New York – I got off by mistake at the Kingston Avenue station in Crown Heights. Or maybe it wasn’t a mistake. Elad Nahori had specifically told me to get off at Franklin Avenue, where I was to meet him at the Breukelen Café. But making my way among the effusive, robust, full-bearded Lubavitchers on Kingston, the Lubavitch epicenter in America, made me senselessly nostalgic for the Hasidic neighbourhoods of Jerusalem that I never liked, and the Polish shtetl of my mother that I never knew.
Nahori himself bore little resemblance to those Hasidim. The 34-year-old member of Torah Trumps Hate is a dark, slight, sparsely bearded, boldly questioning political dissident, hardly an exact fit for a Hasidic community.
His first article on Donald Trump, when he was still only a candidate, appeared in his Pop Hasid blog. It stated bluntly, It is our responsibility to compare Trump to Hitler.
“My position wasn’t aimed at Republicans. The things Trump was saying during the primaries were so dangerous and hateful, I thought God forbid if he is elected president his rhetoric will spread. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what is happening. By bringing in Hitler, I was trying to warn people against the danger of extreme authoritarianism, where you were expected to follow a leader despite how destructive his policies might be.”
“What was the reaction in your community?”
“Everyone was angry at me.” He laughed. “There were some people who supported me of course. But those who were angry at me felt I betrayed them.”
Nahori put down his coffee patiently and looked at me. He was familiar with secular Jews like me, blind to the changes taking place in today’s Hasidic communities, and our frozen assumptions about a sect we sometimes assume remains frozen in time, resistant to change.
“To understand why this community, and Hasidic communities across the board support Trump, you have to understand the deep worry that’s been growing among Hasidim about the threat posed by the left-liberal world, which is the threat of assimilation to closed communities like theirs. They had been very anti-Obama. I think there is the added problem of racism here. And Islamophobia. When I dialogue with some people about this, they say I am divisive. They would never call a right-wing person divisive. They also say, ‘You are trying to make friends with the liberals, but they are not going to be there for you in the end.’”
But what, I ask him, granting their fear of assimilation, drove them to support a man whose backers include elements supportive of their annihilation?
“I think they have convinced themselves that they don’t have to concerned by that kind of anti-Semitism right now. They are much more concerned about Muslim and liberal anti-Semitism. They may not be Zionists, but they have the same siege mentality Israel has. They relate positively to the fact that to be pro-Israel like Trump is to act as the bogey-man of the left. The Satmars, for example, may be anti-Zionists, but unlike the Neturei Karta, they don’t want to see Israel destroyed. They see the BDS movement as essentially anti-Semitic and dangerous. They are very pro-Trump.”
I stole quick glances at the not particularly Jewish looking 20 and 30-somethings all around us to detect any interest in what Nahori was saying. Everyone was locked onto their computer screens, while a few blocks away Lubavitchers were mulling over the mysteries of the Talmud.
“I think what it comes down to,” said my friend, “is the need Hasidim feel for someone to protect them. In Hasidic stories, the leaders of countries were always evil, but some way had to be found to adapt, not rebel. And that way was to find protectors in positions of power.”
Nahori’s own politics before Trump was a mixture of left and right. At Arizona State University’s Chabad House, he argued against the Gaza wall Sharon left the Palestinians trapped behind after 2005 evacuation. As a baal teshuvah at the Mayanot Lubavitcher Yeshiva in Jerusalem, he found himself alone in his support of Obama. But during his stint as a journalist for Chabad.org his politics swerved sharply to the right. He covered the shelling of Sderot by Hamas prior to the first Gaza war in 2012, and his antipathy to the wall turned into support for the wall, as well as for the war, Operation Pillar of Defence. Also, like many Jews on the right, he’s been critical of the New York Times for its spells of neutrality in reporting on Palestinian terrorism.
“Now I am a little more questioning of the severity of Israel’s attacks on Gaza, though I still think force is sometimes necessary. Bibi (Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu) relies on the status quo in Gaza so as to have an enemy he can blame for everything and stay in power.”
Nahori’s politics is but one of the ways he torments Lubavitchers. He’s spoken out against sexual abuse and racism, normally forbidden subjects. He went so far as to support the eruv enacted by another Jewish community in Crown Heights that the rebbe himself had opposed. I found myself thinking that possibly God visited Nahori on the Lubavitchers as a way of testing their tolerance.
Torah Trumps Hate is for Nahori and other Orthodox Jewish dissenters a welcome refuge from communities (not just Hasidic communities, but mainstream Orthodox communities) in which they feel like political pariahs. It has also become a vehicle for Orthodox activism.
“We organized the Moral Mincha protests at the offices of the OU (Orthodox Union) against their awarding Jeff Sessions a Tzedek Tzedek Tzadok (Justice Justice You Shall Pursue) plaque a week after he started separating Latin American families at the border. We protested every week for six weeks, davening Mincha outside their offices.”
They also protested, along with thousands of others, Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court.
“We were part of the anti-Kavanaugh civil disobedience action at the Senate where 300 people were arrested. I got arrested.”
“A nice Hasidic boy like you! What would your mother say?”
“My mother was very proud of me.”
Nahori smiled broadly. A Torah Jew, estranged from his Torah community, but happy to be pursuing justice.