The Day After: Community Activists See Opportunities In New Political Landscape

NEW YORK -
Supporters celebrate as returns come in for Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump during an election night rally in New York, on November 9. (Mike Segar/Reuters)
Supporters celebrate as returns come in for Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump during an election night rally in New York, on November 9. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

With Donald Trump’s shocking victory, combined with the solid Republican retention of control of Congress, a vastly changed political landscape could open up a new era of legislation and policy in Washington. Hamodia spoke to several askanim who work extensively with the federal government in order to get their take on how the American Orthodox community might benefit in the coming administration.

First and foremost on the minds of many advocates from traditionalist religious groups of various faiths is whether the election could help restore and fortify protections for religious liberties — liberties that have been widely seen as falling under increasing attack during President Obama’s second term.

Rabbi Abba Cohen, vice president for federal Affairs at Agudath Israel of America, said that “every effort must be made to restore religious rights and values to its rightful and traditional place in American society.”

“The rapid and radical change in societal norms has been of utmost concern to the Agudah and we have worked closely with Congressional leaders and others who share that concern. We will continue our efforts to draft and promote effective legislation to protect the religious rights of individuals and institutions within the community.”

OU Advocacy Center Executive Director Nathan Diament expressed cautious optimism that more progress could be made to protect religious liberty, saying that his organization “will certainly look to work with Mr. Trump and representatives in Congress, together with various alliance partners, to protect Orthodox institutions from the effects of the recent expansion of certain civil liberties in this country.”

While the issue of school choice is largely in the hands of state governments, strong support for private-school vouchers and the like from Mr. Trump and those on his campaign staff was another area that askanim said could potentially hold great benefits for Orthodox parents struggling to pay yeshivah tuition.

Rabbi Cohen sited several federal programs, supported by Agudah in the past, that have facilitated and paved the way for state programs.

“Most of what we heard from the Trump campaign [about school choice],” said the OU’s Mr. Diament, “was focused on low-income and inner-city populations, but plans were not detailed and the very idea of making federal funds available for school choice could give substantial help to our yeshivos and day schools.”

Rabbi Yaakov Bleich, the Chief Rabbi of Ukraine and a vice president for the Conference of European Rabbis, works extensively with the State Department and on issues relating to Jewish life in Europe in general. He was wary but hopeful of what a Trump administration could do to benefit Europe’s Jews who have felt under increasing attack from Islamic terrorism.

“Although there is a fear that Trump’s victory will be misunderstood in Europe and serve to energize extremist right-wing elements, I hope the strength of American democracy and world leadership will put these concerns to rest conclusively,” he said. “It may be an opportune time for Europe’s Jews. The Brexit issue is still open. The exit of Great Britain from the European Union will definitely weaken the EU, and especially in its fight against anti-Semitism and Muslim extremists. I think that it is possible that the U.S. will take a stronger position in that fight under Trump, rather than the ‘politically correct’ position that Obama had. Obama was always reactive and never proactive enough to face up to this reality.”

Throughout the election campaign, anti-Semitic rhetoric among a small but vocal group of Trump supporters garnered wide media attention. Mr. Diament felt the issue was one that “needs to be addressed” by the president-elect.

“The role of a president in the early weeks of an administration is to unify the country,” he said. “In a country as diverse as America, it is very important to draw red lines against those who are extremists and would divide society in ways that are unacceptable. President-elect Trump is stepping into that role and it is important for him to make some explicit statements and set a proper tone of what is in and what is out of bounds.”

Rabbi Bleich said that the anti-Semitic elements “are definitely not supported by Donald Trump” and the level of publicity the issue received was largely part of an “agenda,” and that the issue itself did not pose a threat to American Jews.

“Their agenda was not necessarily out of a love of the Jews but more out of animosity to Trump,” he said.

Mr. Avraham Biderman, a member of the Claims Conference who has worked extensively with government on many levels, said of the multiple messages coming out of this historic election, the referendum on President Obama’s social agenda, fully supported by Mrs. Clinton, could have lasting benefits for the Orthodox community.

“We saw a rebellion against a holier-than-thou liberalism that was bent on dictating immorality in the name of what they insist is moral,” he said. “Another Obama nomination to the Supreme Court could have quickly led to a situation that would attack our values and threaten our institutions. Voters said loudly that they don’t want the government intruding into their lives and defining their values.”