When Bonita Nathan Sussman, a 67-year-old Conservative Jew living in Staten Island, announced she would be voting for President Donald Trump this November, her Facebook friends said they would hold a virtual shiva for her.
“Oh my gosh, have I lost friends,” said Nathan Sussman, speaking to me on the phone earlier this week about her decision to “come out of the closet” as a Trump-supporter. “I’ve been called a racist, a homophobe, anything you can name under the sun,” she said.
“If you know me,” she continued, “you know those things aren’t true. But people who I’ve had relationships with for over 20 years don’t want anything to do with me anymore.”
And, according to Nathan Sussman, she is not alone. “Lots of liberal Jews have crossed over the line,” she told me, referring to friends and contacts within her social network who have quietly pledged allegiance to the sitting president. “They whisper about it. They’re afraid to lose jobs, friends, family members. If you support Trump in liberal Jewish circles, you become a pariah. You simply can’t say you’re pro-Trump without inviting some kind of a backlash.”
The response underlines the uniquely divisive nature of the 2020 presidential election. While the Democratic-Republican split among Jews has held relatively steady over the past few presidential election cycles — the latest poll gives former Vice President Joe Biden a 75-22 advantage over Trump — the Trump era has brought out unusual passions.
In Orthodox circles, where Trump is highly favored, Biden voters can feel personally and professionally adrift from their communities. In liberal and non-Orthodox Jewish circles, voicing support for Trump is often treated akin to heresy.
Other Trump supporters interviewed for this article declined to use their names for fear of personal and professional backlash. All live in New York, identify with non-Orthodox Jewish denominations, consider themselves personally “liberal”and say they are voting for Trump.
They fear inciting a “family civil war”; putting one’s current living arrangement in peril; becoming estranged from a daughter; losing a job or incurring damage to a personal business, and being permanently exiled from their synagogue or intimate social circles.
“I feel discriminated against,” agreed Barbara Braun, a 71-year-old philanthropist and activist from the east end of Long Island.
Braun runs a philanthropic family foundation, serves as a trustee at her pluralistic Long Island synagogue as well as at The Nature Conservancy. She gives generously to Jewish federations and non-profits that support Israel, and has been active in her local community efforts to end domestic abuse and advocate for environmental protections.
She does not see her liberal values in conflict with her support of the president, she said. “I find it objectionable that people assume there is a conflict.”
“There’s a tremendous amount of preconceived notions about what a liberal Jewish person is supposed to think and feel. We live liberal values, we live tzedakah,” she stressed. “I can’t understand how all that has been called into question over this election.”
“We’re certainly liberal people and we certainly support President Trump,” chimed in Brauner’s husband, Mitchell Myrin. “In New York, our vote might be symbolic — Biden will win New York just like the sun will come up tomorrow — but we’re going to do our part and vote.”
Those interviewed for this article cited a number of familiar themes in describing their support for Trump: the peace agreements between Israel and Gulf states brokered by the administration; anti-Semitism on the left; support for Trump’s decision to scuttle the Iran nuclear deal, and anxiety over the national civil unrest following the deaths of George Floyd and other Black people in encounters with the police, which included calls by some to defund the police. That the president’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, and her husband Jared Kushner are Jewish came up in more than one conversation.
The “Othering” of America
Agitated divides between friends, family and community members with regard to politics are not new; what is new, according to researchers, is the “othering” of people with divergent views
“What used to happen was: there were lots of conservatives in the Democratic party and lots of liberals in the Republican party. What we have [now] is an alignment of social identities that correspond to our political identities in a way that we’ve never seen before,” Eli J. Finkel, a psychology professor at Northwestern University and lead author of a new Science paper on polarization, told Scientific American.
“In the paper, we talk about political polarization as a kind of mega identity that encompasses a whole bunch of other identities, so that African-American people and non-heterosexual people are overwhelmingly in the Democratic Party,” said Finkel. “You have this alignment in a way that the two sides feel increasingly different from one another.”
Liberal Jews tend to feel a strong identity with the Democratic Party, a trend that only increased after a shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburg in Oct. 2018, which left 11 dead, was tied to xenophobic rhetoric from the Trump administration. Orthodox Jews are increasingly associating the GOP with support for Israel and conservative social issues.
“Things are polarized like never before,” agreed a 58-year-old Reform Jewish lay-leader and businessman from Riverdale who plans to vote from Trump. He requested anonymity for fear of “personal and professional blowback.” In addition to his role as past president and current chairman of his Reform Jewish synagogue, he is an active Jewish philanthropist and previous board member of the UJA-Federation of New York.
“Unfortunately, the state of play right now is such that if you identify yourself as a conservative, you will be construed as a racist and a homophobe and 11 other terrible things,” he said. The “rate of change” towards vilifying conservative viewpoints among progressive Jewish circles has been “accelerating at an alarming rate over the last couple of years.”
“The slope of the curve is so steep these days it drives people away from talking,” he said. In his life as an “temple officer and supporter of Jewish non-profits,” he has sought to keep politics “out of every decision I make.”
Still, today, he does not trust that these efforts would be regarded and considered separate from his political positions. “It’s cancel culture in our own community,” he said. “Somehow or other, leftwing ideas have become inextricably linked to moral rightness — the corollary being anything else is stupid, bigoted or cruel.”
I switched my head to the Republicans because I’m very pro-Israel.
Nathan Sussman said her support for Trump is driven by her Israel views.
“I’m a life long Democrat — I voted for Obama both times and went to both of his inaugurations,” she said. “But I switched my head to the Republicans because I’m very pro-Israel.”
She described feeling “betrayed” by the Obama administration after the United States broke with past practice in late 2016 and allowed the U.N. Security Council to condemn Israeli settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
In Staten Island, Nathan Sussman is volunteering as a Jewish adviser to Republican candidate Nicole Malliotakis, who is running against incumbent Democrat Max Rose for New York’s 11th Congressional District; the race appears to be one of the few truly tight Congressional races nationwide, according to recent polls. Malliotakis is a long-time member of the state Assembly who lost a bid for mayor in 2017.
“I promise you, I’m still registered as a Democrat!” said Nathan Sussman with an ironic laugh. “Go ahead, look me up.”