It’s an undeniably historic moment for American Jews. As Bernie Sanders surges in the Democratic polls in Iowa and New Hampshire, the country is closer than ever to having a member of the nation’s tiny Jewish minority as its president.
At the same time, another Jewish candidate, Michael Bloomberg, has stepped into the ring and is directly challenging Sanders with a message to moderate Democrats and independent voters, whom he believes are key to defeating President Donald Trump in November.
Bloomberg took an ethnically tinged swipe at Sanders on Sunday, telling a few hundred attendees at a Miami Jewish center: “I know I’m not the only Jewish candidate running for president. But I am the only one who doesn’t want to turn America into a kibbutz.”
For some American Jews, the remark evoked two uncles feuding across a Friday night dinner table.
Bloomberg and Sanders are Jewish men of almost identical ages – Sanders is 78, while Bloomberg is 78 next month – who embody two very different classic modern Jewish archetypes: the rumpled socialist and the buttoned-down capitalist. They have also incorporated their Jewish backgrounds into their presidential campaigns in very different ways, and at a very different pace.
For Sanders, identifying as a Jewish American – and integrating it into his political persona as a presidential hopeful – has been an evolutionary process. It was never a central element in his decades as a Vermont senator, either in public or private life. And during his first bid for the Democratic nomination, he seemed to deliberately avoid any public references to his Jewishness – most noticeably when he described his father as being “Polish,” and during a February 2016 debate with Hillary Clinton when he referred to himself as “somebody with my background” instead of plainly saying “Jewish.”
This time around, he has radically switched gears. The rise in anti-Semitism during the Trump era, including the deadly synagogue shooting attacks in Pittsburgh and Poway, has made it impossible for him to dodge identity politics.
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In addition, the Sanders campaign, which arguably lost in 2016 because of his failure to appeal to minorities, has made a deliberate effort to court immigrant communities this time around – particularly Latin Americans, who can identify more easily with a Sanders who talks about his Jewish immigrant roots.
The shift became clearly noticeable last August when he responded to Trump’s assertion that Jews voting for Democrats were showing great disloyalty. Sanders declared at a rally in Sioux City, Iowa: “I am a proud Jewish person, and I have no concerns about voting Democratic.”
On the eve of next week’s Iowa caucus, the Sanders campaign released a video in which he wore his religion and ethnicity on his sleeve to a far greater extent than ever, declaring again – this time during last October’s J Street conference in Washington – that he is “very proud to be Jewish” and that he “looks forward to becoming the first Jewish president in the history of this country.” In the four-minute video, Sanders’ new Jewish outreach director, Joel Rubin, makes the case that “intrinsically Jewish values ... the value of tikkun olam, healing the world ... are what Bernie stands for … and what the American Jewish community stands for.”
The video spotlights white nationalism and anti-Semitism, Pittsburgh and Charlottesville, making the case that Bernie – who “gets it in his kishkes” – is the candidate who “actually understands ... what it means to stand up to hate speech and bigotry and intolerance.”
But what the Sanders video omits has drawn as much attention in the American Jewish community as what it includes. It is highly unusual for a Republican or Democrat candidate of any religion to make a major pitch to American Jews with no mention of Israel whatsoever.
By contrast, the billionaire former mayor of New York has put his Jewishness and support for Israel front and center, just two months after announcing his candidacy.
Like Sanders and many ambitious Jews of his generation, Bloomberg hardly wore his Jewish identity on his sleeve before his presidential bid – either as a businessman or local politician. When he was chosen in 2013 as the first Genesis Prize laureate (the “Jewish Nobel” handed out by a group of Russia-Jewish billionaires), the editor of the New York Jewish Week asked: “Why choose a 72-year-old man with virtually no public Jewish identity to inspire young Jews?”
But now he is a presidential hopeful, it’s a very different, much Jewier story. Bloomberg devoted the Martin Luther King holiday weekend, and the eve of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, to push his message to Jewish voters in the key swing state of Florida (where he joked that all New Yorkers head in the winter).
In an accompanying social media barrage, he posted no fewer than eight Jewish and Israel-themed tweets, capped by a video from his Miami event on Sunday aimed at Jewish voters, which featured a massive “United for Mike” sign with a Star of David dotting the “i” in his name.
His message was unapologetically pro-Israel: “As president, I will always have Israel’s back. I will never impose conditions on our military aid, including missile defense, no matter who is prime minister. I will never walk away from our commitment to guarantee Israel’s security,” he said.
That tweet came on the heels of another that reminded Israel supporters that “when the FAA banned American carriers from flying to Israel during the Gaza conflict of 2014, I boarded an El Al flight from NYC to Tel Aviv to express solidarity with Israelis.”
Bloomberg also vowed that he would crack down on “the perpetrators of anti-Semitism and hate,” who “have been given a presidential megaphone through Trump’s refusal to condemn violent extremist groups.”
And in a carefully targeted appeal to anti-Trump, pro-Israel centrist Democrats, he posted a tweet with a photo of him tucking a note into the Western Wall, writing that “Americans should never have to choose between supporting Israel & our values here at home. I will defend both – because they are inextricably linked.” He also vowed that he would “refuse to use Israel as a wedge issue for electoral purposes – as Trump has.”
Ironically, though, Bloomberg was himself using Israel to make a case against Sanders and other progressive candidates, albeit in a more understated way than the president.
Bloomberg’s pledge to “never impose conditions on our military aid” was a carefully aimed swipe at Sanders, who, among the leading Democratic candidates, has been the most responsive to activists on the campaign trail pushing to condition U.S. aid to Israel on ending the occupation of the West Bank.
At the J Street Conference appearance Sanders highlighted in the campaign video, he said: “At a time when we spend $3.8 billion on military aid to Israel, we have the right to say to the Israeli government that the United States ... and our people believe in human rights, we believe in democracy, we will not accept authoritarianism or racism.” He added that if elected president, he would tell Israel, “If you want military aid you’re going to have to fundamentally change your relationship to the people of Gaza,” and that “some of the $3.8 billion should go right now to humanitarian aid in Gaza.”
Sanders has also enthusiastically endorsed members of “The Squad,” including Reps. Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib. The latter refers to him affectionately as “Amo Bernie” – using the word for “uncle” in Arabic (echoing the way that Latin American supporters call him “Tio Bernie”). Additionally, one of Sanders’ most enthusiastic campaign surrogates is Palestinian activist Linda Sarsour.
While this kind of cross-cultural appeal may further warm the hearts of young, left-wing Jewish “Uncle Bernie” fans on college campuses and the ranks of IfNotNow and the Democratic Socialists of America, such words and associations makes older, more centrist Jewish voters uncomfortable.
To be sure, such Jews have hardly been big Bernie fans until now, heavily favoring former Vice President Joe Biden. He has been seen as a dependable Democratic “friend” of Israel and ally of the American Jewish community for decades.
Now, though, Bloomberg is offering Biden supporters, and other moderates who favor Pete Buttigieg or Sen. Amy Klobuchar, their own version of a Jewish uncle: Someone with deep pockets who temptingly promises to channel his wealth toward the gift they want most at Hanukkah – the defeat of Donald Trump.