Susanne Klejman Bennet was smuggled out of the Warsaw Ghetto at age 5 by her parents. She was then separated from them for some two years and they were only reunited after the war, going on to rebuild their lives in New York. Today, her son is running for president of the United States of America.
Democratic candidate Michael Bennet tells Haaretz that what his family endured in the Holocaust — his mother’s parents were the only survivors in their families — and later as immigrants fundamentally shapes the way he sees his country, and his views on Israel.
“To them, America was a beacon of opportunity — a place to rebuild their shattered lives, to live in peace and freedom, and to provide the next generation more chances than they ever had,” Bennet, a centrist Democratic senator from Colorado, says in an email interview.
In the first batch of televised Democratic debates last month, Bennet brought up his mother’s background as he attacked President Donald Trump’s policy of separating migrant children from their parents at the Mexican-U.S. border.
“When I see these kids at the border, I see my mom — because I know she sees herself because she was separated from her parents for years during the Holocaust in Poland,” Bennet said.
As a senator, he is known for his work on negotiating a comprehensive immigration proposal in 2013. He added in the debate: “The president has turned the border of the United States into a symbol of nativist hostility.”
When Susanne Klejman and her parents, John and Halina, arrived in America in 1950, his mother — the only English speaker in the family — enrolled herself in public school. Her father had owned an art gallery in prewar Warsaw and subsequently became a well-known art dealer in New York, establishing the J.J. Klejman Gallery on Madison Avenue and 76th Street. “And because they were able to do that, I grew up with every privilege our country could confer,” Bennet wrote on Medium in May. “I also inherited a belief that our job as Americans is to extend opportunity, so that more can rise through hard work and contribute to our experiment in self-government.”
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“My family history also reaffirms for me that the State of Israel is essential to the security of the Jewish people and of the world,” he added.
His father’s side of the family, meanwhile, can be traced back to the earliest immigration to America: descendants of a passenger on the Mayflower. The senator, whose father is Christian, does not identify with a specific religion, but said back in 2010 he was “proud that both heritages are part of me, and I believe in God.”
Since joining the presidential race in May (an announcement he had to delay for a month while having surgery for prostate cancer), Bennet has failed to break out from the pack and join front-runners like Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. According to the most recent figures, Bennet — whose main issues are education and immigration — raised some $4.5 million in the second quarter of 2019. (In comparison, Mayor Pete Buttigieg raised $25 million in the same time.)
But he has been touted by some — including most recently the conservative columnist and Trump critic George Will — as just the kind of moderate the Democrats need, who could potentially cut a path toward victory.
Will wrote in The National Review last week that, unlike his more progressive competition, “Bennet has won two Senate races in a swing state that is evenly divided between Democrats, Republicans, and independents. He can distinguish between what he calls ‘the Twitter version of the Democratic Party’ and the ‘actual’ version.”
And with his centrist positions on health care, education and economic prosperity, and cachet as senator of a “purple” state like Colorado, Bennet could also be positioning himself as a potential vice presidential candidate.
Bennet himself told “Recode Decode with Kara Swisher” last week that despite his lowly position in the polls, he still believes he can win — especially if Americans want “the opposite” of Donald Trump: “I actually would not have run if I didn’t think I could win,” he told the podcast. “I may be the only person in America who thinks I can win, but I think that I can.”
Bennet’s paternal grandfather and father both served in previous U.S. administrations — his grandfather, Douglas, as an economic adviser for President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and his father (also called Douglas) for Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. His younger brother, James Bennet, is currently in charge of the Opinion department of The New York Times and previously served as the newspaper’s Jerusalem correspondent.
Israel, BDS and Iran
Bennet has had a consistent pro-Israel record in the Senate and advocates for Israel to become a bipartisan consensus issue again. He says he has worked with both Democrats and Republicans to strengthen the U.S.-Israel relationship.
He told Haaretz he blamed Trump for trying to make Israel a wedge issue between Republicans and Democrats. However, he declined to comment directly on the role that the more progressive wing of the Democratic Party has taken in bringing Israel to the fore.
“There must be space for discourse that allows for disagreement on policy issues, including policies of the Israeli government,” he writes.
“President Trump is trying to disqualify Democrats by saying we are ‘anti-Israel’ — which not only is untrue, but politicizes and damages the United States’ relationship with Israel. Our support for Israel has always been bipartisan and should remain one of the areas in Washington where both parties can agree,” he says.
He has been an outspoken voice in the Senate against the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel and has supported legislation to oppose it. In response to claims that anti-BDS legislation — including laws he has supported — limits free speech and stymies nonviolent economic protest, he said, “I believe strongly in constitutionally protected free speech and in the ability of individuals to exercise that right and remain committed to addressing First Amendment concerns. I am concerned, however, about elements of the BDS movement that disagree with Israel’s right to exist, and believe the U.S. government must stand against those efforts that seek to delegitimize Israel.”
The New York Times recently quizzed all of the Democratic candidates, including a question noting that some younger Democrats are challenging the party’s longtime, almost unconditional support for Israel and its policies.
Bennet answered: “Israel is the one essential country on the planet. I say that because of my family history in the Holocaust and that does not mean Israel is perfect. Where there are disagreements, we should be able to articulate those disagreements and I do articulate the disagreements I’ve had with Benjamin Netanyahu over the years.”
The senator says he has visited Israel several times — most recently in 2017, to visit Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and the West Bank as part of a trip to investigate the regional fallout from the Syrian civil war.
On Iran, he firmly disagrees with Trump’s decision to abandon the 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran.
“I have always had concerns about what the shape of Iran’s nuclear program could look like in 10 or 15 years, and I have long said that we need to think about a post-JCPOA world,” says Bennet, referring to the official title of the nuclear deal that Trump exited in May 2018.
“Iran is a destabilizing force in the region: From Yemen to Syria to Lebanon, Iran foments terrorism and sows violence — activities that Republicans and Democrats agree would be all the more dangerous if backed by a nuclear weapon,” he adds.
In May, when tensions were high and violence flared between Hamas-controlled Gaza and Israel, Bennet was among the only Democratic presidential candidates to speak out in support of the Jewish state.
Recent years have seen a marked rise in anti-Semitic incidents in the United States and elsewhere in the world, a trend Bennett described as deeply troubling: “We must categorically condemn the scourge of anti-Semitism, and we must not provide legitimacy to white supremacy or hate in any form,” he says.
In a tacit reference to Trump’s dog-whistles and xenophobic and racist comments, Bennet adds: “We need a president who unites Americans instead of dividing us, and addresses hate and bigotry in all its forms. And we must aggressively prosecute hate crimes at the Department of Justice.”