TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) – After attending a fundraiser for Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago this week, Robin Bernstein was more pumped up than ever about the Republican presidential nominee.
Bernstein is among the minority of Jewish voters supporting Trump, the iconoclastic real-estate mogul and part-time Floridian who has deepened the partisan divide at the mahjong table at other clubs throughout South Florida.
For Bernstein, the choice between Trump and his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton — whose experience includes stints as first lady, U.S. senator and secretary of state — is simple: which candidate will be the best at keeping the country safe.
“You don’t build a business like that, an international empire, by being a pussycat. You have to be tough. You have to be resolute. You have to be firm. And you have to be strong,” Bernstein, a resident of Palm Beach and one of the exclusive Mar-a-Lago club’s original members, said about Trump in a telephone interview after Monday’s breakfast fundraiser. “So you have somebody that may get a little hot under the collar. … I think it’s about time we had somebody with some chutzpah.”
Bernstein is one of a small subset of Jewish voters, most of them Republican, who distrust Clinton because of her affiliation with President Barack Obama and his administration.
They point to Obama’s chilly relationship with Israel over the past eight years as a harbinger of what Clinton will deliver if she takes over the White House.
“The Democrat party is an openly anti-Israel party. Period. If you don’t see that, then nothing else makes sense,” said Sid Dinerstein, a former Palm Beach County GOP chairman and Trump supporter.
But a poll late this summer showed that Israel ranked near the bottom among issues that will sway likely Jewish voters in Florida.
The economy, the Islamic state terrorist group known as ISIS, and the U.S. Supreme Court were at the top of the list of Jewish voters’ concerns, pollster Jim Gerstein, of Washington, D.C.-based GBA Strategies, found in a poll conducted in August.
While Israel is important to Jewish voters, “they prioritize the issues they care about that can affect them on a daily basis,” Gerstein said in a recent telephone interview.
“Where conventional wisdom is wrong is that they vote on Israel,” he said.
The poll, which showed that Jewish voters in Florida overwhelmingly support Clinton, was conducted before Trump was engulfed in controversy concerning vulgar comments about women and a series of allegations that he groped or kissed women against their will.
“The way that Donald Trump has spoken, or we have learned he has spoken, about women and the stories that have come out in recent days cause Jewish voters to react the same way that any other voter reacts, which is with concern, with anger and, with respect to some of what he said, with repulsion,” said Congressman Ted Deutch, a Palm Beach County Jewish Democrat who is stumping for Clinton. “The overwhelming majority of Jews know that it’s not right for anyone to speak about women the way that Donald Trump speaks about women.”
Deutch, who serves as the ranking Democrat on the Middle East and North Africa Subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, is a self-described “lifelong pro-Israel activist.”
Clinton has “a decades-long commitment to the state of Israel,” Deutch said.
Critics, including Dinerstein, blast Clinton for her support of — and involvement with — a pact with Iran, aimed at preventing the longtime U.S. foe from obtaining or developing nuclear weapons. Deutch was among a number of Democrats who opposed the agreement.
But Deutch now defends the deal, saying the U.S. has two choices.
“We can either stringently enforce it and work to ensure that our allies are with us to go after Iran’s other bad behavior, or we can take the Trump approach, which is to get rid of the whole thing, lose the ability to work with our allies and leave us out on our own in ways that would not advance our national security,” he said.
State Rep. Kevin Rader, a Delray Beach Democrat who will join the state Senate after the November election, is married to a rabbi and has close ties to Israel.
Trump’s stand on immigration — he has advocated building a wall across the Mexican border and banning Muslims from entering the country — and the Republican candidate’s comment that he would take a “neutral” position on Israel are chilling for many Jewish voters, Rader said.
“But Israel is not the top issue in the campaign,” Rader said. “Banning Muslims, choosing for the Supreme Court, the social issues, like common-sense gun legislation, are enormous issues for American Jews when they’re voting for the next leader of the free world.”
But for others, Trump’s unapologetic views on controversial topics have unleashed heretofore repressed sentiments.
“He said all of the things they told us we’re not allowed to say,” Dinerstein said.
Rader referred to the importance of tikkun olam, the Jewish concept of repairing the world to make it a better place. Former President Bill Clinton, wearing a yarmulke, spoke of the concept recently while addressing a synagogue in South Florida.
“When the two candidates speak, I think Hillary Clinton’s view of the world has more to do with tikkun olam and repairing it than Donald Trump’s and the main groups that are supporting him,” Rader said.
But to Bernstein, who has known Trump for decades, Clinton is untrustworthy. She pointed to recent releases of hacked emails from the Clinton campaign obtained by the WikiLeaks organization. Critics of Clinton say the emails show that, as secretary of state, Clinton gave special treatment to contributors to her family’s foundation.
“This corruption that Hillary Clinton has committed, I think it’s treasonous,” Bernstein said.
Jewish voters make up about 5 percent of the state’s 12.7 million voters, and about 25 percent of Jewish voters are Republican, according to estimates by Gerstein, the pollster.
For a number of Jews in Florida, neither candidate appears to be a good option.
“Most people going into the poll booth are going to be voting against somebody,” said former state senator Ellyn Bogdanoff, a Republican who is now a lobbyist. “A lot of us are extremely frustrated.”
The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.