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Op-Ed: American Jews have something to celebrate: Mike Bloomberg and Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders and Michael Bloomberg represent two different poles of the U.S. Jewish experience.
(Jason Connolly / AFP via Getty Images)

In 2000, when Vice President Al Gore tapped Sen. Joe Lieberman as his running mate, it was a stop-the-presses moment in American Jewish life. Never before had an American Jew come within a heartbeat of the presidency. After scaling the heights of every profession and industry, and even inventing one themselves — Hollywood — Jews finally had a shot at the ultimate seal of acceptance. Nothing says “You’re one of us” like an inaugural parade down Pennsylvania Avenue.

At the time, I was editor in chief of the Jewish Journal, and we had prepared a “GORE WINS!” cover that featured Lieberman prominently. But despite Gore’s popular vote victory, we never got to run it. Years later, when Lieberman visited my office, I asked him to sign the cover mock-up. He wrote, “You got it right.”

Now, two decades later, Sen. Bernie Sanders is suddenly the leading candidate for the Democratic nomination for president. And former New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg is polling not far behind him. What’s more, in many polls, these two Jewish men both come out ahead of President Trump in head-to-head matchups.

Whatever you think of Bloomberg and Sanders, whomever you support, you’d think this would be a cause for rejoicing, a counter-narrative to the reports of increasing anti-Semitism.

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But instead of celebrating, American Jews are at each other’s throats like, well, Bloomberg and Sanders. The contentiousness and division that mar the national political landscape infect the Jewish community as well.

First, there’s Bernie. No Jew has ever come so close to the White House. But at the same time, he’s not exactly what many Jews had in mind when they told their sons and daughters that one day, even they could grow up to be president. Like most minorities, Jews came to accept that in order to move up, you had to fit in. The first Jewish president, they assumed, would be more in the Joe Lieberman mode, someone who, to borrow a phrase from across the Atlantic, would dress British but think Yiddish.

Sanders isn’t that. He may live in Vermont, but he’s Brooklyn through and through — and not kombucha-Pilates Brooklyn, but egg cream-Dodgers Brooklyn. The generational divide he has laid bare among Democrats seems to be just as striking among Democratic-leaning Jews — and 70-80% of Jewish voters lean Democratic. It seems younger Jews see Sanders as an authentic fighter for social justice, economic opportunity and equality. They support him with the same fervor their great-grandparents supported FDR, who was similarly seen as radical and impractical.

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Many of the parents and grandparents of these millennials are more comfortable with Bloomberg. He’s joined the establishment, he’s not a yeller, he has a record of accomplishment in business as well as in politics and activism. Through his tactical giving, Bloomberg has shut down more coal plants, elected more Democrats to office and closed more gun loopholes than Sanders. But will he try to fundamentally change an economic system many see as broken? The kids don’t think so.

The differences came to a head last week when Sanders decided not to speak at the upcoming conference of the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee. His fervent supporters — and there are plenty of older Jews among them — rallied around his decision as a principled stance against an organization they perceive as too supportive of the hard-line policies of the current Israeli government.

The Bloombergians saw it as an affront to a group whose big tent includes many liberal Democrats and supporters of a two-state solution in Israel. And others — well, me for one — saw Sanders’ boycott as hypocritical. If your brand is speaking truth to power, why not go tell AIPAC what you really think?

Piling on to the nasty infighting are conservative Jews who see the Sanders candidacy as a perfect way to wedge more Jews into the Republican tent. The way they are reacting to the first Jew to have a real shot at the White House is to declare — against Jewish law, against history and against, well, fact — that Sanders is not really a Jew.

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“Bernie’s as Jewish as a ham sandwich,” the conservative pundit Ben Shapiro said last week. All I could think of were the anti-suffragettes in the early 1900s who argued that any female demanding the vote was not a “real woman.”

If only American Jews could sheath their rhetorical swords and appreciate the moment.

If they could, they would see the Sanders/Bloomberg matchup as, among other things, a powerful and overdue counter-narrative to the gloomy story of increasing anti-Semitism.

I’ve long thought that some of the fear was overblown. Yes, anti-Semitic attacks have increased in recent years. The internet encourages and amplifies the isolated nut jobs out there. Rhetoric from irresponsible leaders — including the president, as well as some of Sanders’ surrogates — makes it worse. But anti-Semitism itself remains at historic lows. Despite a decade-long attempt to portray the Democratic Party as a Jew- and Israel-hating haven, the GOP is stuck with the inconvenient truth that the alt-right loves the Republican president, and two of the leading Democratic candidates are Jews.

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The last two Democratic debates have been, in fact, peak Jew. You had two stubborn know-it-alls with thick East Coast accents talking over each other about whose heart attack was worse and who knows what’s best for Israel. It was like sitting at a Passover table without the brisket.

And despite or maybe because of that, America has Bernie and Bloomberg near the top of the electoral pack — though most polls show Jews themselves leaning toward former Vice President Joe Biden. In another time, or in another country, Bloomberg and Sanders would be depicted as anti-Semitic caricatures — the Capitalist and the Radical.

But in America, in 2020, whether they are loved or reviled has everything to do with their politics, and little, or nothing, to do with their faith.

Rob Eshman is the former publisher and editor in chief of the Jewish Journal.


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