Growing up attending Orthodox Jewish day school, I learned a lot about people’s intolerance toward my religion. I was taught about the Jews’ slavery in Egypt and their seemingly constant expulsion from multiple countries. I studied the Holocaust for years, struggling to understand how people let such an atrocity happen. In all my studies, my takeaway was always the same: Stand up for people since I would want them to stand up for me.
I am utterly shocked and disgusted that not all people of my religion, specifically my affiliation, agree. Despite knowing what it feels like to be targeted for doing nothing wrong except having a certain identity, many Orthodox Jews who I know, and am even friends with, found it acceptable to vote for Donald Trump, a man who embodies hatred and intolerance.
I live in a conservative neighborhood and went to a conservative school, so I am accustomed to, and mostly support, Republican rhetoric. However, Trump does not stand for the Republican values I identify with. Refusing to vote for a man whose campaign was based upon hate speech, I opted to support Hillary Clinton. A few weeks before the election, a close friend of mine from high school learned that I would not be voting for the Republican nominee and accused me of betraying my own morals by voting for a Democrat since my views don’t align with the policies Clinton wanted to put in place. I countered by saying it would be hypocritical for me to vote for someone who, for example, has stated that all Muslims should be required to register; as a Jew, this trope sounds all too familiar. His sardonic response was along the lines of, “Oh, so it’s better to vote for someone like Clinton?”
Personally, I thought anyone with the slightest bit of common sense would understand that it’s better to vote for someone whose policies you disagree with but can respect than for someone who is a hateful person that is explicitly supported by a white supremacist group. Unfortunately, it appears that many people I know lack common sense, as well as human decency.
The Orthodox Jewish community, at least the one that I grew up with, tends to vote for Republican candidates for a wide variety of reasons. However, it is crucial that they understand that while Clinton does not stand for their conservative values, it goes against Jewish values to have voted for a candidate like Trump.
Jews have been persecuted for thousands of years. Just as we criticize those who allowed the Holocaust to take place, we should criticize those who do not stand up for injustices directed at other peoples. Pastor Martin Niemöller is known for his quotation about the need to speak up for others, as if you do not, they will not speak up for you. Furthermore, in Elie Wiesel’s acceptance speech of the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize, he said, “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere.” We, as religious Jews, cannot preach about intolerance if we do not defend other people against that very injustice.
The concept highlighted here is that of empathy. Ever since Nov. 8, I have struggled to figure out how to teach my friends back home how to empathize with other people. I told them that if Jews were targeted in Trump’s rhetoric, they would have a completely different reaction to the outcome of this election, but many deflected this with comments focusing on how we as Americans are better off without Hillary Clinton’s corruption in office. This deflection is shameful. It is hypocritical to say we should close the borders, as we criticize FDR for keeping a quota on immigration, even during World War II when Jews were desperate to leave Europe. My great-grandmother’s family perished in Poland because they were unable to gain entry into the United States. This should not happen to anyone ever again. It is wrong to allow other people to be harmed to simply further one’s own self-interest.
Moreover, my friends claim not to be bigots, but by voting for Trump they are supporting his statements. While you may not agree with what he says, I told them, you are encouraging him and abandoning the people about whom he is spewing hate. You are saying that while you do not hate the people he targeted, you are simply indifferent to what happens to them. Like Elie Wiesel said, being a bystander only helps the oppressor.
Perhaps the issue with my community is its secluded nature. We isolate ourselves from the rest of the world, taking comfort in living among people similar to us. I personally enjoyed growing up in a sheltered community, surrounded by people who shared the same ideals as me. However, my parents acknowledged that my siblings and I should learn about different perspectives and encouraged us to go out into the world. While coming to Wesleyan was initially a culture shock, I slowly became more accustomed to the different atmosphere. Many of my friends from high school, however, did not leave the community and are still sheltered by it. They have never interacted with Muslims, POC, or people who are LGBTQ. Because of this, it is difficult for them to empathize with the problems these people encounter, even though, as Jews, we too have historically faced discrimination.
Another reason people in my community voted for Trump is because they believe he will maintain a close relationship with Israel. As a Zionist, Israel’s security is critical to me. However, while Republicans tend to have more favorable policies toward Israel, I would prefer Clinton in the White House over Trump. Trump has no political experience and knows nothing of foreign diplomacy. Contrary to the beliefs of many Orthodox Jews, just because his daughter converted to Judaism, it does not mean that Trump will ensure Israel’s safety. While he himself may not be anti-Semitic, he was endorsed by the KKK and just appointed Steve Bannon, who has made anti-Semitic comments, as a cabinet member. Therefore, the argument to vote for Trump because he would be good to Jews is, to put it simply, deeply flawed and ill-considered.
I didn’t write this to criticize the Orthodox Jewish community, and I by no means intended to make any generalizations, as I know that not every Orthodox Jew thinks this way. I wrote this because I am frustrated that people are abandoning their moral values in favor of Trump. I still have the utmost respect for my community. I want to stress that what needs to happen now is engaging in dialogue. I am still trying to understand what made my friends vote for such a man, and the only way to do so is through discussion. While it is hard to do this when we completely disagree with one another, it is the only way to keep the lines of communication open and move forward.
Miriam Zenilman is a member of the class of 2020.