The late and great Leo Rosten recounted in his book "Hooray for Yiddish" that whenever his father would marvel at the wonders of the United States, instead of using the staple quip “Only in America,” he would exclaim “America gonef!” The saying literally means “America the thief,” but in the mouths of Jewish immigrants to the United States, it evolved to signify their unending gratitude and admiration for the country that took them in and made them prosper.
Rosten recounts that his father, Sam Rosenberg of Lodz, would exclaim “America gonef” at least five times a day. If he were alive today to witness the Democratic primary race, Mr. Rosenberg would have surely doubled or tripled his daily output. As if it weren't amazing enough that one Jew is leading the Democratic pack, his main challenger could very well turn out to be yet another Jew. If Mad Magazine were still breathing, it might have replaced its legendary strip “Spy vs. Spy” with “Jew vs. Jew.” America gonef!
The fact that Bernie Sanders is now the frontrunner in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination is a milestone in American Jewish history in and of itself. The possibility, if not yet probability, that in the final showdown Sanders could face Michael Bloomberg is American Jewish history gone berserk. As the Eagles noted in “Hotel California,” “This could be heaven or this could be hell” – but the odds are in favor of the latter.
The fact that two Jewish Americans are serious contenders to be nominated as presidential candidate by a major U.S. party is testament to the prominence and acceptance of what is undoubtedly the greatest Jewish Diaspora, pardon the expression, of the modern era. It comes at a time, however, when the same Jewish community is feeling exceptionally vulnerable and anti-Semitism is on the rise – particularly in the rival political camp. If either Sanders or Bloomberg face off against Donald Trump, an anti-Semitic surge on the white right – from the White House down – is almost inevitable.
Besides their shared Jewishness, which both Bloomberg and Sanders have miraculously rediscovered on the campaign trail, the two candidates have other things in common. They were born within four months of each other: A President Sanders would celebrate his 80th in his first year in office, ans Bloomberg at the start of his second. Both are quick-witted and sharp-tongued, with long memories and short tempers: Acerbic Jews might describe them as alter kakers, for which the genteel Rosten used the initials A.K.
But as Jewish mazel would have it, Sanders and Bloomberg aren’t merely two random contestants in a field of many: They are antagonists on a sure-fire collision course. Politically, upstart Bloomberg is already raining on what is expected to be Sanders’ victory parade after the Nevada caucuses on Saturday. The former New York mayor’s qualification for the Wednesday night debate in Las Vegas stole some of the limelight from Sanders in advance; their expected clashes generated more anticipation and excitement than any of the previous seven Democratic debates.
If Bloomberg outlasts Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar to emerge as the last man standing among the party’s centrist candidates, he could become Sanders’ potential spoiler. In the shtetls of their forefathers in Poland, Sanders’ followers would dub Bloomberg a mazik, which, as Michael Wex explains in "Born to Kvetch," is a kind of mischievous poltergeist who comes along at night to ruin the shoes you’ve been fixing all day.
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In this case, however, it’s a Wall Street mega-billionaire swooping down to steal poor Sanders’ crown, just as he’s finally donning it after a lifetime of effort. Even the most imaginative Hollywood screenwriter would recoil at casting their two main protagonists as literal stereotypes of class warfare, establishment baron vs. radical activist. Both profiles, of course, are favorite fares of most anti-Semites: The bloodsucking Jewish capitalist vs. the revolutionary Jewish anarchist, as if a time machine has transported us back to the early 20th century.
But the fact that Sanders and Bloomberg come from totally opposite quarters also means that theirs will be a bitter, total war. Their personal rivalry entails what can be described as a clash of civilizations. It is a fight that could tear the Democratic Party apart, between moderates accusing progressives of backing a candidate too far from the mainstream to be elected and the progressives countering with the charge that moderates are selling their souls for Bloomberg’s money and for the yet-to-be proven claim that he stands a better chance of beating Donald Trump. If left unchecked, it is a battle that could sap Democrats’ energies just as the true war begins.
The discord could be even harsher among Jewish Democrats, who comprise the overwhelming majority of the Jewish community as a whole, and not just because Bloomberg and Sanders are their “landsman,” the term used to greet new Jewish immigrants from the same region. In addition to the expected clashes between younger Sanders supporters and older Bloomberg backers, between left and center, rich and less-rich, champions of status quo vs. agents of change and so forth, there is the specifically Jewish matter of Israel, on which the two candidates are also, at least on the face of it, oceans apart.
Sanders has never wavered in his fundamental support for Israel’s security and well-being, but he is the most vociferous critic among senior U.S. politicians of Israel’s policies towards Palestinians in general and of its right-wing prime minister in particular. Sanders, however, is identified with the growing radical wing of the party, which includes a sizable anti-Zionist contingent. Even Israeli leftists don’t believe that Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have their country’s best interests at heart.
Bloomberg, on the other hand, is more of a classic AIPAC Democrat type, critical of Netanyahu to a degree but generally warm and supportive of Israel on most issues, especially those related to security. Traditional supporters of Israel undoubtedly feel more comfortable with Bloomberg than with Sanders.
Bloomberg’s appearance on the Democratic scene makes Netanyahu’s life easier and more complicated at the same time. Sanders’ surge had placed both Netanyahu and AIPAC in the historically shameful position of plotting to undermine the first potential Jewish candidate of a major party. With Bloomberg in play, AIPAC, at least, can now legitimately claim that it simply prefers one Jewish candidate to the other; Netanyahu could do the same, were it not for the danger that he might incur Trump’s wrath by daring to even gaze at any other potential suitor.
It is a veritable minefield for Israel, for Democrats and for the American Jewish community. "Two Jews enter a presidential race" may sound like the start of a good Jewish joke, but it has morphed into a surreal and potentially hazardous reality. On the other hand, two Jews is the basis of any solid dialogue in Yiddish literature and to paraphrase Tevye the Milkman’s familiar remedy to bad news in his talks with his creator Shalom Aleichem: “Enough with the tzures (troubles). Let’s talk about happier news. Have you heard about the coronavirus?”