In the past week, President Donald Trump said that any Jewish person who votes for a Democrat is showing “either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty.” Trump would add the next day that he meant “disloyalty to Israel.”
Suzon Gordon was aghast when she first heard Trump’s words.
“I cringed. I physically cringed,” Gordon said. “He doesn’t know how he frightens people. I don’t know where he’s learned the things he’s saying. These are the phrases used from the time Hitler was in power. It’s not a happy time.”
Gordon, 82, is a member of Temple Sholom in Eau Claire, a congregation with about 40 Jewish members in the area.
In August 2017, at a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., the crowd chanted, “Jews will not replace us.” Trump would later say there were “very fine people on both sides” of that rally. On Oct. 27, 2018, a mass shooting occurred at the Tree of Life synagogue near Pittsburgh, killing 11 people and leaving seven others injured.
Gordon is concerned about a growing anti-Semitism in this country. Trump’s comments this past week only add to her concerns.
“These are the kinds of things said over the years to persecute Jews, one way or another,” Gordon said. “People are becoming frightened, for good reason. We know the history of the last century. (His rhetoric) has been growing, little by little, and this summer it came to a head.”
According to 2016 election exit polling, about 71% of American Jews voted for Democrat Hillary Clinton, with about 24% voting for Trump. Jewish voters comprise about 3% of the U.S. electorate, polling data states.
Gordon said even Republican members in her congregation are now expressing reservation about the president.
After the shooting in Pittsburgh last fall, Temple Sholom opted to join synagogues across the world and hold Shabbat, a Jewish gathering for prayer. Gordon was stunned that their tiny building was packed that day with perhaps 80 people.
Dr. Susan Wolfgram, the co-president of Temple Sholom, said Trump is “using Jews as a political weapon to suit his own narcissistic needs.” Wolfgram added that her comments are her own opinions, and not as representative of the Temple.
“His remarks that American Jews who vote for Democrats are disloyal to Israel are no ‘dog whistle’ … this is pure unadulterated anti-Semitism,” Wolfgram said. “The charge of ‘disloyalty’ has been used to persecute and bully Jews for thousands of years.”
Trump is hoping to pick up votes from the Jewish community by highlighting comments from Democrat U.S. House members like Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Wolfgram said.
Israel is an important issue to the area Jewish community, but Wolfgram said those who vote Democratic do so because of their concerns over social justice, health care, climate change and the welfare of immigrants.
The rise of white nationalism and ant-Semitism has had an impact on Temple Sholom, she said.
“Our congregation has felt this insecurity and has installed a security system recently,” Wolfgram said. “Our door used to be open and it is a feeling of loss to ‘close the door.’”
Mort Sipress, 81, a retired UW-Eau Claire political science professor and a former president of Temple Sholom, said their congregation consulted with the police department in deciding to add the security measures. He added that there have been no instances of anti-Semitism at their building.
“It would be dereliction of us to not take protective actions,” Sipress said. “I don’t dismiss the possibility, though. I suspect (Trump) is aware a lot of his talk could increase the possibility of people in our community taking actions that are hateful.”
Like other members of his synagogue, Sipress expressed anger and anxiety over Trump’s recent comments.
“It’s a disgusting thing he’s said,” Sipress said. “He has legitimized hateful actions.”