Trump’s Orthodox Whisperer

How Jeff Ballabon steered a community’s turn to the nationalist right.

Joshua Leifer
June 27, 2019
Jeff Ballabon (right) appears on Sebastian Gorka's America First radio show. Image: YouTube

DURING A FOX BUSINESS INTERVIEW IN MARCH, Donald Trump’s former campaign advisor Jeff Ballabon called Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar “filth.” When host Stuart Varney suggested that, perhaps, “filth” might have been too strong a word for the Muslim congresswoman and Somali refugee, Ballabon doubled down. “She is a filthy disgusting hater,” he spat. It had been over a month since the start of the media fracas over Omar’s tweets criticizing the pro-Israel lobby, for which she faced calls to resign as well as death threats. By April, a 55-year-old Trump supporter was calling the congresswoman’s office and threatening to “put a bullet in her fucking skull.”

At first glance, Ballabon’s Fox appearance might seem like just another iteration of what has become a sad, dangerous routine in American politics—another Trump surrogate spewing invective and riling up the base on daytime TV. But Jeff Ballabon is not just another Trump surrogate. 

A former media executive—he once headed communications for CBS News—and a veteran Republican operative, Ballabon has worked for roughly two decades to turn Orthodox Jewry into a mature political force allied with the Republican Party. Now, under Trump, that alliance has begun to pay big dividends—not only on Israel, long a focus of Orthodox politics, but on domestic issues as well. Indeed, never before has Orthodox Jewry, and the Jewish right more broadly, had such access to a president. 

With this increased power and influence has also come a change in political style—one that Ballabon’s comments in March, as well as his Twitter feed at all times, exemplify. Angry, vitriolic, even vulgar, contemptuous of “political correctness” and unafraid to traffic in racist tropes, this is Jewish politics in a new key—and Ballabon wants to be a leading composer. His transformation from behind-the-scenes campaigner to aspiring movement leader reflects the emergence of an assertive, aggressive Orthodox Jewish right that has already reshaped American politics—as well as intra-communal Jewish politics—and could continue to for years to come. 

Ballabon’s path from political fixer to Trump proxy maps the Republican Party’s trajectory from the “compassionate conservatism” of the George W. Bush era to the gleeful cruelty of Trump. He began his career not on the fringes of the right but at its center—as legislative counsel for Missouri Sen. John Danforth, who by today’s standards would be considered a moderate. In the 1990s and early 2000s, Ballabon cultivated close ties with the Christian Right, then at the apex of its power, which he identified as both a potential model for a new Jewish politics and a more natural partner for Orthodox Jewry than liberals in the Democratic Party, which was (and remains) the political home for the majority of American Jews.

After Bush’s victory in 2000, Ballabon became, as the right-wing Jewish paper The Algemeiner put it, the administration’s “unofficial liaison to Orthodox Jews.” In 2004, he worked on the Bush-Cheney reelection campaign, during which he devised a strategy to turn the Orthodox into reliable Republican voters. He succeeded. In Long Island’s heavily Orthodox “Five Towns,” for instance, support for Bush jumped from less than 30% in 2000 to more than 60% in 2004; in the ultra-Orthodox Rockland County enclave of New Square, which went for Al Gore in 2000, Bush won in 2004 with roughly 98% of the vote. The Orthodox communities that shifted to the right in 2004 have, for the most part, heavily favored Republicans ever since

Having made his name as the keeper of the keys to the Jewish vote—Ballabon was the subject of a fawning 2005 New York Observer profile by Ben Smith, now the editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed News—he would go on to work for several Republican campaigns, among them Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential bid.

Today, Ballabon has become one of President Trump’s most prominent Jewish surrogates, making regular appearances on various Fox News shows and weighing in on Jewish-related matters as an authentic, kippah-wearing spokesman. (Ballabon comes from a non-hasidic Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, community.) He has appeared on the America First radio show hosted by Sebastian Gorka—a member of the Viteszi Rend, a racist Hungarian nationalist order founded by Hungary’s antisemitic, Nazi-collaborationist leader, Admiral Miklos Horthy—and he has defended Gorka from charges of antisemitism. While Instagram grifter Elizabeth Pipko has played the face of the bungled “Jexodus” initiative—which claims to be leading American Jews out of a Democratic Party turned irrevocably antisemitic—it is Ballabon who has led the astroturf movement from behind.

To be sure, Ballabon represents a real constituency. As many evangelicals and other conservative Christians have become staunch supporters of Trump despite his manifest ungodliness, so, too, have many Orthodox Jews. While the majority of American Jews lean liberal and loathe the president—71% said they disapprove of his conduct in a March Gallup poll—Trump has enjoyed high levels of support among the Orthodox through much of his presidency, hovering around a 70% approval rating. In the 2016 election, Trump only won 18% of the borough of Brooklyn, but he won every Orthodox neighborhood. Though few in number, Orthodox Jews have become a reliable and visible pillar of support for a widely unpopular president. 

One reason for this consistent loyalty is personal—or perhaps more accurately, personnel. The Trump administration has elevated observant and Orthodox Jews to prominent positions to an unprecedented extent, such as Jason Greenblatt (Trump’s Mideast Envoy) and David Friedman (now US ambassador to Israel). And, as Jewish Trump supporters often point out to defend him from charges of antisemitism, Trump’s daughter Ivanka is married to an Orthodox Jew (Jared Kushner, also one of Trump’s closest advisors), a convert herself, and the mother of three Orthodox grandchildren.

But Trump has also proven a reliable, if unconventional, vessel for realizing the Orthodox right’s political agenda—in particular when it comes to Israel. Ballabon played a part in making this a reality, working alongside Greenblatt and Friedman to remove support for a two-state solution from the Republican Party’s 2016 platform, a move that set the stage for the Trump “peace plan.” That plan—the “Deal of the Century,” as Trump has called it—is a dream of the territorial-maximalist Jewish right, which views the entire Land of Israel as God’s exclusive gift to the Jewish people. A laughably cynical ploy to paint the Palestinians as intransigent, it pledges to increase foreign investment in the occupation-crippled Palestinian economy but does not include any plan for the creation of a Palestinian state. Designed to be rejected, it could pave the way for the Israeli government’s annexation of the West Bank.

Trump’s agenda also serves the interests of the Orthodox right on domestic issues, from expanding school choice to subsidize religious education—Trump’s 2017 tax plan enabled the use of 529 college savings plans for private day schools—to reshaping civil rights law to quash campus Palestine solidarity activism. For example, Kenneth Marcus, a longtime right-wing pro-Israel operative and the administration’s secretary for civil rights and education, has dramatically redefined the government’s legal definition of antisemitism to designate anti-Zionism and criticism of Israel as forms of antisemitic discrimination. 

But there is also something more to the particular convergence of Trump’s election and the emergence onto the national political stage of the assertive Orthodox right that Ballabon represents. Ballabon and his fellow frum soldiers have embraced not only the president’s policies, but also his political style. In retrospect, David Friedman’s description of the liberal “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobby J Street’s supporters as “far worse than kapos” was a harbinger of a more combative and vitriolic Jewish politics. The most frequent targets of this vitriol are Arabs, Muslims, and Palestinians, as well as prominent African American leaders who criticize Israel. Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) President Mort Klein’s use of the “filthy Arab” slur and Ballabon calling Ilhan Omar “filth” are both representative of the contemporary Jewish right in tone and sentiment.

Lately, the Orthodox right has also shown little restraint in criticizing other Jews—in particular, those on the left. Ballabon, for instance, frequently attacks Jill Jacobs—a Conservative-ordained rabbi and head of T’ruah, a Jewish human rights group—whom he has accused of being an antisemite, a self-hating Jew, and a supporter of Hamas. For Jews to Jacobs’s left, Ballabon has even stronger words. Cartoonist Eli Valley (a Jewish Currents contributing writer) and the Jewish anti-Zionist organization Jewish Voice for Peace are, for Ballabon, not only “worse than kapos” but “malshinim”—literally, “informers,” meaning Jews who denounced other Jews to non-Jewish rulers. This is a grave designation that historically has implied excommunication, exclusion from ritual participation, and even denial of a Jewish burial. The very people who most stress the importance of Jewish unity and Klal Yisrael (roughly, a sense of community shared among all Jews)including Ballabon and others on the Orthodox right—have, through their embrace of an aggressive, defamatory rhetoric, greatly exacerbated Jewish intra-communal division and strife.

The clearest recent sign of the fragmentation of Jewish intra-communal politics was a White House meeting in April for Jewish leaders that excluded the Anti-Defamation League, as well as the leaders of three of the four major Jewish denominations—the Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist movements, to which the majority of the American Jews belong. The groups that did make the cut were for the most part Orthodox ones—the Orthodox Union, the Haredi Agudat Israel, Chabad Lubavitch, the National Council of Young Israel, and the Coalition for Jewish Values—or right-wing Zionist and pro-Israel organizations, including AIPAC, ZOA, the Republican Jewish Coalition, and the Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity. 

For the past several decades, pluralism—or at least a pretense to it—has been the dominant mode of Jewish communal politics. Today, the Orthodox right is playing a very different game. The big tent establishment organizations, and even the nominally liberal denominations and social-justice-oriented groups, have been slow to adapt, with their leaders reluctant to voice in public the liberal views that they admit to confidants and allies in private. In many cases—for example, the recent frenzy over Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s remarks about the US government’s concentration camps along the southern border—they have actively locked arms with the right or put up little resistance to it. But prioritizing the illusion of communal unity over progressive principles or moral commitments is something the Orthodox right is unlikely to reciprocate.

To fully grasp the vision guiding the politics of the Orthodox right—and the work of its representatives—it is worth turning to Ballabon’s own words. In a characteristic op-ed published in the Orthodox Yated Ne’eman newspaper after Trump’s victory, Ballabon and his frequent co-author Bruce Abramson mocked the reactions of liberal Jewish communities, “with their grief services” and “parallels to Kristallnacht” on election night. Authentic “Torah Jews,” they wrote, understood the meaning of the result otherwise: “spontaneous dancing broke out Wednesday morning at relieved and overjoyed frum kehillos in America and Israel. Giddy jokes were made about whether to say Hallel—or at least bentch Gomel.” (Hallel is a set of psalms traditionally sung on joyous occasions and festivals; Gomel is said after surviving something life-threatening.)

For Ballabon and Abramson, the significant support the Orthodox, and especially the ultra-Orthodox, had shown for Trump’s surprise victory proved that the Jewish right had come to understand itself as a voting bloc. In contrast to “the mass of ethnic, unaffiliated, and ‘social justice Jews’” who “have depleted their political significance even as they have enervated their religious identity,” Orthodox Jewry was now, they wrote, politically ascendant, poised to exercise “vast potential power.” The past three years have proven this prediction of Orthodox ascendance prescient. 

The deeper implication of Ballabon’s vision is that liberal and secular Jews have no real place in it. For the Orthodox right, liberal and secular Jews are barely Jews. Their religious identity is “enervated.” Their religion, as Ballabon wrote of Rabbi Jill Jacobs, “is progressivism, not Judaism.” The views of such Jews—which might well be considered heretical—need not be taken into consideration by the truly Jewish community, bound by religious law. That the vast majority of American Jews identify as  liberals, politically and religiously, changes nothing. The Orthodox right has appointed itself the sole authentic representative of American Jews’ interests.

There is a sad irony to this. Orthodox Jews, because they are the Jews most visible as such in public, are the most vulnerable to the rising antisemitic violence incited by the president’s and other right-wing politicians’ inflammatory, xenophobic rhetoric—regardless of their support for Trump and the Republican Party.

Of course, Ballabon and others on the ascendant Orthodox right don’t see it that way. For them, the racist and antisemitic white nationalist tendencies that have grown like a tumor within the Republican Party—and the like-minded antisemitic politicians Trump has worked with around the world, from Hungary to Brazil—pose less of a threat to American Jews than the secularist liberals and critics of Israel within the Democratic Party. And as Ballabon’s appearance on Gorka’s radio show illustrates, there is a certain internal logic shared by the “America First” nationalists and the Orthodox right: a rejection of liberalism and pluralism, which for them are the same; a belief in the immutability of ethnic and religious difference; and faith in the virtues of separateness and strong walls. The Trump presidency presents stark choices for everyone, and Jews like Ballabon have chosen their side.

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.