They’ve been called Nazis and fascists. They’ve been unfriended on Facebook. They’ve drawn astonished gasps and angry looks from colleagues and family members.
They are the Bay Area Jews who voted for President Donald Trump.
“We are deeply in the closet,” said San Francisco venture capitalist David Blumberg. “It is a badge of shame in elite communities like San Francisco to be a political conservative.”
In the year since Trump’s inauguration, Cupertino resident Bob Zeidman, a forensic computer scientist, has stopped speaking to some of his close friends. “They posted on Facebook that Trump is evil, and I must be evil, too,” he said. “The questions were posed in a way like, when did you stop beating your wife?”
Business leader and philanthropist Zvi Alon of Los Altos Hills has been called a Nazi. “Come on, I’m the son of Holocaust survivors,” he said. “It’s become a dangerous environment to express your view if it’s not what the majority of the liberal, leftist side wants to hear. And it’s getting worse day to day.”
American Jews tend to vote Democratic, as they have for more than a century. From a high of 90 percent for Lyndon Johnson in 1964, Jewish support for the Democratic presidential candidate over the past three decades has hovered between 70 and 80 percent. In November 2016, according to exit polls, about 70 percent of Jewish voters chose Hillary Clinton.
But some 25 percent nationwide voted Republican. That’s a lot of Jews who said yes to Trump. Much of that support came from Orthodox Jews, who tend to hold more conservative views on social and economic issues. But there are relatively few Orthodox Jews in the Bay Area, and support for Trump in the general population was lower here than the national average (from a high of 32 percent in Solano County to 9.4 percent in San Francisco).
Still, there are local Jews who voted for, and support, the president. And you wouldn’t know it, they say, from Bay Area synagogues, Jewish organizations or the media.
“It bothers me when non-Jews assume that Jews are automatically liberals,” said Alon’s wife, Ricki, who runs Alon Ventures with her husband and has identified as Republican since she immigrated from Israel 45 years ago. “I definitely hold the media responsible for not allowing our voice to be heard.”
The dominant Jewish voice, in the Bay Area as in much of the nation, is strongly anti-Trump, both the man and his politics. His stances on immigration, the environment, education and the economy are considered by many rabbis and communal leaders not just wrong, but inconsistent with Jewish values. And his supporters are hearing that message loud and clear.
Some of them are backing away from the Jewish community as a result.
One Trump supporter on the Peninsula who declined to be identified said he and his wife used to be “very involved” but have now “disengaged” because of what he sees as the politicization of Jewish life.
Ricki Alon canceled her synagogue membership after one too many anti-Trump sermons from the pulpit. “I sent a letter saying it’s not the role of a synagogue to take political positions,” she said. “In my synagogue, Republicans can’t feel comfortable, they’re looked at as something horrible. It’s a disgrace.”
Larry Greenfield is the former California director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, a D.C.-based organization that works to enhance ties between the Jewish community and the Republican Party. “I’m the guy who used to get the [complaining] phone calls,” he told J. “‘Our rabbi preaches from the pulpit,’ ‘He just got off the phone with Obama,’ ‘It’s not comfortable, we’re there for spirituality.’ I’ve asked people to share this with their rabbi, that there are congregants who don’t share such views. I’ve had some reports back that the rabbi thanked them. Others were sluffed off, and they left. Others say they live with it.
“Some people are really worried, they’re hurt by the political environment. They’re disappointed that Jewish life has become so politicized.”
Jewish Trump voters like the Alons, Blumberg and Zeidman are not shy about expressing their views. But many feel otherwise. Of the 15 Trump supporters contacted for this article, just five agreed to be interviewed. The others declined, saying they feared the blowback. They didn’t want to be outed as having voted for the president.
“I’ve become a ‘Jewish Nazi,’” said one South Bay Jew, a longtime Democrat who voted for Trump and was one of those who did not want to be interviewed. “This is so crazy. There are people out there, if you say you backed Trump, you’re a Nazi. I don’t want to put myself out there for critique.”
The feeling of being ostracized extends beyond the Bay Area, said Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition.
“It’s national,” he said. “Anyone who’s been at a holiday gathering realizes this is a common sentiment. The tensions and passions on both sides are very high. Unfortunately that reflects the coarseness of the debate.”
“I’m convinced, and I know it from my friends and family, that there are many more Jewish Republicans than are acknowledged by the RJC,” said Ricki Alon. “Some of our children are conservatives, and they tell me they don’t say anything because they don’t want to upset their in-laws. I’ve had friends come up to me and say they share my views, but even their spouse doesn’t know.
“The reaction from the left is so hostile, so condescending, they prefer not to deal with it.”
Blumberg, who describes himself on Facebook as “a proud American and a proud gay man,” has had to answer to a lot of people who can’t believe he’s a Republican, much less that he voted for Trump.
In fact, he said, he was a Democrat his entire life — until 9/11. The lack of full American support for a harsh response to that terror attack, along with what he considers a shameful misreading of the facts by the liberal media, turned him to the other side of the aisle.
LGBT concerns? He pooh-poohs the idea that the Republican Party is unfriendly. Trump, he points out, was the only candidate who supported same-sex marriage even before he ran for president. When Blumberg and his partner, Michel Armand, decided to have children, he said, none of his right-wing friends looked askance. But when he announced he was a Republican, he lost many friends on the left.
“There are people who don’t invite us to parties,” he said, noting that he and Armand regularly host salons that are open to guests of all political persuasions. (The most recent was a December fundraiser for conservative pundit Dennis Prager’s academic institution, PragerU.)
“Michel said to me, ‘It’s easier to be gay in Mississippi than Republican in San Francisco.’ It’s a world of conformity here. The left is so intolerant.”
Nationwide, Jews who voted for Trump tend to fall into three groups, according to Steven Windmueller, Jewish history professor emeritus at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles and a longtime scholar of the American Jewish scene.
First are the Orthodox. Then there are the “new arrivals,” Jewish immigrants from Israel, Iran and former Soviet republics, all of whom tend to be more politically conservative than American-born Jews.
The third group comprises what Windmueller calls “the traditional old guard Jewish Republicans,” who might cringe at Trump’s style but support his policies on such issues as tax reform, Israel and immigration.
And in November 2016 there was a new phenomenon. “For the first time, a number of Jews did not vote in this presidential election,” he said. “On the Republican side, they were not comfortable with Trump. They either sat this one out or voted third party.”
Not everyone who voted for Donald Trump loves the guy. They voted for the policies, they say, not for the man.
Bob Zeidman and his wife, Carrie, a photographer and digital artist, are both longtime Republicans but found it hard to support Trump in the election. The Republican field started out with 16 candidates, Carrie noted, and “Trump was not even in our top 15.”
What pushed her over the edge were the upcoming Supreme Court openings. “If Hillary won, we’d get two, maybe three more liberal judges,” she said. “That would be horrible for the country. Despite not liking Trump, and thinking he’d be a horrible president, that’s why I voted for him.”
One year later, she said she’s been “surprised” by how well he’s done. “I still don’t care for him as a person. He’s rude and he’s crude. But he’s made some really good progress that he’s not getting credit for. We finally have someone who’s fighting for America, for American values, and for Israel.”
Bob Zeidman’s support for Trump was even more lukewarm. In an essay he posted on LinkedIn just days before the election, he wrote that Trump was “fully unqualified to lead the greatest and most powerful country on earth.” But so, he wrote, was Clinton. He finally decided to back Trump because he felt Congress and the media would hold his feet to the fire, whereas they would let Clinton do whatever she wanted. Her “power would be unchecked,” he wrote.
At the end of Trump’s first year in office, he told J., he is generally satisfied with the president’s direction. “Overall, I like his Supreme Court nominees. I like his policies on Israel, that we openly support Israel. I like that the economy is doing better. I like that he destroyed ISIS.” Zeidman gives the president a B. “That’s not a bad grade,” he said.
So what are some of the policies Trump’s Jewish supporters point to with approval? The same key issues outlined in the RJC’s mission statement: smaller government; lower taxes and fewer regulations deemed onerous to business; freedom from oil dependence; and a strong pro-Israel stance.
That last point is critical to these local voters, all of whom are big donors to pro-Israel organizations. They give to Friends of the IDF, they sit on the boards of Israeli universities, they go to AIPAC conventions. To a person, they contrast what they describe as Trump’s firm defense of Israel with the distancing — or worse — they felt under President Barack Obama.
For Ricki Alon, a candidate’s position on Israel is what she considers first. She crossed the aisle in 1992 to vote for Bill Clinton on that basis. And after eight years of Obama, whom she said “did so much harm” to the Israel-U.S. relationship, she strongly approves of what Trump has said and done so far.
“That’s why I voted for him,” she said of Trump’s campaign statements in favor of Israel. “I hesitated at first, I didn’t know what he’d be like,” she admitted, saying she backed Marco Rubio in the primaries. But now, from appointing Nikki Haley as U.N. ambassador to his stance on Jerusalem, she’s convinced. “We could not wish for a better friend,” she said. “I’d vote for him again.”
“He’s the best” on Israel, agrees Zvi Alon, who founded and chairs the California Israel Chamber of Commerce and sat on the board of Ben-Gurion University, among other pro-Israel activities.
“Obama ‘put daylight’ between us, didn’t want the U.S. to be seen taking sides,” said Bob Zeidman, who points to Trump’s statement recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, as well as his steps to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, as symbolic but very important. “You have to take sides for the side that’s morally correct, and that’s Israel.”
One of the biggest concerns many express about Trump is his perceived coziness with extremists on the far right who espouse racist, populist and white nationalist ideologies. From Trump’s (short-lived) appointment of Breitbart News chairman Steve Bannon as his chief strategist to his “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan, many Jews say the president is a danger to democracy, a bigot and perhaps an anti-Semite.
Even the RJC criticized him in August after the violence at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, when he infamously said there were “good people on both sides.” In response, the RJC immediately called upon the president to provide “greater moral clarity in rejecting racism, bigotry, and anti-Semitism,” with Brooks and RJC chairman Norm Coleman tweeting “There are no good Nazis and no good members of the Klan.”
Months later, Trump’s local Jewish supporters aren’t that concerned.
“There’s a grain of truth” in the left’s wariness, said Bob Zeidman. “But they need to calm down.” You don’t like the president? Work hard toward the next election, he counsels — just don’t threaten impeachment.
“You will be seen as crying wolf,” he warns. “When he was elected, friends on Facebook said he stole the election, he colluded with Russia. I told them, if you keep harping on that, no one will pay attention when he does something really wrong.”
“Every president has his fringe,” said Carrie Zeidman, pointing to Obama’s long-term friendship with Pastor Jeremiah Wright, who has been castigated for anti-Semitic views. “No one seemed to think that was a problem. So now you have these right-wing crazies who support Trump? You can’t hold him responsible for who likes him.”
The Bay Area Jews interviewed expressed misgivings about Trump’s personality and leadership style, at least before he took office. Some now qualify their initial hesitancy.
“Before the election, I said on TV that he’s a joke, a distraction,” said Blumberg. “I don’t feel that way anymore. Free markets and free people are my causes. Trump defends both.”
Rather than fault him for his lack of polish, Blumberg said the way he talks might be a conscious ploy. And even if it’s not, so what?
“At first, I said I don’t like the way he speaks. He can be pretty brusque. But after reading a lot of what he’s said, I see he speaks in a broad colloquial American manner. He doesn’t use the polished phraseology of my Harvard friends — he says it as it is. He may say it in a crass, crude way, but he’s right. That’s how real Americans speak, especially American men.
“I wish people would give him a little credit. He’s not as stupid or as mean as people think. And persona is less important than policy, anyway.”
Even when the president’s supporters wince at some of what he says and tweets, they like that he says what he thinks without worrying about political correctness. And that, his supporters believe, is a strength, one they admire.
“By the last election, America was in a very different place. It wasn’t the America I believe in,” said Zvi Alon. “I don’t necessarily like his personality and how he expresses himself, but I believe he was our best and maybe only chance to get America back on a different trajectory.”
On balance, while he wishes Trump “would say less and have a different way of expressing himself,” the president is leading America in the right direction, he said. “The stock market is at an all-time high, salaries are up. I travel a lot — 300,000 miles the past year alone — and while people don’t necessarily respect him and his personality, the respect he’s giving to the United States is unbelievable.”
As for the political polarization rampant in this country? It began under Obama, say these Trump supporters. It’s getting worse, but it didn’t start with Trump’s election.
“Obama really did split us,” said Carrie Zeidman. “He was the first president to say ‘Republicans are obstructionist, they won’t let me do what I need to do.’ It was a really bad environment.
“Maybe Trump was elected because of that. Obama took the pendulum so far to the left that everyone I know was really angry. We became the ‘enemy.’
“Then we took it so far the other way, the candidate we were left with was Donald Trump,” she said. “Come on, folks. We need to work together to fix this country.”