It’s been decades since a major party presidential candidate had a harder case to make to American Jewish voters than Donald Trump. Trump has supported policies that sit uneasily with American Jews, and shown what some deem to be an alarming tolerance for anti-Semitic supporters and even a tone-deaf enthusiasm for some of their iconography. At the same time, Trump is the father of an Orthodox Jew and counts Jews among his closest advisers and supporters. Few other serious presidential candidates have had as up-close or as personal an experience with Jews or Judaism.
That familiarity isn’t going to make it any easier for him to build on the 30 percent of the Jewish vote that Mitt Romney received in 2012. During the primary season, Trump distinguished himself from his rivals through taking maximalist stances on immigration enforcement, particularly relating to Muslims and refugees from the Syrian civil war. American Jews are not only politically liberal, but they are also sensitive to the dangers that vulnerable minority populations face both inside the United States and beyond. For some Jews, Trump’s proposed ban on Muslims entering the United States recalled earlier American movements to limit Jewish immigration or to scapegoat American Jews for the country’s social and political ills.
And then there’s the steady pattern of anti-Semitism-related incidents that have somehow involved the Trump campaign, a trend that continues to this day. There was Trump’s hesitance to reject the support of anti-Semitic former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke; his failure to condemn supporters who had been sending anti-Semitic death threats to journalist Julia Ioffe after she published a profile of Melania Trump in GQ; his habit of re-tweeting white supremacists; and his use of the slogan “America First,” which has an anti-Semitic provenance. Most recently, there was his promulgation of an anti-Semitic anti-Hillary Clinton image that originated in a white nationalist web forum. At the very least, Trump has not appeared to be all that reflective about his campaign’s success in attracting vocally anti-Semitic supporters.
On the other hand, Trump has an intimate familiarity with Jewish practice and Jewish life. His daughter, Ivanka, converted to Orthodox Judaism in 2009; if elected, Trump would be the first president to be the parent and grand-parent of observant Jews. Ivanka’s husband, real-estate magnate Jared Kushner, is an Orthodox Jew and one of Trump’s top advisers. The Trump Organization’s longtime chief financial officer and general counsel are both observant Jews, and Trump has the support of perhaps the single most important political donor in the American Jewish world—Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson. Though he is a deeply repellent political figure to many American Jews, Trump can plausibly claim that Jews and Judaism are closer to the center of his life and work than they are for his opponent, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Trump’s favored Jews have a seemingly limitless confidence in their benefactor’s personal qualities. The Trump they know is decisive, serious, tolerant, and generous, and they’ve formed their impressions out of years or even decades of personal experience with the man. Despite this special access, their belief in Trump himself—which is often independent of any deep ideological kinship—helps demystify exactly why the real-estate developer, who is so blatantly and viscerally unpalatable to tens of millions of Americans, appeals to tens of millions of others.
The Trump Jews also hint at some of Trumpworld’s defining organizational tendencies. With the possible exception of Sheldon Adelson, every one of the major Trump Jews has known Trump for years, is personally friends with Trump, or is connected to his family through marriage. One of Trump’s Jews is known to be a registered Democrat. One of them was a leading Democratic donor who has a tortured history with one of Trump’s most dedicated surrogates.
Trump’s Jews reflect the importance of personal loyalty within Trump’s political and moral universe—as well as a certain degree of diversity in ideology and background among the people who have come to believe in him the most. They can be divided into three circles of influence, which, save for the candidate’s daughter Ivanka, don’t overlap all that much: the loyalists of the Trump Organization; the moneyed political world around candidate Trump; and the candidate’s family. Of those circles, it seems fair to say that the Trump organization people have been with Trump the longest, while his family possesses the most direct influence with the candidate.