Solomon Schoonover is a big fan of President Donald Trump and the founder of the Jewish Republican Organization of Florida. (Photo/Forward)
Solomon Schoonover is a big fan of President Donald Trump and the founder of the Jewish Republican Organization of Florida. (Photo/Forward)

These Florida Jews are sticking with Trump, even if it costs them family and friends

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Rep. Randy Fine, a Republican member of the Florida statehouse, is an avid supporter of President Donald J. Trump. He’s also recovering from a serious bout of Covid-19, which landed him in the hospital with pneumonia in 30% of his lungs and critically low oxygen levels.

He sees no contradiction between his frightening fight with the novel coronavirus and his support for a second term for Trump. Fine said in an interview that he believes Trump saved untold numbers of American lives by banning flights from China back in January, and is doing the best he could in an unprecedented situation.

Fine, 46, a Harvard graduate and former gambling industry executive who represents a coastal district east of Orlando, said that among the reasons he supports Trump is that he believes he’s been the friendliest president to Israel and the Jewish people in history.

“No president has done as much for Israel, from moving the embassy to Jerusalem and recognizing the Golan Heights, to passing the executive order, modeled after a bill that we passed in Florida last year, making sure antisemitism is treated just like racism,” he said.

Fine is a rare Jewish Republican in Florida’s legislature, but he is not alone. Across Florida, arguably the most important battleground state in the nation, Jews who support Trump’s re-election bid have some critical themes in common. Another thing they often share: a cadre of friends and family members who won’t speak to them anymore, at least not about politics.

“I have since stopped talking with them, really,” said Irma Gordon, the head of the Jewish Republican Club of Broward, said of her friends and family. “Politics has kind of taken over everything, hasn’t it?”

The numbers tell part of the story: Some 71% of American Jewish voters supported Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election. When her husband first ran in 1992, he garnered 80% of the Jewish vote, and his overwhelming support in the Jewish community is historically eclipsed only by figures like FDR and LBJ, both of whom swept up 90% of the Jewish vote.

Rep. Randy Fine
Rep. Randy Fine

Jews voting Republican have always been in the minority. But perhaps never in living memory has their split with the majority of Jews who vote blue come into such stark and dramatic relief as it has under President Trump, with about 10 weeks to election day and multiple crises bringing unprecedented levels of uncertainty and instability.

From a deadly pandemic with no end in sight and the resultant economic nosedive to a national reckoning with racism, it is difficult for most Democrats to find even one department in which Trump has exercised competency or leadership. And in the eyes of many American Jews, Trump’s racially-tinged rhetoric has given a green light to white supremacists and antisemites.

Throw in his flirtation with postponing the election and hindering the United States Postal Service’s ability to handle millions of mail-in ballots, and it becomes near-impossible for many American Jews to fathom how other members of the tribe stand by his side. Oh, and there is the little matter of Trump having been impeached by the House of Representatives just over six months ago.

But things look a little different from where Solomon Schoonover sits.

“He’s obviously a divisive figure, no question about it,” Schoonover said in a phone interview. “But in the Jewish community he’s got a strong following, more so than any Republican president in the past. In fact, I’ve had a lot of Democrats reach out and say that they’re supporting Trump, often in appreciation for his moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, and because the Democratic party is now drifting to the far left.”

The 31-year-old Hollywood, Florida, lawyer and political activist started the Jewish Republican Organization of Florida about five months ago, launching it with other young professionals who say the party’s values ultimately align with theirs. In their eyes, Trump is the most pro-Israel president in history, and is good for American Jews on multiple domestic fronts, like supporting private enterprise and school vouchers for families who want to send their children to private day schools.

Which isn’t to say defending Trump is always easy.

That is something all Republicans interviewed for this article mentioned: the notion of a Democratic party — whether by the Medicare for All and tuition-free state schools platform of Sen. Bernie Sanders or the protests of Black Lives Matter — being dragged further left to satisfy progressives, or as Trump and Fox News call them, “radicals.”

“We’re now seeing more socialist ideas entering the mainstream, and it’s putting a lot of people off,” said Schoonover. “That’s causing a movement from the center-left into the Republican party, but to be honest, some are moving from the center-right to the left as well. Obviously, the Jewish community is not a monolith. It’s a constantly changing situation.”

If that’s true, these are the weeks when both parties work on pinning down those pendulum people — voters who swing from one party to another in the general election.

Anywhere from 11 to 20% of Americans who voted for Barack Obama either once or twice voted for Trump in 2016. Polling varies widely on this score because voters are never asked for whom they cast their ballot last time around, but the issue has been analyzed widely through surveys based on self-reporting and exit polls.

Throw in the arcane oddities of the Electoral College, and it’s clear that small sectors of the electorate can push the needle in favor of one candidate or the other. Trump bested Clinton in the Sunshine State in 2016 by just over 100,000 votes. There are only about 650,000 Jews in Florida, but in a purple state with no clear political throughline, those votes are arguably worth far more to Trump and his challengers — Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris — than in states with more predictable electorates.

Many people in my family are Democrats, which is like talking to a wall.

For Jews, these heightened stakes make for an uncomfortable Shabbat dinner or Zoom call. “When family members say, how can you support Donald Trump,” adds Schoonover, “I talk about the policies, because he’s been so impactful helping the Jewish community, he’s been great for Israel, he’s done a great job for other minority communities as well.”

Rates of antisemitic incidents have risen since Trump took office, but Schoonover says that was a trend that pre-dates the 2016 election.

“If you look at the ADL’s own stats, it’s been a year-over-year increase for the past 10 years. I think Trump’s flirtation with the far-right doesn’t help,” he acknowledges, “but I think it’s more a pragmatic thing. We’re all pointing fingers, but it’s quite obvious that there’s antisemitism on both sides, the far right and the far left.”

But Jews who support Trump’s re-election campaign tend to be more worried about what they’re seeing on the left. Unlike Democrats who see Trump’s handling of the pandemic and the protests that erupted after the murder of George Floyd as further signs of colossal failure, through a Republican lens, recent developments provide fodder for the fight to keep Trump in office.

“Pre-pandemic I would have answered this question by highlighting gains in economics or in foreign policy,” said Ross Mellman, a recent college graduate who was a conservative columnist at Florida Atlantic University and plans on attending medical school. Today, however, he sees the Democratic party as having embraced Black Lives Matter, which he considers to be antisemitic.

“BLM as a group hates the United States, hates capitalism, wants to break up the nuclear family as written on their own website, and they hate Jews,” added Mellman, 24, of Boca Raton. “They view Zionism as a form of white supremacy and view Jews in the United states as a privileged and oppressive class, and that’s without mentioning the several Jewish businesses and synagogues that were targeted by BLM mobs in LA. The Democrats will never stand up to this and they actively support it.

“They will take away our guns, defund our police, and will make us more susceptible to mob violence that has plagued our communities for centuries,” Mellman continued. “How can a country survive if it’s led by people who despise its very existence and founding? We need Trump and the Republicans to stand up against this.”

Mellman, the grandchild of Holocaust survivors, grew up in a Democratic household. But he had his own political awakening during the Obama administration. He didn’t like the then-president’s approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and his key role in the Iran nuclear deal of 2015.

Trump announced he was pulling out of the latter in May 2018, to the great pleasure of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who vehemently opposed it. But now Trump has an even more recent Middle East achievement to tout: a peace deal paving the way to full diplomatic relations between Israel and the UAE, with an interesting string attached: An agreement by Netanyahu to shelve his controversial plans to annex large parts of the West Bank.

Jewish conservatives give Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, credit for making it happen.

“I believe Trump has given Israel more leverage with the Arab states and we’re seeing the fruits of that today,” said Schoonover.

In a normal year, this would be high season for fundraising dinners, candidate appearances and prized selfie shots. But now, with Covid-19 infection rates still high if tempering in Florida, such gatherings are out of the question, and events are largely online.

Irma Gordon, the head of the Jewish Republican Club of Broward County. (Photo/Forward)
Irma Gordon, the head of the Jewish Republican Club of Broward County. (Photo/Forward)

That’s harder for some older activists, said Gordon, the 86-year-old head of Broward County’s Jewish Republican Club. For years she has held the club’s monthly meetings at a “Wings Plus” in Coral Springs. But that won’t stop her from trying to get any friend or family member who will listen to her pitch for a second term for Trump.

“I can’t think of anything on which I wouldn’t agree with what he said. He’s kind of blunt and so am I. He’s against abortion and so am I. I truly think that he cares about Americans and he loves the United States. I think his first four years were outstanding: He’s done great things for the economy, he’s for individual responsibility, limited government and the Constitution,” Gordon said in a phone interview.

But what of the pandemic hitting older Floridians hard? More than 80% of coronavirus deaths in Florida are attributed to residents over the age of 65, according to the state Department of Health.

Gordon says that take on events is just Democratic spin.

“He put the blame where it belongs, on China, and I think he’s done a marvelous job,” she said. “If he had not closed Chinese entry into the US in January, we would’ve been in much greater peril. The press themselves have not helped the situation at all.” Too many Jews are mesmerized by a left-wing narrative, she said, fed by mainstream media. It’s cost her relationships with some friends and family members, but it’s her truth.

“When I’m sitting and talking to a person who is not for Trump and doesn’t think the way I do, I found about 99% of them have not done any other reading except what they’re fed in the newspapers,” Gordon added. “To me, they’re losers. They haven’t looked at all sides of the story.”

Her friend Alan Bergstein feels similarly.

“Many people in my family are Democrats, which is like talking to a wall. But it’s no longer the party I was raised in.”

Three years ago, Bergstein formed the Judeo/Christian Republican Club. His events, featuring guest speakers, will often pull upwards of 500 or 600 people. For now, he has to content himself with messages and articles sent to his 1,700-member email list. Zoom and other live video platforms feel a little challenging for his members, most of whom are in their 70s and 80s, he says.

Yes, they may not be digital natives, but statistically, they show up to vote. And even without a pandemic, many in that demographic choose to vote by mail, which Trump has pitted himself against and suggested would be a route to massive voter fraud. But he has softened on that somewhat, and he and the First Lady themselves requested a mail-in ballot for last Tuesday’s state primary.

“I would prefer people vote in person,” said Bergstein, 87, of Boca Raton. “But that’s going to be an elongated and stressful situation. I say if they have to vote by mail, let them vote by mail, as long as they vote.”

As for Fine, he stands by his president but does want to share his truth.

“To folks that say this is just the flu, I’m able to say very forcefully, this is not the flu,” he said. Moreover, Fine had been prescribed hydroxycholoroquine — a medication Trump has touted as a panacea — but he still became very ill and needed hospitalization. “So this virus has allowed me to say, ‘look, it’s not a magic cure-all.’ I’m having to see a lung doctor, I do still get tired easily, and I’m not back to 100% of my pre-Covid state of health.”

This article originally appeared in the Forward and is reprinted with permission.

Ilene Prusher
Ilene Prusher

Ilene Prusher is a journalist, author and lecturer. For nearly 20 years, she was a foreign correspondent based in Jerusalem, Istanbul, Tokyo and Kabul. She joined the multimedia journalism faculty of Florida Atlantic University in 2015.