With one week left to the election, The Jewish Press thought it wise to speak to Jeff Ballabon, who served for a long time as a member of the Donald J Trump For President Campaign Advisory Board. (He took an official leave to focus on fighting anti-Semitism.)
Ballabon – a frum Jew – holds degrees from Ner Israel Rabbinical College, Yeshiva University, and Yale Law School. He has worked as a senior executive at CBS News, served as an adviser to numerous Republican presidential campaigns, and helped lead a successful effort in 2016 to revise the Republican Party’s platform, making it more unequivocally pro-Israel.
The Jewish Press: Not all Republicans supported Donald Trump in 2016. You did. Why?
Ballabon: It became clear early on that Donald Trump was something we’ve never seen before. I’ve been around Washington for a long time. Donald Trump is a true outsider. He’s not a politician, and that was very intriguing because [it meant] he wasn’t going to keep doing what’s failed decade after decade. He wasn’t, for example, going to keep trying to force Israel to pursue a fake peace process.
For me, though, there was an actual moment for “conversion,” which came after the election. And that was Charlottesville. When Trump came out and condemned the violence and hate on all sides, the world erupted: “How dare you not only focus on white supremacists or Nazis!” And Trump said, “No, I’m condemning all of the violence and all the haters.”
I thought that was a moment of such moral clarity – for the country in general, but for Jews especially.
I think we in the Orthodox community recognize that the threat confronting us on a day-to-day basis is not primarily people dressed up with Nazi memorabilia. I’m not saying they can’t do horrific things – they can – but they are fringe and powerless. The greater threat is the normalization of identity-driven resentment politics, which mainstreams Jew hatred.
Antifa [which instigated violence at Charlottesville] had a predecessor called the Occupy movement, which itself had predecessors. I’ve been watching these groups since the early 2000s. They first caught my attention when they published ads equating Jews in death camps to pigs being killed to be eaten. Now, even if you’re an animal rights activist – which is what they claimed to be – comparing Jews in deaths camps to pigs is as odious as you can imagine.
And these are the very same people who are behind the Occupy movement and Antifa.
Are you also concerned by the far-left’s apparent hostility to traditional religion?
There’s a terrifying rise in power of proud socialists and statists who want to destroy anyone who refuses to bow to them – literally; they are now demanding that people kneel. Religious people, especially Jews, are always going to be targets and scapegoats for them. We see it with Covid.
It’s the norm in the media, and it’s true in academia where the “worst” human rights violator is of course the liberal democratic state of Israel.
Have you ever met President Trump?
Yes, but I’ve never spent time with him one on one. The first few times was in his apartment and in the atrium of Trump Tower when he was hosting fundraisers for Jewish causes. This started at least 15-20 years ago, way before he ran for office. So I’ve long known he’s a close friend of the Jewish community.
Have you ever spoken to him?
The longest conversion we had was when he flew to Israel in his first year in office for the 50th anniversary of Yom Yerushalayim. After a big event, there was a very small reception photo-op. I’m not usually a fan of political photographs, but this one is my favorite. We’re in Yerushalayim and I’m standing between the president and first lady on one side and Prime Minister and Sara Netanyahu on the other side.
It was supposed to be a quick photo but I made a comment and the president got very engaged, and we had a whole mini conversation about issues going on at the time in the White House that I had been called in to work on.
Can you share what you spoke about?
That would be indiscreet.
What, in your opinion, is the Jewish case for voting for Trump?
I really can’t imagine a Jewish case to not vote for him, to be honest.
I won’t start with the obvious, which is Israel. I’ll start with what, to me, is the most important domestic issue: judges and the courts. There is nothing more important – literally nothing more important – to preserving Jewish life in America than preserving the Constitution.
I know this is a strange thing to say, but the Constitution protects us from raw, unfettered democracy. Raw democracy is mob rule; it’s the majority having unlimited power over minorities. The Constitution and the Bill of Rights were put in place to protect minorities.
Right now, our freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom to assemble are being challenged by the Left. What’s at stake are basics like shechita and bris – both of which I’ve witnessed state legislators threaten – and the ability to teach Torah, parts of which the Left openly condemns as bigotry and hate. All of those things could be outlawed, and are protected only by the Constitution.
And if people don’t think the government would grab the power, all they have to do is look at what’s happening now. The fact is that the judges put in place by previous presidents are invading religious liberties. Here is one example that the frum community may not be familiar with:
Right before Trump became president, an Obama-appointed judge in California decided that chickens’ rights were more important than the religious right to shlug kaparos. He told Jews to use coins. Now, I don’t care what you think about shlugging kaparos – some like it and some don’t – but it’s absolutely outrageous in a country that allows meat-eating and hunting for sport that this judge decided he had the right to declare an ancient Jewish practice unimportant and stop it.
Yes, that’s number one. Number two is Trump publicly going after the media. The media have been incredibly corrosive to our culture, and they’re targeting Orthodox Jews – whether it’s the news illustrating unrelated stories about Covid with pictures of Orthodox Jews or Netflix airing a whole series called “Unorthdox,” which demonizes charedim.
The fact that Donald Trump has drawn attention to the media’s corruption is, I think, very important. The role media play in demonizing Jews and demonizing traditional religion is very dangerous for our survival in this country.
And let me remind you that I say this as someone who has been a senior executive at major media corporations for over 20 years.
Trump has obviously been a very different president when it comes to Israel, too.
Yes. Since the Clintons and Oslo, Washington has been pushing a narrative that Israel is the barrier to peace and Jews living in Judea are criminals. Trump utterly changed that dynamic by embracing a realist view that says, “No, the Jews in the Middle East are not the reason the Arabs are fighting each other, and a strong Israel is the solution rather than the problem.”
It’s amazing to behold what’s happened. Forget the diplomats for a second. Even on the street level, on social media, you see Muslim Arabs excited to embrace Jews. Numerous Arab leaders had been champing at the bit to normalize relations with Israel, but the false narrative perpetuated by Trump’s predecessors was holding them back….
Donald Trump has also fought anti-Semitism unlike any other world leader outside Israel. Remember when he said America will destroy those who want to destroy the Jews? We’ve never heard a world leader say anything remotely like that before.
Trump also signed an executive order granting civil rights protections to Jewish students who have been abused by horrific BDS-driven campus anti-Semitism.
What do you say to people who might like many of Trump’s policies but are uncomfortable with his character or his tweets?
The short answer is: Grow up. Honestly. It’s a fundamental lack of hakaras hatov to focus on those things.
I would also say there’s a famous concept that the reason David Hamelech had to come from Rus is because Rus, as a Moabite, had some inherent trait of achzariyus that Jews don’t have, and a strong leader needs to have at least some degree of achzariyus.
I was on a CNN panel a few years ago talking about civility, and of course they were all trying to blame Trump. We were sitting around the table and the first panelist said, “Of course they’re uncivil. They’re racists and Nazis.”
I reacted very strongly and said, “Just because you say that calmly doesn’t make it civil. When you call somebody a racist or a Nazi, civility has ended. If you believe somebody is a racist and a Nazi, you shouldn’t be civil to him. And if you call someone those names who isn’t a racist or a Nazi, you’re the one who’s not being civil.”
From the beginning – since the moment Donald Trump came down the escalator – people have called him every name in the book. They have created the incivility. The Democrats are uncivil. The media are uncivil. Academia is uncivil.
Donald Trump fights back. Do I like everything Trump says and the way he says it every moment? No. Do I thank G-d that Trump’s out there fighting for us? A hundred percent, all the time.