The race for the 2020 Democratic nomination is the first presidential campaign to include more than one Jewish contender. As both Bloomberg and Sanders grow increasingly vocal about the role of their religion in their politics, the differences between the two — particularly on the subject of Israel — are apparent.
Bloomberg’s 20-minute speech Sunday at Aventura Turnberry Jewish Center in Miami touched on Jewish subjects familiar to his audience in almost every sentence. The former New York mayor name-checked a bygone Florida deli and its pickles; he repeatedly cited the Torah, including a quote from the book of Leviticus, which he referred to by its Hebrew name, Vayikra.
He spoke of the rising number of anti-Semitic attacks and his plans to stem them if elected: “We are confronted by signs that we thought we would never see outside of old black-and-white newsreels: synagogues attacked, Jews murdered, Nazis marching brazenly and openly by torchlight.”
Bloomberg tied attacks on Jews and on many other minorities to President Trump, saying the president’s polarizing rhetoric about who is a “real American” has emboldened extremist groups: “There is just no escaping the direct line between his conduct in office and the rise of violent attacks targeted at minority groups across the country.”
Sanders, who in his 2016 campaign became the first Jewish candidate in history to win a state primary or caucus, also focused heavily in his video on recent anti-Semitic attacks, particularly the 2018 murder of 11 worshipers in Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue. “If there is any people on earth who understands the danger of racism and white nationalism, it is certainly the Jewish people,” Sanders said.
That clip, and an opening line in which Sanders proclaimed, “I’m very proud to be Jewish, and I look forward to becoming the first Jewish president,” came from a speech he delivered at the national conference of J Street, a liberal lobbying group focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
On Sunday, Bloomberg turned those differences into a punchline, saying: “I know I’m not the only Jewish candidate running for president. But I am the only one who doesn’t want to turn America into a kibbutz” — a reference not only to Sanders’s socialism, which the senator shares with the Israeli collective farm where he worked decades ago, but also to their stances on Israel.
Both men have said they support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; both have pledged to reenter the Iran nuclear deal crafted by the Obama administration, which has major implications for Israel’s security; both oppose the BDS (boycott, divest, sanction) movement that aims to punish or isolate Israel.
But Sanders says he is “not a great fan” of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whom Bloomberg calls a friend. Sanders has criticized Israeli actions and pleaded for Americans to understand Palestinians’ grievances as well — and has espoused the possibility of withholding America’s sizable aid to Israel if Israeli policies don’t change.
In Florida, Bloomberg vowed not to do that: “As president, I will always have Israel’s back. I will never impose conditions on our military aid, including missile defense — no matter who is prime minister,” he said.
Bloomberg said that “revering the miracle that is the state of Israel” is central to his conception of what Judaism is about. He discussed his many trips to the nation and its major institutions, including a hospital wing that he has donated to and that now bear his parents’ names.
He claimed Trump is undermining the American-Israeli relationship by turning Israel into a partisan wedge issue. “There are those who will cite moving the embassy to Jerusalem as a reason to support the president,” he said to the Jewish audience. “To that, I say very clearly: If I am elected, you will never have to choose between supporting Israel and supporting our values here at home. I will defend both.”
Jews make up only 2 percent of the U.S. population but lean heavily Democratic and are a reliable voting bloc for the party. Jewish support is all over the board in the Democratic primary, not clustering with the two Jewish candidates, each of whom has hired a specialist to focus on Jewish outreach for their campaigns. The Forward found in an analysis of Jewish donors that during the first half of 2019, the most money went to former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg, an Episcopalian who quotes the New Testament and has criticized Netanyahu.
Neither Sanders nor Bloomberg has concentrated enthusiasm from Jews the way that 2000 Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe Lieberman did when he ran 20 years ago. Rabbi Daniel Zemel, of Temple Micah in Northwest Washington, said times have changed — now that the White House regularly hosts Hanukkah parties and Passover seders, the idea of a Jew in office doesn’t excite Washington Jews quite so much. In addition, neither of the current Jewish candidates is known as much for their faith as Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew who wore a yarmulke, kept kosher and observed Shabbat.
Steven Windmueller, a professor at Hebrew Union College who studies Jewish American political behavior, said that while Lieberman’s Jewish observance drew both tremendous enthusiasm and concerns about anti-Semitism in 2000, Jewish voters today won’t demand religiosity from a candidate. “There’s a general acceptance of the diversity of Jewish expression and behavior,” he said. He believes Jewish Democratic voters are less concerned with electing someone of their faith than with electing “anyone but Donald Trump.”
Zemel recalled that in 2015, Sanders skipped Rosh Hashanah services at a synagogue to deliver a campaign speech at evangelical Liberty University. “He’s ethnically Jewish. He could be culturally Jewish. But his religious Judaism is certainly up for questioning,” Zemel said.
Bloomberg belongs to the prominent Temple Emanu-El in New York, and as mayor he helped a synagogue that had suffered a fire find an alternate space to host High Holy Day services.
But do Jewish voters care about these religious anecdotes? “Only rabbis, maybe,” Zemel said.
An earlier version of this story said Pete Buttigieg has threatened to cut aid to Israel. To clarify, the former mayor has said that U.S. funds should not contribute if Benjamin Netanyahu carries out annexation of West Bank settlements.