Though the American Jewish community is certainly politically powerful and high-profile in many ways, its relatively small size compared to other minority groups means that it isn’t often high on the list of presidential candidates when it comes to pandering.
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But in this off-balance, crazy election year, the New York primaries are a crucial turning point for both parties. The Jewish community, while still a small piece of the statewide puzzle, will make a difference, especially on the Democratic side, making up 16 percent of the electorate. So the lead-up to today’s polling has been full of drama and not a small amount of comedy, as the candidates have worked - and sometimes stumbled - in their quest for a kosher seal of approval. Here’s a look back at the Jewiest primary campaign so far.
In awkward “Veep” style, Ted Cruz went for an extended photo op with a group of three-year old Chabad kids pricking holes in dough, groping for conversation, asking them questions like “Do you like matzah?” One kid replied that he liked maror (bitter herbs) and Cruz said, “Well, you are going to have an interesting life. You are attracted to the more difficult things in life. This is a young man who doesn’t shy away from a challenge.” He went for double points with an anecdote about sitting at a Seder table next to a 99-year-old Holocaust survivor. And, of course, he pretended the matzah tasted good when he tried it.
While Cruz kept it light while shmoozing with the ultra-Orthodox crowd, longshot Republican hopeful John Kasich made the highly questionable choice of diving into theology while visiting a Jewish bookstore in Brooklyn, lecturing a group of full-time yeshiva students about Abraham, Jacob and Joseph. They stood politely silent - but you had to wonder what they were thinking.
He then went on to his own matzah baking visit, after which he gave another impromptu sermon, this one unfortunately focused on the role blood plays in his religion and in Judaism. “The great link between the blood that was put above the (Jews’) lamppost, the blood of the lamb, is Jesus Christ is known as the Lamb of God,” Kasich said. “And the great link is, it was the blood of the lamb that saved the Jewish people, and in Christianity, it was the blood of the Lamb of God that saves all of us.”
As JTA reporter Uriel Heilman put it: “Talking about Christ’s blood during a visit to Borough Park? Oy vey. Please, somebody, prep this guy Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn want to hear about food stamps, affordable housing, Medicaid. Ix-nay on the Jesus-nay."
When putting together their policy on Israel and the Middle East, most leading presidential candidates turn to seasoned hands - think tank experts, policy-makers from previous White House administrations or Capitol Hill. But “The Donald” does everything differently - so why not Israel? In a session with the Jewish press, he pointed to the two men he said would be his chief advisers on Israel - his two real estate lawyers, Jason Greenblatt. Bragging of his qualifications, he noted, “He has tremendous passion for Israel. When he goes on vacation, he goes to Israel.”
Naming a popular and up-and-coming anti-occupation activist Simone Zimmerman was a bold move, aimed clearly at galvanizing Sanders support among young Jewish progressives and planting Sanders firmly to the far left of Hillary Clinton on Israel issues. But her supporters barely had time to celebrate before a well-aimed shot at her reputation exploded, when Noah Pollak, a right-wing journalist, uncovered past social media posts using obscenities and insults to describe Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. While Sanders might agree with her sentiments behind closed doors, they were deemed inappropriate for his official representative and her appointment was suspended just 48 hours after it was announced. Luckily for Bernie, the wrath of the progressive community was mitigated by the fact that on the same day, he confronted Hillary Clinton in their “Brooklyn brawl” debate.
As a former New York senator, Clinton has the most experience and strongest connections with the Jewish establishment, so it’s no surprise that she was the candidate came through the New York primary campaign relatively unscathed, even during the prickliest moments of the Israel discussion in her Brooklyn debate with Bernie Sanders. Her well-oiled machine sewed up the endorsement of nearly the entire New York City Council’s Jewish caucus and distributed a Passover message in English, Hebrew and Yiddish that was published in nearly every single Jewish newspaper and website (present company included) with her byline.
Expectations are high for Clinton’s performance among Jewish Democrats today, as they are for her overall performance among Democrats. If, somehow, Bernie Sanders manages to overtake her, that will surely be the most embarrassing moment of all.