Ahead of Michigan’s primaries, voters weighed their options between two Jewish candidates.
This story has been updated to reflect Bloomberg dropping out of the race.
“If you ask two Jews, you’ll get three opinions.”
The adage could very well describe every seder night debate since the first machloket (dispute) between Hillel and Shammai. But now, the maxim also applies to the future of the United States.
For the first time in modern history, millions of American Jews had the option to vote for not one, but two Jewish men to hold the highest office in the most powerful country in the world.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a pair of septuagenarian East Coast Jews, were slated to be on the ballot for the Democratic presidential primaries when the contest reaches Michigan March 10. While Sen. Sanders is still in the running, Mayor Bloomberg announced he was ending his presidential bid Wednesday morning.
The two men embody two wholly different visions for the nation. And, in good, old haimishe (familiar) fashion, Jews have strong views about them.
Two weeks before the primary, in a stately modern home off the 18-hole golf course of Franklin Hills Country Club, Florine Mark, the president and CEO of the WW Group (formerly known as Weight Watchers), hosted a “Jews for Bloomberg” event.
“We’re here to tell the American people what we can do for them,” Mark told a living room of Bloomberg prospects, as they snack on crudité and white wine.
Bloomberg is the candidate “to represent our values and our issues, and the connection and the friendship between Israel and America,” Hannan Lis, Mark’s Israeli-American son-in-law, chimed in. “Mike Bloomberg is the only candidate we can ever consider.”
Bloomberg, the former Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-Independent-turned-Democrat mayor of New York City and among the 10 richest people in the world according to Forbes, skipped early primary states to focus on Super Tuesday and delegate-rich states like Michigan to propel him to the top. He outspent every candidate in the field, having used roughly $500 million of his own funds since entering the race late last year, all while advocating for stricter gun control and touting his business acumen to boost the American economy.
Religion has played a somewhat nebulous role in Bloomberg’s contemporary life, but he drew on his Jewish roots and his Zionism as his campaign came to a head.
“I’ve spent a lot of time in synagogues in my life, but my parents taught me that Judaism is more than just going to shul,” Bloomberg told a crowd at the Aventura Turnberry Jewish Center in Miami, Florida, in January. “It is about living our values, including our obligation to help and to ‘repair the world’ in the tradition of tikkun olam, and it’s about revering the miracle that is the state of Israel, which — for their generation — was a dream fulfilled before their very eyes.”
In Michigan, seen by most pundits as a bellwether state for the election at large, Bloomberg courted voters like Sandi Reitelman, one of the estimated 70,000 Jews who live in Metro Detroit, and bought ads in the Jewish News.
“The Jewish values of education, caring for others, the feeling that we are a family, that we’re honest, is what’s really important to me,” Reitelman, who lives in Birmingham, told the Jewish News. “I have to believe that Bloomberg believes and lives those values, given his philanthropic emphasis and what he did for New York City.”
Stuart Logan, a 63-year-old lawyer from Bloomfield Township, said, “He focuses on what he can do for others; he’s obviously not in it for himself.” Bloomberg has been using his money for “menschlichkeit” (humanity) and not to serve his own ego, Logan reasoned. “He’s a responsible guy, a lot of his policies resonate with me and I think he’s open-hearted.”
But Logan had some choice words for the other member of the tribe vying for the highest seat in the land. “Under no circumstance would I vote for Sanders,” he stated. “Sanders has traditionally minimized his Jewish contacts. It’s never been something that’s animated him.”
Bernie Sanders’ Support
Sanders, the longtime Vermont politician, current senator and Independent with a lengthy history of caucusing with Democrats, is currently in a neck-and-neck race with former Vice President Joe Biden for front-runner status. He amassed an early delegate lead in the nation’s first primary contests before Biden closed the gap in several Super Tuesday matchups. He amassed an early delegate lead in the nation’s first primary contests and has raised more in individual contributions than anyone running for president this year, while championing progressive policies like Medicare for All and climate change legislation.
Sanders was raised by Jewish-American parents. His father, Elias, was an immigrant from the former Austro-Hungarian Empire who evaded the atrocities of the Holocaust, while his mother Dorothy was born in New York to Jewish Russian immigrant parents. Though he leads a secular lifestyle, Sanders refers to his connection to the religion — although he has harsh words for Israel, and announced he would skip the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual conference held March 1-3 in Washington, D.C.
“I am very proud of being Jewish. I actually lived in Israel for some months. But what I happen to believe is that right now, sadly, tragically, in Israel, through [Prime Minister] Bibi Netanyahu, you have a reactionary racist who is now running that country,” Sanders declared during the Feb. 25 Democratic debate in Charleston, South Carolina. “I happen to believe that what our foreign policy in the Mideast should be about is absolutely protecting the independence and security of Israel, but you cannot ignore the suffering of the Palestinian people.”
In Detroit’s New Center neighborhood, a group of young Jewish community organizers discuss Sanders’ potential presidency over coffee at Avalon Café and Biscuit Bar. Reuben Telushkin, 31, of Detroit, is a coordinator with JVP Action, an arm of the activist group Jewish Voice for Peace, which supports Palestinian self-determination and is highly critical of Israel. He said Sanders’ position on Israel/Palestine reflects his values.
“Those of us who want more progressive policy, trying to bring our family and our communities along, I really think that he resonates with the majority of where American Jews are at, or at least a great number of us,” Telushkin said. “And then you have Bloomberg, who calls [Israeli] settlements ‘new communities’ in the debate, which is ridiculous. And it just shows that he is not the person to be dealing with this issue.”
Susannah Goodman, 32, of Detroit, said, “Bernie embodies a kind of dialogue with Jewish elders that I wish we could have more often around here.”
Goodman sees Sanders’ concern over college debt and his promise of free tuition as ostensibly Jewish ideals. “One of my deepest Jewish values is the instruction to not worship idols. I think our society across the board has been worshipping unregulated capitalism.”
Goodman grew up in the Reconstructionist movement and is a member of Congregation T’chiyah in Oak Park. “It used to be an American ideal to care for other people,” she said. “Just having more empathy across Eight Mile is something that’s really important.”
For many in the group, Sanders’ Jewishness does not play directly into their support, though there is a shared sense of identity. “Just aesthetically, I love that basically my grandpa, but much more to the left, is on the debate stage yelling about all the bad stuff that the U.S. is doing,” mused Jackson Koeppel, 27, who lives in Highland Park but grew up in New York City.
The group of Sanders supporters spend a lot of their time critiquing Bloomberg. Koeppel recounts an incident in which he was arrested for smoking marijuana while living in New York as a college student during Bloomberg’s term as mayor. “Every single other person in that cell was a black man, and this is also the height of ‘Stop and Frisk,’” Koeppel, who is white and of Ashkenazi descent, recalled.
Telushkin said, “I’m Jewish. I’m also black. I look at Bloomberg; I see his documented history of racism and that’s a dealbreaker for me. I would hope that other people in the Jewish community would see that and think about members of the Jewish community who would be affected by his responses.”
What do Jewish Voters Want?
For many Jews, fear of anti-Semitism runs as a current through this election. Bloomberg and Sanders both found themselves portrayed as conduits for enabling such behavior, and each could fit into longtime contrasting anti-Semitic stereotypes: the wealthy plutocrat banker and the revolutionary socialist. Some in the party are concerned that the issue lies primarily with the current president.
“Donald Trump himself represents such an existential threat,” says Noah Arbit, founder of the Michigan Democratic Jewish Caucus. “He is the most anti-Semitic president since Richard Nixon.”
He cites a recent spike in anti-Semitic violence as a primary concern for Jewish voters, more so than support for Israel. “We have to do a better job of parsing out anti-Semitism and anti-Israel,” Arbit says. “We all have different, diverse opinions about Israel and how to support it.”
Arbit is not formally endorsing a Democratic candidate but appeared to show his support for Bloomberg while speaking at the “Jews for Bloomberg” event in Franklin and working to collect names for his campaign.
Of course, not all Jews in Metro Detroit are voting for Jewish candidates — not even the most prominent ones in the Democratic Party.
“For me, my Judaism is about tzedek, tzedek tirdorf: ‘Justice, justice shall you pursue,’” says Rep. Andy Levin, a Democrat who’s endorsed Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren for president. “I’m looking for the candidate who will work the hardest, and the most effectively, to create a more just world and repair this fractured world of ours.”
Other local Democratic Jewish officeholders, like Rep. Elissa Slotkin, who represents Michigan’s 8th congressional district, and Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, have not endorsed a presidential candidate.
The question of Bernie or Bloomberg was a pressing one for Jewish Democrats in Metro Detroit. Of those interviewed, there were just as many reasons to disqualify one candidate as there are to support the other.
At the “Jews for Bloomberg” event, Sandi Reitelman still sat on the fence.
“What I’m really struggling with is to figure out how to meld my feeling that I don’t care who it is. I want to try to apply some principle,” she explained. While leaning toward Bloomberg, she expressed some lingering concerns about his debate performances and is open to some of Sanders’ ideas. “The dirty word ‘socialism’ is totally stupid. We are a socialist democracy. We have health care, we have education, we have services.”
Reitelman also says former Vice President Joe Biden and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg (now out of the race) have values she’s attracted to, but she has doubts about all the candidates.
“It’s all very confusing. I don’t know the answer.”