From a Swimsuit Model to the Trump Megaphone: The Genesis of ‘Jexodus’

From a Swimsuit Model to the Trump Megaphone: The Genesis of ‘Jexodus’


WASHINGTON — At 23, Elizabeth Pipko has branded herself on social media as a onetime figure skater, a part-time poet and a former Trump campaign aide, an Instagramista whose feed spotlights her Mar-a-Lago wedding and racy swimsuit and lingerie modeling shots.

But when President Trump latched onto Ms. Pipko’s concept of a “Jexodus” — a fledging, and some would say crass, effort by Republicans to woo Jews away from the Democratic Party — even Democratic leaders found themselves defensively responding to a young woman they did not know existed a month ago.

The rise of Ms. Pipko and the notion of a Jexodus — there is no evidence that any such thing is occurring — is an object lesson in how an idea can migrate from a no-name messenger to the broad body politic, through the organ of Fox News and the megaphone of the president’s Twitter account.

“We left Egypt, and now we’re leaving the Democratic Party,” Ms. Pipko declared last week on “Fox & Friends,” the president’s favorite television program, prompting a flurry of tweets about Jexodus from Mr. Trump, and an angry retort from Representative Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the House Democratic leader.

About that exodus: Some 79 percent of Jews voted for Democrats in last year’s midterm elections, according to exit polling data, up from the 71 percent who voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and the 69 percent who voted for Barack Obama in 2012. And Jews take a dim view of Mr. Trump, according to a 2018 Gallup poll that found that just 26 percent of Jews approved of the president’s performance, the lowest of any major religious group.

And about that name, Jexodus. “Obviously, it’s a play on Exodus,” Ms. Pipko said on Fox. (There was, of course, an Exodus in the Bible. It involved Jews. So why the J? Is the next step renaming Passover as “Jassover”?)

“The Exodus is the most important master class in redemption in human history, and it is the ground for why we care about all those who are oppressed by slavery,” said Rabbi Jonah Pesner, the director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. “To crush that redemptive narrative into the crucible of partisan politics, I find very troubling.”

The Palestinian-American writer Yousef Munayyer took a lighter view. “Jexodus,” he said, reminded him of “a bad Weird Al Yankovic parody” of Bob Marley: “Movement of Jah people.”

Jexodus may have gotten the hint on the name. On Thursday, its leaders announced that they were rebranding it “the Exodus Movement,” an initiative of Red Sea Rising, incorporated by Ms. Pipko as a tax-exempt “social welfare” organization. On Wednesday afternoon, the Jexodus.org website was taken down; a new one, TheExodusMovement.com, went live on Thursday.

But on the mission, Ms. Pipko said she was undeterred. “We’re obviously super-realistic and aware that overwhelmingly, the Jewish people have supported Democrats over the years,” Ms. Pipko said in an interview, though she added, “I love a challenge.”

In a strategy memo shared with The New York Times, she wrote that she intended to use “extensive microtargeting” to find “persuadable Jews” in eight states — Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, Michigan and Minnesota — where Jews make up more than 2 percent of the vote in a total of 31 House districts.

The effort comes at a fraught moment for Israel supporters in the Democratic Party. Two freshman Democrats — Representatives Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan — embrace the boycott-Israel movement and have been fending off charges of anti-Semitism for weeks. The Republican National Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee have streamed out a barrage of news releases accusing Democrats of anti-Semitism or coddling anti-Semites.

A New York native and granddaughter of Marc Klionsky, a Russian-born Jewish painter, Ms. Pipko — who was described on the Jexodus website as an “international model, Trump 2016 campaign staffer, poet, patriot and fiercely proud millennial Jew” — is not new to media attention.

A 2015 Esquire article about her said she “took a year off from minoring in mathematics at Harvard to train for the Olympics in figure skating,” though her LinkedIn profile notes that she attends the Harvard Extension School, not Harvard University, and her skating career was derailed, she said Wednesday, by an injury when she was 15. Her poetry books — “Sweet 16” and “About You” — were self-published: “Her skin was luscious, peachy clean. Her eyes a chocolate brown. Her smile full of life. The envy of her town.”

While Ms. Pipko is the public face of Jexodus, the idea originated with Jeff Ballabon, an adviser to the 2016 Trump campaign and self-described “very traditionally observant Jew” who said he was deeply disturbed by the rising tide of anti-Israel sentiment on the progressive left.

In an email, he said he came up with “Jexodus” as a “rallying cry” to help make it “O.K. for Jews to be proudly independent or Republican or even active Trump supporters.” And he lamented “the nightmare we have now where a major party believes it has a lock on the Jews and so is free to court Jew haters.”

He announced the new group at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington this month, along with Sebastian Gorka — a former Trump White House official who has been accused of a decades-old alignment with Nazi groups in his native Hungary.

“CPAC attendees: check out the awesome #JEXODUS swag & tweet pics wearing it!” Mr. Ballabon wrote on Twitter.

Mr. Gorka declined to be interviewed. “I will not assist a publication clearly dedicated to a monomaniacal political agenda of undermining the duly elected president of the United States,” he said in an email.

Jexodus, now the Exodus Movement, is making its debut just days before 18,000 people — including Vice President Mike Pence, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and top congressional leaders — are to gather in Washington for the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobbying behemoth.

Mr. Trump, despite his own history of trafficking in anti-Semitic tropes, is clearly trying to exploit the moment. “There is anti-Semitism in the Democratic Party,” he wrote on Twitter last week, quoting Ms. Pipko’s Fox appearance.

That raised the hackles not only of Democrats, but of the foreign policy establishment.

“The deployment of Jexodus is vintage Trump,” said Aaron David Miller, Middle East program director at the Wilson Center, a foreign affairs research organization, “a cynical, Twitter-friendly conceit designed to undermine bipartisanship — critically important to a healthy U.S.-Israeli relationship — by trying to establish the Republican Party as the go-to party on Israel and in the process tar the Democrats with labels that run from anti-Israel to anti-Jewish.”

On Friday, Mr. Hoyer, the House Democratic leader, shot back. “Exploiting anti-Semitism for partisan advantage is dangerous and wrong,” he said. “It is misleading on the facts, destructive to the critical bipartisan support that Israel has always enjoyed and that has been so important to its security and success, and a risk to the unity of our country.”

Ms. Pipko insists she simply wants to educate people. She has “kind of said goodbye” to modeling — “I think I’m moving past it,” she said — though given her unusual résumé and her very much active Instagram account she seems to expect that people will doubt her.

“I can’t blame them,” she said. “There’s a lot that I’ve done that’s very far from politics. I’m also 23 years old. I’m very O.K. with having to prove myself, and I’m excited to show people that I am very serious.”





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