The Great Divide


U.S. President Donald Trump attends the National Prayer Breakfast event in Washington, U.S., February 2, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria (Newscom TagID: rtrleight533093.jpg) [Photo via Newscom]
(Ebony Brown)
President Donald Trump’s first three weeks in office is all the confirmation Bernie Salganik needed to reinforce that he voted for the right candidate.

Salganik said it initially took some time for him to get behind Trump. But Salganik, a registered Republican who refers to himself as an “independent,” said he was drawn to Trump because he is someone “with a strong work ethic who gets things done.”

“It became easier to support Trump as I heard him talk and listened to his message of what he wanted for the people of America,” said Salganik, a 76-year-old Edgemere resident who is Orthodox and grew up a staunch Democrat in Baltimore City. “I wouldn’t have called myself a Trump backer at first, but as he started to emerge, what he was saying really started to click.”

For many other Jews in the Greater Baltimore area who opposed the election results and inauguration, however, Trump is a far cry from the ideal president.

In heavily Democratic Baltimore, where only about one in four voters backed Trump, protests have become commonplace in the wake of what some view as controversial actions taken by the president.

Ben Silverberg, 32, an Owings Mills native who is Conservative, said those like himself who don’t support Trump shouldn’t spend the next four years sitting around silently.

“What this man has done in only such a short period of time is absolutely reprehensible,” said Silverberg, who added he has attended several Trump protests in the city since November. “We need people to band together, think about the future and how we should proceed next with everything that is going on right now.”

In his first three weeks as president, Trump, at 70, the oldest elected president, took steps to deliver on many of his signature campaign promises.

He signed executive orders aimed at building a wall along the Mexico border, stopping the flow of Syrian refugees into the country and banning immigrants from seven Muslim countries, and he announced his selection of Judge Neil Gorsuch to fill the vacant seat on the U.S. Supreme Court.

As a result of these actions, the reality of Trump’s presidency has led to a great rift in the Jewish community across the denominational spectrum, provoking both fear and hope. There are a number of differences taking place along normal political lines, which have grown more noticeable as the country has become more partisan.

Split Opinions

President Donald Trump reads the first of three executive orders he signed on Jan. 23. This one concerned the withdrawal of the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The others were a government hiring freeze for all departments but the military and a ban on federal funding of abortions overseas. (Ron Sachs, Pool/Getty Images)

Where many Trump detractors see a serial exaggerator, a spreader of lies and a hurler of insults, Trump’s supporters see a man of action looking to deliver for the nation.

Ruth Goetz, an Orthodox Pikesville resident and registered Republican, believes Trump is carrying out precisely the plans he vowed he would to prioritize U.S. national interests over those of foreign countries. Only in politics, Goetz confidently pronounced,would a politician “keeping his promises be so shocking.”

“Our only obligation is to the American citizen,” said Goetz, a Trump supporter. “It’s what’s best for our country. I need to feel safe on my daily routine and for my family to feel safe. It doesn’t say in the constitution that we have to let everybody into our country who wants to come in. Those people can go to other places, because we don’t have any obligation to them.”

In many primarily Orthodox sections of Pikesville, excitement for Trump is robust.

At Pikesville High School on Smith Avenue, a polling place with a large number of Orthodox Jews, voters went for Trump by a margin of 51 percent to 40 percent for Democrat Hillary Clinton.

However, as with some Trump rhetoric, the president’s staunch “America First” message, which he proudly delivered during his inauguration speech, has made others uncomfortable and rubbed them the wrong way.

Politics_cover_Ruth Goldstein_provided
Ruth Goldstein (Provided)

Ruth Goldstein, 64, a registered Democrat from Pikesville who is Reform, is worried about how civil liberties for minorities around the country could be challenged under the Trump administration. Much of that fear stems from Trump’s elevation of chief strategist Stephen Bannon, former executive chairman of alt-right Breitbart News, to the National Security Council, describing Bannon as “racist, homophobic, xenophobic [and] misogynistic.”

“The fact that [Trump] has practically put Bannon in the Oval Office is terrifying to me,” Goldstein said. “Any pious Jew who purports to be observant is a hypocrite if they can support Trump, who has embraced this white supremacist.”

Calls from state Democratic leaders for Republican Gov. Larry Hogan to speak out against recent actions of the Trump Administration have gone widely unnoticed.

In response, General Assembly Democrats introduced legislation late last month that would protect Marylanders’ rights against potentially “negative actions” from Trump and the federal government.

One of the measures in the five-bill package, the Maryland Act of 2017, would grant Maryland Democratic Attorney General Brian E. Frosh the power to take legal action against the federal government without permission from Hogan or the General Assembly. Frosh and 15 other attorneys general filed an amicus brief on Monday in support of the federal lawsuit against Trump’s executive order on immigration.

Rayna Verstandig, 20, a registered Republican from Pikesville who is Conservative and a sophomore at Tulane University, said such a measure, if passed, would do more to add to the political discourse between Democrats and Republicans in Maryland.

“In my opinion, the Democratic opposition that has occurred just in the first weeks of this presidency is counterproductive to persuading the voters they lost in November,” said Verstandig, who added she voted for Trump.

politics_cover_Rayna Verstandig_provided
Rayna Verstandig (Provided)

Verstandig said she’s able to have civil political discourse with those whose views differ from hers and hopes others can do the same in the coming years. She also feels the nation is shifting toward “making political correctness a higher priority than national security,” a trend she said she finds particularly “troubling.”

“Everyone is entitled to their opinion, and I think that a vital component to a well-functioning society is the ability to have constructive conversations and respectful, open debate,” Verstandig said. “However, the political atmosphere has become so divided that many individuals are not capable or willing to engage in a dialogue that would justify an opposing view. The Republicans and the Trump administration are not innocent in creating controversy.”

Immigrants and the Economy

On International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Jan. 27, Trump made headlines when he issued a statement in which he called to “make love and tolerance prevalent throughout the world” but failed to mention Jews or anti-Semitism.

It also marked the same day he followed through with an executive order banning all people from seven countries — Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Yemen and Somalia — from entering the U.S. for 90 days.

“If a sizable fraction of the Jewish population and community in the country begin to oppose Trump, then he will do toward them what he’s done toward everyone else who has opposed him,” said Donald Norris, director of University of Maryland, Baltimore County’s School of Public Policy. “He will belittle, bully, berate and, ultimately, take action to shut them down.”

Mandee Heinl, 26, a registered Democrat from Pikesville who is Reform, said she’s concerned Trump could follow through with his plans to deport illegal immigrants. She also fears he will set back women’s rights.

“I think we have an administration that has an idea of what America and Americans should look like and what they should believe,” said Heinl, who added her ancestors had to change their last name from Silberberg to Simmons after World War II to escape anti-Semitism. “I think they will target anyone who doesn’t fit that mold, and that is a very scary thought. When you have an administration that you feel isn’t capable of making fair and just decisions, it’s terrifying to think about.”

Garrett Sawyer, 26, a Reisterstown native now living in Greenville, S.C., who is Reform, believes illegal immigration at the southern border is a problem.

But one of means by which Trump plans to go about funding the project — enforcing a 20 percent tariff on goods imported to the U.S. from Mexico — is not an ideal to proceed with the project, he said.

Politics_cover_Garrett Sawyer_provided
Garrett Sawyer (Provided)

“Personally, I think there are more financially feasible ways to protect our southern border,” Sawyer said. “By the way, a wall doesn’t stop illegals from getting here by boat or other means.”

For Phil Kaplan, 38, a lawyer and Towson resident who grew up in an Orthodox household, stiffening penalties for undocumented workers and providing jobs for Americans are inseparably linked.

“Trump is doing the things that are going to try and help the American people,” Kaplan said. “He’s doing it without regard to what big corporations may want. The corporations still have an interest in shipping jobs overseas and doing things to benefit themselves while continuing to financially hurt 99 percent of the country.”

Salganik’s wife, Linda, 69, who is from Baltimore and Orthodox, voted for Trump, who she views will end bad economic deals and remove government restrictions.

She said Trump’s business acumen will play a critical role in helping reduce the national deficit of nearly $20 trillion, which she feels reflect years of stagnant economic growth, failed trade agreements and reckless spending.

“Our country is in serious, serious trouble financially,” Linda Salganik said. “These politicians just print money, print money and print money. Sooner or later, we’re going to be even more trouble. I don’t think a lot of these young kids who follow what the movie stars or celebrities or rock ‘n’ rollers say negatively about Trump really understand this country could go down the tubes real fast.”

Respect for Gorsuch

One thing some Trump supporters and detractors appear to have in common is a respect for the credentials his Supreme Court nominee, Gorsuch, would bring to the vacancy on the bench left by Antonin Scalia’s death.

By most accounts, Gorsuch is a widely acclaimed jurist, held in high esteem by both conservatives and libertarians but also respected by liberals. Gorsuch boasts an Ivy League pedigree — he earned degrees from Columbia University and Harvard Law School, as well as Oxford University — and has served as a justice on the Denver-based 10th Circuit Court of Appeals since 2006.

While Heinl does not agree with how Gorsuch has ruled in the past in cases involving women’s and workers’ rights, she said Democrats should look at his qualifications rather than his political ties.

“I respect his background, his education and his professional history, all of which qualifies him for the job,” Heinl said of Gorsuch. “I mean, I hate his stances and his rulings on certain things, but he’s qualified nonetheless. So, really, if the Democrats try and block this, then how is it any different than the Republicans blocking [former President Barack] Obama’s nomination of [Merrick Garland]?”

Gorsuch’s legal background, which consists of time in both the public and private law, “make him a valuable asset to the bench,” said Bernie Salganik, who holds a law degree from the University of Maryland School of Law.

Salganik added: “You don’t go to Oxford if you’re the village idiot. The people on the other side of the aisle need to let him come in and do the job he was rightfully picked to do by President Trump.”

Looking Ahead

While Trump won the presidency with an unorthodox approach, he faces a long road in mending the current political atmosphere, according to experts.

Mentioning the fallout from the contentious campaign season, Norris said it would take time to mend the divisions but wondered just how long it would take for things to get back to “business as usual.” Norris added the number of demonstrators who have taken to the streets to protest Trump in waves have not reached such levels since the Vietnam War.

“The difficultly with what’s going on is that can it be sustained over six months, one year or four years? There has to be a matter of constant organization,” Norris said. “One march [Women’s March on Washington] won’t do it. The folks who marched in Washington, men and women, and in other cities around the country are going to have to keep mobilizing.”

Demonstrators pack the National Mall during the Women’s March on Washington last month (Ebony Brown)

Heinl was among the estimated 500,000-plus people who took part in the Women’s March and is actively involved in promoting similar causes on social media. She plans to combat Trump’s divisiveness by supporting nonprofit organizations that might be threatened by the new administration.

“Each decision [Trump] is making is more concerning than the one before,” Heinl said. “We have to be on guard.”

Sawyer, meanwhile, said it is up to all to press Trump to follow through on changes that benefit everyone and that it is time to accept him as president.

“At the end of the day, there are lessons to be learned. We need to engage in political discussion, and we need to see and appreciate opposing viewpoints,” Sawyer said. “We need to be honest with our friends, families, business interests and ourselves. The best thing we can do is embrace the idea of balance and diversity.”

Salganik said, “like all presidents,” he expects Trump to have his missteps here and there but that “he will do the job the American people elected him to do.”

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