The Jewish Struggle to Understand Trump's Election

Synagogues hosted prayer and healing services on Wednesday for congregants grappling with the outcome of the U.S. presidential election.

A sign posted in Oakland, California, during riots following Donald Trump's election as president of the United States  (Noah Berger / Reuters)

Updated on November 15, 2016

PHILADELPHIA—On November 8, 1938, Nazi paramilitary soldiers and German civilians looted and vandalized thousands of Jewish businesses and synagogues. Jews were murdered. Up to 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and taken to concentration camps.

On November 8, 2016, Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. The next day, a man discovered that someone had painted swastikas on an abandoned storefront in South Philly, placing the symbols next to Trump’s name and the words “Sieg Heil,” a salute used by Nazis during World War II. Maybe it was an anti-Trump protester. Maybe it was an anti-Semite. Either way, it underscored the ways in which Trump’s election has evoked the persistent Jewish nightmare: That America will become like Germany in 1938. Jews, who have a keen eye for the repetition of history, might be forgiven for worrying about the fragility of American democracy.

This is the scale of fear, grief, and anger about Trump in some Jewish communities across America. In Philadelphia, at least three synagogues held prayer services on Wednesday; congregations in a number of other cities, including Durham, North Carolina, and Washington, D.C., held similar events. “No matter who we voted for and how we are feeling this morning, we all know that we and our country are in desperate need of healing,” read the Facebook invite for an event at the Germantown Jewish Centre in north Philly. “We will sit together, sing together, pray together, and have a chance to share what is on our hearts with the support of the community.”

A woman was crying when I walked into the cavernous sanctuary of GJC on Wednesday night. Roughly 100 people were gathered in a circle of chairs toward the front of the room; the cream ceiling and warmly brown furniture gave the space a living-room feel. In the center of the gathering, a single candle sat burning on a small round table. The space was still except for the occasional baby squeal or patter of toddler feet at the side of the room; people had brought their children because, as someone on Facebook observed, they need to heal, too.

Trump’s daughter Ivanka came up—whether Jews would be safe because one of the president’s children is an Orthodox convert. The congregants were concerned about the racism and sexism revealed during the campaign, and discussed the stages of grief. They talked of making aliyah, or emigrating to Israel—not as a plausible possibility, but as a back-of-mind option in case things get really bad. And yes, people brought up Nazi Germany.

Unlike Muslims, Mexicans, African Americans, the disabled, and women, Jews have not been directly insulted by Donald Trump during this election. Anti-Semites have arguably been empowered by his campaign: Jewish journalists have been consistently threatened and harassed on Twitter since the election got underway, often by people who self-identify as Trump supporters. But the fear seems to be less that Trump will specifically persecute Jews than the sense that America under Trump will become an increasingly hostile space for Jews and other minority groups. Trump doesn’t have to be an anti-Semite to bear responsibility for anti-Semitism.

While exit polls suggest that roughly 25 percent of American Jews voted for Trump—fewer than voted for Mitt Romney in 2012, but more than voted for John McCain in 2008—the group as a whole is overwhelmingly liberal and Democratic. Adam Zeff, the rabbi at GJC, said in an interview that the synagogue’s neighborhood, Mt. Airy, is so left-wing that it’s almost “self-parody.” Most Jews live in cities or stay concentrated in “little enclaves,” as Zeff called them—he pointed out that on the map of the election results, there are tiny blue spots even deep in Trump country. “That’s where Jews live,” he said, along with other minority groups.

It wasn’t Jews Trump promised to ban some 13 months ago. It was Muslims.

This clustering creates a dual challenge for Jewish communities. People at GJC spoke about Trump’s election like they might about a death in the family—with a sense of real and personal loss, and a staggering alienation from their fellow Americans. “It is kind of shattering to people to feel like, wow, there’s such a difference,” said Zeff. “To think that racism, anti-immigrant sentiment, and misogyny could be given a pass by so many people makes Jews feel like anti-Semitism could also be given a pass.”

And yet the congregants also spoke about the need for understanding. “The people for whom this is a happy day—we have to think about them, too,” Zeff said during the prayer service. Mt. Airy is about a half hour drive from Bucks County, a swing area in Pennsylvania where nearly half of voters went for Trump this year. But even within such a short distance, it’s difficult to imagine how the liberal Jews of Philadelphia and the Trump supporters one county up would start to know one another or be in community.

The other challenge for Jews who are scared is putting that fear into context. Other groups are hurting just as much as Jews are right now, and in some cases, their fears are more tangible. It wasn’t Jews Trump promised to ban from entering the country some 13 months ago—it was Muslims. It wasn’t Jewish neighborhoods Trump described in apocalyptic terms in the presidential debates—it was black neighborhoods. At times, Jews have struggled or declined to find solidarity with both of those groups, often over the issue of Israel.

“When disaster strikes, the Jewish impulse is to look inward, to say, ‘What t’shuva,’” or repentance, “do I need to do?” Zeff said. If his community looked inward and asked what kind of allies they have been to African Americans, Latinos, and other groups in Philadelphia, Zeff said, “I know what [those groups’] answer is, which is: not very good ones.”

For Jews, as for other groups who feel threatened by Trump, this new era has begun with a struggle of contradictions: to understand Trump supporters while maintaining their value commitments; to experience their particular and unique pain while finding solidarity with others. When Zeff sent out a note to his synagogue about the election, “I got a response back from a congregant that said, ‘This is very nice, rabbi, but you’re asking us to do two contradictory things: You’re asking us to reach out, and you’re asking us to stand up,’” Zeff told me. He wrote back, “‘Yes, and isn’t that the lot of the Jew?’”