Michigan Muslims Support ‘Amo Bernie,’ as Much of the Jewish Community Opts for Biden

After Biden raced ahead of him last week, a defeat in Michigan primary on Tuesday could be the beginning of the end for Sanders’ presidential bid

Allison Kaplan Sommer
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Supporters of Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders looking on during a campaign rally at Salina Intermediate School in Dearborn, Michigan, March 7, 2020.
Supporters of Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders looking on during a campaign rally at Salina Intermediate School in Dearborn, Michigan, March 7, 2020.Credit: AFP
Allison Kaplan Sommer

Bernie Sanders has been affectionately called “Uncle Bernie” by his enthusiastic young supporters since his 2016 bid for the presidency. As he pushes this time around to win over Latino voters, the key constituency that helped him win the Nevada and California primaries, figures such as Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have called him “Tio Bernie,” translating the nickname into Spanish. Now, as he fights it out in Tuesday’s primary in Michigan, with its large Arab-American population, the nickname has also surfaced in Arabic.

Sanders is “Amo Bernie” to Michigan’s prominent freshman congresswoman, Palestinian-American Rashida Tlaib. She was the first Muslim woman in Congress along with Ilhan Omar of Minnesota after their election triumphs in 2018. The pair and Ocasio-Cortez are three-quarters of the so-called Squad.

Tlaib is the most prominent of a number of Muslim Michigan politicians who, along with Arab-American organizations, are enthusiastic supporters of the 78-year-old Jewish senator. They are joined by Muslims across the United States who sing his praises on Twitter using the hashtag #InshallahBernie. 

The intensity of that support was on display Saturday at a rally in Dearborn, Michigan – the U.S. city with the largest proportion of Arab Americans. He was preceded on stage by a traditional dabke dance with kaffiyeh-wearing performers, before being introduced by Palestinian-American comedian Amer Zahr, who sported a T-shirt emblazoned with “Habibi Bernie 2020.”

“People say, ‘Why are all these Arabs supporting the Jewish guy to be president?’ But they don’t understand anything about us. Bernie does,” Zahr exclaimed, pointing to the aspect of Sanders’ biography that Muslim voters relate to: that he grew up in an immigrant home. “Dearborn has been the home of new immigrants for over a century. It is where hope starts,” Zahr continued. “We stand here at the crossroads of the fights for legal, racial and environmental justice.”

Sanders took to the stage to the strains of John Lennon’s “Power to the People” and vowed “to fight to end all forms of discrimination in this country.” He went on: “Our job together is to bring people together, whether they are Muslims, whether they are Jews, whether they are Christians, no matter who they may be.”

Bernie Sanders a a roundtable discussion in Detroit.
Bernie Sanders listens to health professionals speak at a roundtable on the coronavirus in Detroit, Mar. 9, 2020. Credit: Lucas Jackson/Reuters

The rally was the most visible aspect of a major effort on Sanders’ part to get out the Muslim and Arab-American vote in Michigan as the Vermont senator heads into the primary as the clear underdog, trailing former Vice President Joe Biden by a 51-27 percent margin. Sanders needs a major turnout and solid support from the Muslim community – which constitutes about 3 percent of the state’s population – if he is to recreate the upset victory he scored there against Hillary Clinton in 2016, when he won by about 17,000 votes.

After Biden raced ahead of Sanders on Super Tuesday last week, scoring wins in the southeast as well as Massachusetts, Minnesota and Texas, a defeat in Michigan could be the beginning of the end for Sanders’ presidential bid.

A Sanders adviser told Politico on Sunday that the candidate’s campaign had invested in a multilingual, multilayered barrage of “phone calls, texting, digital and newspaper ads, along with special paid messaging directly from Rashida Tlaib.”

The centerpiece of the digital push was a video featuring Michigan State Rep. Abdullah Hammoud praising Sanders for “sharing values with Arab Americans by pushing to correct the injustices and the systemic racism that had been built and baked into the system. He wants to shatter that system ... [and] doesn’t take the Muslim vote for granted.”

The video makes no mention of foreign policy. But Sanders’ record –particularly his opposition to the Iraq War and his stand on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which has shifted to the left in recent years – clearly play a role in his appeal to the community. 

Engineering student Omar Al-Ejel told the Michigan Daily that Sanders was uniquely positioned to speak out on the Palestinian issue because he is Jewish. “He’s willing to say that he will divert money or use the money that’s being sent to Israel, the billions of dollars, to invest in people living in Gaza.” 

For his part, Sam Baydoun, a commissioner for Wayne County, which includes Detroit, told Politico that the state’s Middle Eastern voters “still care about what happens back home. And [Bernie] talked about having an evenhanded approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That’s very important to a lot of people.”

Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib speaks prior to Sen. Bernie Sanders in Detroit.
Michigan Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib speaks prior to Sen. Bernie Sanders at a rally in Detroit, Mar. 6, 2020.Credit: Jeff Kowalsky/AFP

Jewish support for Biden

On the same weekend that Sanders was campaigning in Dearborn, members of his own tribe – Michigan’s Jewish community – were busy organizing an event for his opponent, Joe Biden.

Israeli-American businessman and Democratic activist Hannan Lis hosted Biden surrogate John Kerry for a parlor meeting, inviting 100 local Jewish leaders, including members of the local chapter of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

The former secretary of state told the group that Biden “really feels” the Middle East  although, according to Lis, he sidestepped giving the AIPAC supporters an answer when asked where he thought a future President Biden would stand on reviving the Iran nuclear agreement. 

But Biden was far from a hard sell in that room, Lis told Haaretz afterward. After Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar and Michael Bloomberg bowed out of the race, there was little question that the vast majority of Michigan’s Jewish community – most of whom are Democrats – would rally around the former vice president. 

Joe Biden attends a campaign stop in Flint, Michigan.
Former Vice President Joe Biden attends a campaign stop in Flint, Michigan, Mar. 9, 2020. Credit: Brendan McDermid/Reuters

“There is very little appetite for Sanders in the mainstream Jewish community,” Lis said. “Most Michigan Jews are put off by his economic message and, most importantly, don’t believe he could win against Trump.”

When it comes to Israel, Lis said, “Sanders has managed to offend 90 percent of the Jewish community. … Even Jews who don’t like Bibi Netanyahu don’t support Bernie.”

Michigan Democratic Jewish Caucus Chairman Noah Arbit, who attended the Kerry event, said that, like many American Jews, those in Michigan “don’t just have a problem with what Bernie says. It’s the people Bernie surrounds himself with. That’s what is alienating.”

Not the Middle East

Ultimately, though, it seems it’s not the Middle East that fuels the Jewish community’s preference for Biden. It’s the issue of electability. 

“What Jewish Michiganders are looking at is who can defeat Donald Trump. Jewish Michiganders are not looking for a revolution. The only revolution we want is to get rid of Donald Trump,” said Arbit, 24.

Although Michigan is a particularly centrist Jewish community, Arbit disagreed with Lis’ dismissal of progressive elements in the Jewish community. There is, he said, a small, far-left progressive contingent that supports Sanders, most of them young people.  

Arbit said that, while he is not a Sanders supporter – the senator is too divisive for his taste – he was troubled by the way some in the Jewish community characterize him. 

“When I hear statements like ‘Bernie Sanders is an anti-Semite’ or ‘He’s a self-hating Jew,’ I find them offensive. I grate against this notion that exists in our Jewish community that if you hold progressive politics regarding Israel policies, you are labeled a ‘self-hating Jew.’ That’s disgusting, and calling his Jewishness into question is beyond the pale,” Arbit said.

When it comes to his Muslim neighbors, Lis said Sanders is less of a natural fit than his high-profile supporters make him out to be. “The Arab community is highly conservative and Sanders, after all, represents the most liberal wing of the Democratic Party.”

While his views on civil rights and the Middle East may play well, many older Muslim voters aren’t as comfortable with his economic views and stands on social issues, such as abortion and LGBTQ rights, according to Lis. The enthusiasm for Sanders may be high among the “young Arabs who grew up here in Michigan,” Lis said, but “their parents are not voting for Bernie.”

Both Lis and Arbit said Sanders’ biggest challenge among their state’s Democrats Tuesday has nothing to do with Jews or Muslims. The chances of a Sanders upset, they said, rely heavily on whether he can overcome Biden’s popularity among African-American voters concentrated in the Detroit area.

Whatever the result, the two members of the Jewish community said local Democrats feel their state’s choice of candidate may determine the future of the presidential race. “With Michigan coming after Super Tuesday,” Arbit said, “we often complain about not having enough influence. This time, we will definitely have an impact on the state of the race.”

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