As Sanders Returns to Jewish Brooklyn Roots to Launch 2020 Campaign, Supporters Feel the Bern and the Cold

Healthcare, not foreign policy, is priority among attendees at the Bernie Sanders campaign launch, but one American Jewish supporter expresses excitement for Sanders' positions on Israel

U.S. Presidential Candidate and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders speaks at a rally in New York, United States March 2, 2019.

NEW YORK — Despite frigid temperatures and a thick blanket of snow covering the city, Andy Billotti did not think twice about making his way from Maryland to watch Sen. Bernie Sanders kick off his 2020 presidential campaign at Brooklyn College on Saturday.

“I took a car, a bus and a train to be here,” he told Haaretz while standing in line to enter the college’s east quad. “He’s got me hooked. He's the only politician who has shown me they can keep their principles over the decades they’re in office.”

Like many in the crowd, Billotti had also attended Sanders events during his unsuccessful 2016 run, attending rallies and advocating for the Vermont senator who caucuses with the Democrats.

The self-described democratic socialist managed to energize American millennials during that first run, drawing large crowds of young adults to his rallies nationwide, being credited for dragging the Democratic Party leftward.

Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign launch in New York, March 2, 2019
Danielle Ziri

Among the list of issues among attendees on Saturday, healthcare was a clear driving factor. “Healthcare is huge and we’re the only country that doesn’t have it,” Billotti said. “We have a history of cancer in our family, and if something were to happen — well, you shouldn't have to get bankrupt because you get sick.”

As the crowd waited for the rally to begin on the snow-covered college lawn, the Trammps song “Disco Inferno” and its “Burn Baby Burn” chorus blasted through the nearby speakers, causing some to dance, perhaps in an effort to keep warm.

“It’s not that cold,” shrugged one woman to another, her hands in her pockets and a beanie on her head.

According to a recent report in the New York Times, Sanders’ 2020 run — under the slogan “Not me. Us.” — will capitalize on the stronger elements of his 2016 campaign, but also include more personal notes about the candidate, something he’s hitherto never been keen on sharing.

Andy Billotti at Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign launch in New York, March 2, 2019
Danielle Ziri

So, the choice of Brooklyn College to officially launch the Sanders campaign may be part of that new direction. The son of a Polish-Jewish immigrant, Bernie Sanders was born and raised in the Midwood neighborhood of Brooklyn and studied at this college for a year in 1960 before transferring to the University of Chicago.

In 2017, he was even invited to speak at Brooklyn College’s commencement ceremony, where he received an honorary degree.

“Bernie has been fighting corruption for at least 40 years and I trust him,” an Israeli-American in attendance on Saturday, Meira Marom, told Haaretz.

She and her friends had campaigned for Sanders in 2016 and even produced a one-time musical about him in Burlington, Vermont.   

Meira Marom (R) at Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign launch in New York, March 2, 2019
Danielle Ziri

“Other candidates might want to sound like Bernie now, but their record of accepting money from corporate donors doesn’t really go along with that,” Marom said. “He fights for environmental justice, social justice, racial justice, economic justice, and we need him more than ever.”

The senator’s supporters hadn’t forgotten their deep disappointment over Hillary Clinton winning the Democratic nomination in 2016, either.

“It was very disheartening,” Marom said. “I strongly feel and know that the election was rigged, and that’s unfortunate, [but] I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t” feel there was hope this time. “Like Bernie says, it's better to show up than to give up,” she added with a smile.

“I was hugely disillusioned by the 2016 election. I don't think Bernie got a fair shake,” another attendee, 25-year-old Malachi Labrie-Cleary, added.

Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign launch in New York, March 2, 2019
Danielle Ziri

“After Trump won, [Sanders] didn’t go away and cry. He actually started hitting the pavement again, he kept fighting,” Labrie-Cleary said. “I’m very hopeful that he is running again in 2020; it makes me overjoyed to see him up there again. He is the only presidential candidate in my lifetime that speaks to issues I actually care about authentically,” he added.

Foreign policy was not a top priority among the attendees Haaretz spoke to, and Sanders did not even mention it in his speech.

When it comes to Israel and the Palestinians, though, Sanders has been open about his criticism of the Jewish state’s policies over the years. On several occasions he stated that Israel “overreacted” in its confrontations with the Palestinians, including last year during the deadly Palestinian protests at the Gaza Strip border.

He also sparked controversy during the 2016 campaign when he told the New York Daily News that Israel had killed “over 10,000 innocent people in Gaza” during its summer 2014 conflict with Hamas, a figure that was called out by the Anti-Defamation League.  

Malachi Labrie-Clearly (L) and Connor Brennan at the Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign launch in New York, March 2, 2019
Danielle Ziri

The 77-year-old Vermont senator has also strongly criticized Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He recently cited Israel’s Netanyahu-backed nation-state law as an example of how President Donald Trump has inspired antidemocratic moves.

“Honestly, I think Bernie is not far enough to the left on foreign policy,” Marom told Haaretz. “He didn’t support the Iraq war. He dared to say that Palestinians also deserve rights — that’s very moderate.”

Marom, who was raised in Tel Aviv, said she was also outraged by the recent legislation passed in several states that forces government contractors to sign contracts saying they will not boycott Israel.

“I feel like that’s insane, it’s not democratic,” she said. “We are not even talking about whether Israel should be boycotted or not — that's not even the question. But the right to decide where your money goes, for that to be punished is preposterous,” she added. Sanders himself has also called the legislation a violation of free speech rights.

Arthur (R) at the Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign launch in New York, March 2, 2019
Danielle Ziri

Arthur, 33, who asked that his last name not be published, said that as an American Jew, he was excited to support Sanders’ positions on Israel.

“People usually associate Israel and all of Netanyahu's positions with being an American Jew, and that's not so. I at least don't stand for those positions,” he said. “And I think in this country, unfortunately, it will have to take a Jew to say [the things Sanders says about Israel], because any other person saying that will be met with claims of anti-Semitism.”

As he began his speech with some thanks, the crowd chanted “Bernie!” in unison, to which the senator responded: “No, no, no, it’s not Bernie, it’s you. It’s us, together.” Whether that will be enough to secure the Democratic nomination this time around remains to be seen.