities run by Democrats, in states run by Democrats. For a long time, Orthodox communities managed to navigate this disjuncture by remaining registered Democrats in order to vote in local and state Democratic primaries, leaving them free to vote Republican at the presidential level. But as Orthodox communities have grown to identify more fully with Trump and the Republicans, relationships between Orthodox communal representatives and their almost entirely Democratic local politicians have become increasingly strained. At stake, then, is the ability of many Orthodox communities, long reliant on good relations with local officials, to preserve their much-prized autonomy and pursue communal interests.

Ezra Friedlander, a veteran Haredi political consultant from Borough Park with close ties to Democratic politicians, has been sounding the alarm about the consequences of growing Orthodox hostility to the Democratic Party. He fears that Orthodox disaffiliation from the Demoratic Party could render Orthodox bloc voting impossible—and jeopardize the influence Orthodox communities have been able to exert in New York politics. “Yes, I realize that many of the electorate who either registered as Republicans or chose not to vote feel that the mandate that defines the current Democratic Party is anathema to them,” Friedlander wrote in an op-ed for the Yeshiva World News last July. “But we are making a big mistake,” he continued. “By registering as Republicans we have essentially opted out of the system. We may be making a statement or standing on principle but in the end we have abdicated our voice in the conversation.”

“I think we have to work with the local Democratic infrastructure,” Friedlander told me by phone. “Politics is about being strategic. If you’re in politics just for the sake of being an ideologue, you’re going to achieve nothing.” What too many people seemed to misunderstand, is that “it’s not the Democrats who need your vote. It’s you who needs your vote,” he continued. “The Orthodox Jewish community [in New York City] has the power to sway the election for a candidate they support in a citywide election,” which means that politicians have a reason to pay attention to Orthodox interests, Friedlander explained. “But why would people pay attention if you don’t vote for them?”

This approach has long been the modus operandi of New York’s Haredi communities. It has paid off. The city government has given Orthodox communities broad autonomy to run their own parallel educational system. On issues from school funding to affordable housing to religious practices—including controversial ones—Orthodox communities, with the promise of votes, have been able to move elected officials in their favor. Yet such pragmatism, Friedlander said, “is falling on deaf ears.” “It’s becoming increasingly difficult for people to make the distinction” between their ideological preferences on the level of national politics and the strategic demands of local political realities, he added. “I think people should be able to separate themselves nationally and locally.”

The spectacle of the anti-mask, pro-Trump protests in Brooklyn last week were a product of long-running dissatisfaction with the city’s Democratic leadership—a feeling that has only grown more acute under the pressure of the pandemic and the recent Black Lives Matter protests. When Mayor de Blasio, despite his ties to some Haredi leaders, made an example of a Hasidic rabbi’s large public funeral, calling in the NYPD to disperse it, he compounded the feeling in many Orthodox communities that they had been unfairly singled out. Three weeks later, when Black Lives Matter protests swept the city, de Blasio gave his backing to peaceful demonstrations, which for many in New York’s Orthodox communities appeared as an endorsement of the same kind of behavior the mayor had previously condemned.

What is playing out, then, in Borough Park—and in Orthodox communities elsewhere—is not just the rise of a new right-wing, Orthodox populism. It is also a break with an older, arguably foundational mode of Orthodox politics, one that has its centuries-old roots in Eastern Europe. “A very basic part of the Orthodox movement is the idea that we’re in galus [exile], that we have to be extremely careful about the way we speak and act in a non-Jewish host society,” Kobre told me. “We dare not do the things that draw the ire of the people around us. We believe that an outbreak of violent antisemitism is no more than a short distance away.” 

Yet as Heshy Tischler led his band of supporters through Borough Park last week, the fear that open Orthodox support for a deeply unpopular president could backfire—or even threaten Jewish safety—did not appear to be top of anyone’s minds. The heimish populism that Tischler represents is a distinctly American phenomenon, a product of an American Orthodoxy that has moved from ambivalence about the US as a “trayfe medina”—an unkosher land—to an open, unabashed patriotism.

Viewed this way, there is nothing exceptional about the emergence of a combative, right-wing style in Orthodox communities. As Republican Party politics have been remade in Trump’s image, so, too have the political cultures of Republican voting constituencies. The incorporation of Orthodox communities into Trumpism is simply another example of how even communities that pride themselves on their separateness from the country’s dominant culture find themselves influenced by it.

“Jewish minorities are very much affected by the majorities around them,” explained Samuel Heilman. In this sense, he continued, the politics of Orthodox communities have come to resemble that of evangelical Christians, who over time have become the base of the US populist right. “What we see here is a spillover between so-called conservative values and voting patterns,” he said. “They act like evangelicals in every sense. And just as evangelicals became locked into supporting candidates who don’t seem to share their values, the same thing has happened with these Jews.”

Joshua Leifer is a Jewish Currents contributing editor and a member of the Dissent editorial board. His essays and reporting have also appeared in The Guardian, The Nation, Jacobin, +972 Magazine, and elsewhere. He is currently working on a book about American Jewish identity. He lives in New Haven, CT, where he is a history PhD student.