Mike vs. Bernie: Two approaches to being a Jewish president

The billionaire and the Socialist could present Democrats with a debate about support for Israel, as well as the virtues of socialism and capitalism.

Democratic presidential candidates U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Photos by Gage Skidmore via Flickr.
Democratic presidential candidates U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Photos by Gage Skidmore via Flickr.
Jonathan S. Tobin. Photo by Tzipora Lifchitz.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

Bernie Sanders and Michael Bloomberg both want to be the nation’s first Jewish president. But they couldn’t possibly be more different.

Sanders is a Socialist who is hoping to lead America on a lurch to the left that many of his more enthusiastic supporters are calling a revolution. And he hopes to be elected on the strength of a mass movement of small contributors and activists. Bloomberg is a billionaire capitalist who, as he likes to joke, is the Jewish candidate for president who “doesn’t want to turn America into a kibbutz.” And he plans to win the Democratic nomination by spending as much of his own money as it takes, even if it means leaving a billion or two less for his children to inherit.

Yet as both rolled out sales pitches to Jewish primary voters in the last week, they are also presenting remarkably dissimilar visions of what it means to be an American Jew in the 21st century. Or at least what they think American Jews care about.

In a video shared by his campaign on Twitter, Sanders centered his appeal as an opponent of anti-Semitism. As was the case with an op-ed he published last year in the leftist Jewish Currents magazine, Sanders sees Jew-hatred as solely a problem of the right and primarily the fault of President Donald Trump. He says Trump is a “white nationalist” who has unleashed a tide of hatred against Jews. And although he wrote that he is a supporter of Israel, his campaign video says not a word about it.

Sanders is clearly appealing to Jews who not only don’t prioritize the Jewish state’s security, but also see it as a Middle Eastern version of a red state with whom they have little in common and which is as likely to be as “deplorable” as any other area where Trump is popular.

Bloomberg has a more traditional approach to Jewish Democrats. In a campaign appearance at the Aventura Turnberry Jewish Center in North Miami on Sunday, the former New York City mayor was clearly aiming at both Trump and Sanders when he said, “The toxic culture the president has created is harming our relationship with Israel,” he said. “If I am elected, you will never have to choose between supporting Israel and supporting our values here at home.”

Trump’s record as the most pro-Israel president the country has ever had is not really debatable. But since most Jewish voters remain political liberals and loyal Democrats, even those who do care about the Jewish state can’t bring themselves to vote for a person they despise as much as Trump.

Sanders is touting his Jewish roots in this campaign—something he chose not to do when he ran for president in 2016. But there was more left out of his campaign video aimed at Jews than just a mention of Israel. It also omitted the fact that he is the candidate who has been the most vocal critic of the Jewish state. Nor did it mention the fact that he has embraced open anti-Semites like activist Linda Sarsour as a campaign surrogate, as well as being an ally of Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), who are both guilty of spouting virulent anti-Semitism and of supporting the anti-Semitic BDS movement.

While Sanders says he supports Israel’s existence, he has called for ending the isolation of Hamas-ruled Gaza, to which he said he’d like to divert some of the aid that the United States gives Israel. His campaign is populated with left-wing Israel-haters, and if he is elected, it’s likely that his administration would be profoundly hostile to the Jewish state.

Like Sanders, Bloomberg hasn’t previously spoken much about his Jewish origins. Indeed, for all of their differences, both men are thoroughly secular, eschew religious observance and have never shown much interest in Jewish issues.

Yet Bloomberg’s approach is to assert that he is the sort of Democrat who can be relied on to, as he puts it, “always have Israel’s back.” But signaling his pro-Israel approach is more a matter of nuance than policy. As with his stands on a host of issues, Bloomberg has had to adjust his version of centrism to survive in a Democratic Party that is tilting hard to the left. He opposed President Barack Obama’s terrible Iran nuclear deal. But he now says that Trump was wrong to leave the agreement and reimpose sanctions on Tehran, even though that is the only way pressure can be created to fix what was wrong with the deal in the first place.

Like many other Democrats, Bloomberg has had nothing to say about Omar and Tlaib’s anti-Semitism. Should Bloomberg win the nomination, he won’t be able to afford to alienate the party’s activist wing, where support for intersectional myths that are the basis for the anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism on the left is so prevalent. While Bloomberg chides Trump for turning Israel into a “political football,” the problem is not that the GOP is wrong for touting the president’s pro-Israel policies, but that the Democrats are now deeply divided on support for the Jewish state.

Neither Sanders nor Bloomberg should be dismissed; they both are viable candidates. Sanders currently leads the average of polls in both Iowa and New Hampshire. As for Bloomberg, on the basis of the millions he has spent on advertising rather than traditional campaigning, he has rapidly moved up to fourth place in national polls of Democrats, eclipsing figures like Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar.

Should former Vice President Joe Biden falter as the leading centrist and Sanders bests fellow liberals like Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren in the early voting states, it’s possible that the Democratic contest could come down to two very different Jewish candidates. If so, then the country could be treated to a debate not only about the virtues of capitalism versus socialism, but what it means to be a supporter of Israel, as well as an American Jew.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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