To Leftist Jews, Bloomberg Is Just as Polarizing as Bernie

The progressive Jewish left has cast the billionaire former N.Y. mayor in the role of the arrogant uncle who tries to buy their love. And if either Bloomberg or Sanders wins the Democratic nomination, some say, anti-Semitism will follow

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Democratic presidential candidate and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg poses for photographs with supporters in Houston on Thursday, February 13, 2020.
Democratic presidential candidate and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg poses for photographs with supporters in Houston on Thursday, February 13, 2020.Credit: David J. Phillip,AP

It’s hardly a state secret that among pro-Israel moderates in the Democratic Party, anxiety levels have been surging together with the polling numbers for Sen. Bernie Sanders – now undeniably the front-runner for the party’s presidential nomination.

On the surface, the public hand-wringing regarding the prospect of Sanders’ nomination involves his positions on aid to Israel, and the belief he is a long shot candidate against Donald Trump. But not far from the surface are worries over the anti-Semitic fallout if a Jewish socialist becomes the head of the spear in a contest with the president.

“A Trump-Sanders contest would be a political nightmare for American Jewry,” writes Yossi Klein Halevi in his blog at The Times of Israel, fearing a “toxic atmosphere [in which] pro-Sanders and pro-Trump Jews would each accuse the other of betraying Jewish values. And both would be right.”

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., greets supporters in Denver after a campaign stop late Sunday, February 16, 2020. Credit: David Zalubowski,AP

Now, moderates are scrambling to find a way to avoid a Sanders candidacy as former Vice President Joe Biden’s star rapidly fades.

A bright new prospect for the “anybody but Sanders” camp has arisen in the form of billionaire businessman and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, eclipsing the alternative options of Pete Buttigieg or Sen. Amy Klobuchar.

Touting Bloomberg enthusiastically, Jewish pundit Thomas Friedman of The New York Times made a case for “a moderate progressive with a heart of gold but the toughness of a rattlesnake,” and “the resources to build a machine big enough to take on the Trump machine.”

As enthusiasm for Bloomberg grows, it is now the progressive left’s turn to freak out. Most visibly rankled, the Jewish left – which long ago anointed Sanders as its favorite irascible uncle – has now cast Bloomberg in the role of the arrogant relative whose efforts to buy their love can’t hide his true nature.

“Time and again, Bloomberg’s unquestioning devotion to Israel has led him to defend immoral and disastrous policies,” asserted Peter Beinart, writing in Jewish Currents. After taking a close look at Bloomberg’s stances on Israel, Beinart concluded that “Bloomberg is aligned with the hawkish Jewish establishment. He already boasts a Jewish ‘Leadership Council’ brimming with former officers of Jewish Federations, the American Jewish Committee, the Conference of Presidents of American Jewish Organizations, and at least eight past or present donors to AIPAC.”

Peter Beinart's tweet

In making his point, Beinart avoids mentioning that while Bloomberg may be “aligned with the hawkish Jewish establishment,” he is notably not a part of it and has been, for the most part, unaffiliated with any Jewish institutions or causes in his long life. In the New York Times’ deep dive into Bloomberg’s tens of millions in political and philanthropic contributions, the utter absence of any Jewish or Israeli causes – whether political or cultural – is striking. While he has clearly picked up the pro-Israel establishment baton, as Beinart noted, Bloomberg is far from a Sheldon Adelson, Haim Saban or Robert Kraft.

Beinart’s attack on Bloomberg’s Israel policy was part of the full-on anti-Bloomberg campaign coming from the progressive wing of the party over the weekend, blasting everything from his stop-and-frisk policies, his defense of the discriminatory housing practice known as red-lining and his record of degrading remarks about women in his company’s employ.

One popular hashtag among Sanders supporters on Twitter, #BloombergIsAnOligarch, drew pushback from the Bloomberg campaign, which called it “blatant antisemitic language” and “Jew hatred,” comparable to the attacks on their candidate from the right.

Tweet from United for Mike

It might be expected that with not one but two prospective candidates at the top of the list for Democratic presidential nominee, this would be an exciting historic moment for Jewish Americans. But there is a relentless subtext of dread among American Jews. In a race pitting Trump against a Jewish candidate, be it a billionaire businessman or a socialist senator, things will inevitably get ugly.

As Sanders supporter Noah Berlatsky warned in Haaretz, with either Bernie or Bloomberg at the top of the ticket, Jews should brace themselves for a campaign “awash in anti-Semitic tropes, slurs, and conspiracy theories.”

He pointed out that “it might seem like Bloomberg, who is a multibillionaire, would be more vulnerable to anti-Semitic attacks on financial elites, while Sanders, who is a socialist, would be more vulnerable to anti-Semitic attacks on leftists. But the whole point of Soros conspiracy theories is to erase the distinction between these targets. To anti-Semites, all Jews are shadowy wealthy manipulators pushing a left agenda, regardless of their actual wealth or ideology.”

From the heart of red-state Texas, columnist Jonathan Tilove similarly confessed in the Austin American-Statesman that as an American Jew, he was “worried” by the prospect of either candidate as the nominee – either “the International Jew, money-lender, banker, all-powerful manipulator of world events for his own nefarious ends,” or “the rootless cosmopolitan, the subversive, radical outsider bent on destroying the American way of life.”

Even as Sanders and Bloomberg battle it out for the nomination, Tilove wrote, the Trotsky versus Rothschild tropes have already become “cartoonishly clear: Sanders the socialist who threatens to wreck the American economy if he is elected, and wreck the Democratic Party if he is not. Bloomberg the plutocrat trying to buy the White House.”

Writing in New York magazine, Eric Levitz concluded that the Bernie-Bloomberg Democratic primary contest, however long it lasts, ushers in “a golden age for Jewish-American discourse, and a somewhat dangerous one for us Jewish-Americans.”

It is a sign of the nervous nature of the Trump era that Jewish Democrats are unable to celebrate living in a time when polling shows that 93 percent of Americans would vote for a Jewish president in 2020, compared to 63 percent in 1958, and that two of the leading candidates for their parties are “members of the tribe.”

Instead, they are busy fighting over which of the Jewish Democratic hopefuls is, in fact, good for the Jews.

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