BEHIND BIDEN: Some Jewish things about the seven leading Democratic candidates chasing the frontrunner

CORY BOOKER

He keeps a Hebrew Bible on his desk.

OK, Booker also keeps the New Testament, the Quran and the Bhagavad Gita, but the senator’s is not just any Tanach — it’s an ArtScroll, which rhymes with “hardcore” for those who know from serious Bible study.

The Boteach bromance

A friend invited Booker, a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University, to an event at L’Chaim, the university’s Jewish society. The friend didn’t show, but Booker quickly bonded with the group’s founder, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, and they became fast and longtime friends.

Booker, a Baptist, went on to become president of L’Chaim.

“I would give him Baldwin and DuBois,” Booker told The New York Times in 2002 during his first run for Newark mayor, describing his relationship with Boteach, “and he would give me Hillel.”

There’s video of a Purim party from the early 1990s with Boteach, wearing an outfit that appears to be decorated with pizza slices, riding on Booker’s back.

Things went south in 2015 when Booker, a senator since 2013, backed the Iran nuclear deal and Boteach, who saw the deal as an existential threat to Israel, was heartbroken — and very publicly heartbroken in blogs, on Twitter and on the phone with whomever would listen.

Boteach was even more heartbroken when Booker did not mention him in his 2016 book “United,” on bringing Americans together.

“The book is not about my relationships with lots of friends or even different communities, such as the Latino community which embraced me, that have been impactful,” Booker told HuffPost. “He certainly was impactful. It’s not about that. It’s a book about a specific path. I am not sure why he’s reacting the way he is.”

He does Jewish weddings.

OK, he does them for his former chief of staff, Matt Klapper, who is now a senior adviser to his presidential campaign. Booker participated in the exchange of vows at Klapper’s 2016 wedding to Victoria Edelman.

He delivers drashas.

Booker likes to open his speeches, to Jews and non-Jews alike, with Torah analysis — and he likes to make a big deal about how weird it seems.

“Today I want to do something a little different than you were probably expecting from this Christian man from Newark, New Jersey,” Booker told Yale’s 2013 graduating class. “I want to do something that has probably never been done before at this university. I want to stand here as a Christian goy in all of my non-Jewish self and give you all a d’var Torah.”

Two years earlier he told Chabad of Greenwich, Connecticut, that “a tall black man from New Jersey” is about to talk about the week’s parsha. He advised the crowd to “get over it.”

“I’ve met most of the Senate’s other Jews, and I can say with a high degree of certainty that Booker knows more Torah than they do,” Jeffrey Goldberg, now editor of The Atlantic, wrote in the New York Post in 2013.

PETE BUTTIGIEG

A Jewish DNC official was in his corner.

Buttigieg gained national attention in 2017 when he emerged from nowhere as a credible candidate to take over the Democratic National Committee. In that race he had the backing of Susan Turnbull, a former vice chairwoman of the DNC who has been a leader of a number of Jewish organizations, including the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and Jewish Women International.

His visit to Israel included rocket fire.

Buttigieg visited Israel last year as part of a mayors tour organized by Project Interchange, an American Jewish Committee affiliate that introduces young politicians across the globe to the Jewish state. While he was there, rockets from Syria were launched into Israel.

“It was a reminder of how real and how alive all these issues are,” he said in an AJC podcast. “It didn’t stop people from living their lives and I actually think there’s a lesson to be learned from that for America … to prevent terrorists from succeeding in their goal of becoming our top priority.”

Buttigieg said he was concerned that Israel was becoming a political football.

“There’s a risk that support for Israel could come to be regarded as a partisan issue and I think that would be really unfortunate,” he said. “One of the first things you realize when you get on the ground is that this is not a left vs. right issue — at least it shouldn’t be. The Democratic Party is I think ultimately committed to the idea of peace and security and stability and fairness for everybody.”

A Jewish Republican beat him to the punch.

Buttigieg would be the first openly gay major ticket nominee, although not the first candidate: Fred Karger, who is Jewish and gay, sought the Republican nomination in 2012.

KAMALA HARRIS

She smashed a glass at her wedding

She met her Jewish husband, Douglas Emhoff, on a blind date in San Francisco, arranged by friends. They married in 2014 — Harris’ sister Maya officiated — and smashed a glass to honor Emhoff’s upbringing. It was her first marriage and his second — Emhoff has two children from his first marriage.

You thought Jews can be parochial? “Most eligible Indian American bachelorette marries fellow lawyer” is how one Indian American media outlet reported the story.

Emhoff took the Washington, D.C. bar exam in 2017 so he could work in the same city.

She did the blue box thing

“So having grown up in the Bay Area, I fondly remember those Jewish national fund boxes that we would use to collect donations to plant trees for Israel,” she said at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in 2017. “Years later when I visited Israel for the first time, I saw the fruits of that effort and the Israeli ingenuity that has truly made a desert bloom.”

She’s more AIPAC than J Street

Since being elected in 2016, Harris has spoken twice at the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Her 2018 speech, with the California delegation, was off the record (itself not unusual, although critics of Israel were unnerved), but she gave a good picture of where she stands in her 2017 speech.

She’s for two states — so is AIPAC, although, sometimes less than emphatically — but she doesn’t believe in big-footing either side.

“I believe that a resolution to this conflict cannot be imposed,” she said. “It must be agreed upon by the parties themselves.”

More than half of the Democratic caucus in the Senate gets the endorsement of J Street, the Jewish liberal lobbying group that believes pressure is necessary to start peace talks. J Street did not endorse Harris. Her only association with the group was in November 2017, when she was one of 17 local and federal politicians on the host committee (i.e., “yes you can stick my name on the invitation”) of a party thrown by J Street’s Los Angeles chapter. She also met a year ago in her office with the group’s director, Jeremy Ben-Ami.

Harris also co-sponsored a Senate resolution in early 2017 that essentially rebuked the Obama administration for allowing through a U.S. Security Council resolution condemning Israel’s settlement policies.

She supported the Iran nuclear deal, although she was not a senator in 2015 when Congress voted on it, and is on the record opposing the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement targeting Israel.

Harris also digs Israel’s Supreme Court building.

“The beauty of the architecture and spirit of design left a lasting impression — the straight lines in the building represent the immutable nature of truth, while the curved glass and walls were built to represent the fluid nature of finding justice,” she told the J. The Jewish News of Northern California in 2016. “The Court, like Israel, is a beautiful home to democracy and justice in a region where radicalism and authoritarianism all too often shape government.”

She’s big on tackling hate crimes

Harris created a hate crimes unit as San Francisco District Attorney and made hate crimes a focus of her work as the state’s attorney general. (Harris reported that in 2012 anti-Jewish hate crimes were the most commonplace religion-based hate crime.)

One of her first successful Senate actions was to get passed a non-binding Senate resolution that named religious institutions as possible targets of hate crimes, and urged better hate crime reporting, a key demand of Jewish civil rights groups over the years.

Her big sisters are Jewish

Well, in political terms, anyway. In October 2016, she got key endorsements from the state’s two Jewish senators — Barbara Boxer, who was retiring and whom Harris would replace, and Dianne Feinstein, the state’s senior senator. This was important because in California’s “jungle primary” system the two top vote-getters in the primaries get on the November ballot even if they are of the same party. Harris was facing a popular Democrat, Rep. Loretta Sanchez, in the general election.

AMY KLOBUCHAR

She made her name in Jewish Minnesota.

“She’s ubiquitous in the Minnesota Jewish community,” said Steve Hunegs, the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas.

Klobuchar never turns down an opportunity to speak to the community, Hunegs said, and has featured more than once at events of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the umbrella body for JCRCs and public policy groups. A year ago she chaired the annual off-the-record meeting between Senate Democrats and Jewish groups, a spot reserved for senators especially close to the community.

“She’s deeply popular among Democrats and Republicans” in the Minnesota community, Hunegs said.

Her ties to the community go back to the 1980s when Hunegs, then a law student, first befriended Klobuchar, a young lawyer, but were consolidated in 1998 when she was elected County Attorney of Hennepin County, where the bulk of the state’s Jews reside. (The county seat is Minneapolis.)

A mentor had been longtime state Democratic legislator Gloria Segal, who died in 1993, and Klobuchar remains close to her daughter, Minneapolis City Attorney Susan Segal.

Hunegs pointed out that as senator during the Obama administration, she nudged along the federal appointments of Jewish Minnesotans Andy Luger to become U.S. attorney in the state and Sam Kaplan as ambassador to Morocco. (Presidents look to senators of their own party to recommend officials from their states.)

Speaking last March at the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Klobuchar relished telling how in a meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister lavished more attention on her than her colleague from New York, Kirsten Gillibrand.

“He was noting to me that he has a lot of relatives in Minnesota and he had been there,” she said. “He said when I got back to our state I could tell them that I had met with the Israeli prime minister of Minnesota. That was kind of amusing, but what’s most amusing is he said it to me as I was sitting next to the senator from New York.”

Identification with Jews extends back generations. In her autobiography, “The Senator Next Door,” Klobuchar writes how her grandmother, Mary, seeking to nudge her son Jim — Klobuchar’s father — toward a career, touted a boy who had come from their town, Ely. Simon Bourgin was making a name for himself as a journalist.

“Simon’s family also lived in the Slovenian part of town — they had come from Russia, and they were one of only six Jewish families in Ely,” Klobuchar wrote. “The way my grandma saw it, if Simon could do it, Jimmy could, too.” Jim Klobuchar made a career as a journalist.

She’s a go-to Democrat for the Orthodox.

Orthodox umbrella groups increasingly embrace policies (on Israel’s hawkish government, abortion and other social issues) that hew closer to the American right, but also endeavor to sustain friendships on both sides of the aisle.

They prize someone like Klobuchar, who unlike some colleagues in her caucus is not a fundamentalist on separating church and state and has advocated federal funding for the religious sector, including for energy efficiency and school safety.

She tried to explain feather boas to Ariel Sharon.

Klobuchar’s first visit to Israel was in 2005, when she was contemplating her first run for the Senate. Then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon explained to her group that he had broken away from the Likud party after decades of devotion to its cause to establish a centrist party, Kadima.

Klobuchar explained how Minnesota had recently opted for a centrist path as well, in 1998 electing Jesse Ventura on the Reform Party ticket.

Sharon got it and listened with interest until Klobuchar tried to describe Ventura’s earlier career as a pro wrestler whose signature accoutrement was a feather boa.

“Sharon did not appear to grasp the concept of a feather boa, and after pursuing the matter with his translator, Sharon still didn’t seem to get it, Klobuchar said,” the Star-Tribune reported at the time.

BETO O’ROURKE

He reportedly once said that he has Jewish roots.

O’Rourke spoke in 2014 about having “some Jewish ancestry” in a meeting with local pro-Israel activists after the Iron Dome vote.

In 2014, O’Rourke was one of eight House members to vote against funding for Iron Dome.

His vote stood out because he was among a small group of lawmakers to oppose the $225 million aid to Israel, which was dealing with a barrage of rockets from Gaza amid a military operation. Meanwhile, 395 members of the House voted for the aid. O’Rourke’s vote angered many in the local Jewish and pro-Israel community; some circulated letters expressing their dismay. O’Rourke explained that he did not oppose funding for the Iron Dome, but rather the fact that there had not been a debate about the spending. Eager to make amends, the congressman later met with local pro-Israel activists and Jewish community leaders.

The following year, he visited Israel.

O’Rourke was part of a delegation of Democratic lawmakers organized by the liberal Middle East policy group J Street. They met with Palestinians and Israelis, and visited Jerusalem’s Old City and Yad Vashem. O’Rourke talked about the trip at Congregation B’nai Zion, a Conservative synagogue in El Paso, saying it gave him hope for peace. He addressed the challenges faced by Israelis living under rocket fire.

“I was looking at the border wall as though I was in Chihuahuita looking at Mexico and talking to people who lived in that village and what they experienced this last summer and learning from them how they literally watched rockets arching over their heads, northbound,” he said, according to the El Paso Times. “And not too long after, they would see missiles and fire coming right in the other direction over their heads.”

But O’Rourke said he would not have voted differently on funding for the Iron Dome in 2014 because he believed the topic merited debate.

“I think our unequivocal support at times has been damaging to Israel,” he said, according to the Times.

He has compared Central American migrants to Jewish refugees in World War II.

In expressing his support for immigration, O’Rourke has drawn parallels between the two groups. He repeatedly invoked the MS St. Louis, a ship carrying more than 900 Jewish refugees from Germany in 1939 that was turned away from the United States and Canada. Many of the passengers later died in concentration camps. O’Rourke has made the analogy in social media posts and in speeches.

He said this in a call-to-action published on Medium:

“I know that every single one of us, to a person, if we were standing here in this Chamber in 1939 when this country was sending back the St. Louis, which had set sail on May 13, 1939, from Hamburg, Germany, with more than 900 German Jewish refugees, including children, that all of us, to a person, would like to say, if I were here, I would have made the case to accept the St. Louis and those 900 passengers and make sure that they could find refuge and asylum in this country.”

The current migrant crisis, O’Rourke continued in urging the passage of a bill to end family separations at the border, is “our moment of truth.”

BERNIE SANDERS

The Israel thing

Sanders was the stand-out at both of the post-election annual conferences of J Street, the liberal Jewish Middle East policy group. His message jibed perfectly with the group’s: One can support Israel while criticizing its government for its settlement policies and for neglecting opportunities for peace.

Sanders has become a forceful and outspoken critic of how Israel handles its relationship with the Gaza Strip, posting multiple online videos packed with facts and figures about the dire humanitarian crisis in the strip and why he believes Israel is (in part) to blame.

That marshaling of facts and figures is quite a contrast with the Gaza related foreign policy fumble that drew attention in 2016 to his lack of foreign policy cred: He vastly overestimated the number of Palestinian civilians killed in the 2014 Gaza war.

Sanders has become the de facto leader of progressives in the Democratic party and his willingness, at times eagerness, to criticize Israel may be a signal of where the party is headed in terms of its relationship with the Jewish state.

Sanders also spent months on a kibbutz in his 20s and harbors an affection for Israel. If there’s one aspect of pro-Israel dogma that he has embraced, it’s that it is ridiculous to attack the country and not note the real threats posed to it by radical neighbors, and the worse human rights records in those countries.

He’s been consistent in decrying what he sees as a double standard applied to Israel. In 2017 he excoriated an Al Jazeera interviewer who challenged him for signing a Senate letter that called for fairer treatment of Israel at the United Nations. In the same interview he also firmly rejected the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement targeting Israel. (He is also outspoken opposing bills that would penalize boycotters, saying they infringe on speech freedoms.)

That’s Sanders off the cuff. The left that Sander represents has lost patience with Israel, and say that comparing Israel to its neighborhoods is classic “whataboutism.” It will be interesting to see if his campaign highlights the tough-love critic who supports Israel, or plays to a disinterested, even non-Zionist left. Interestingly, one of the Gaza videos Sanders posted includes the criticism of Israel he offered in a J Street speech — but omits his defense of the country. He clearly gets along with even the party’s strongest critics: Rep. Rashisa Tlaib, D-Mich., a Palestinian American who embraces BDS, calls him Amo (Uncle) Bernie.

The Jewish thing

Sanders, historically, did not like talking in public about his Jewish bringing, although his two best friends in Vermont are strongly identified Jews and he is involved there in the Jewish community. He isn’t the first Jew of his generation to not make his Jewish identity front and center in his politics.

Times have changed, and politicians are encouraged, even expected to describe how culture and ethnicity imprint their beliefs. At a point during the campaign, Sanders started talking about how being raised Jewish had shaped him.

It’s a trajectory that has continued post-campaign, with Sanders showing emotion in considering families who have perished during the Holocaust.

ELIZABETH WARREN

Warren is a progressive on Israel…

Warren accepted the endorsement of J Street, the liberal Jewish pro-Israel policy group, and has joined Sanders, who has become a lead critic of its current government’s policies, in some of his initiatives. She was one of 10 senators to write Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not to demolish Palestinian villages in the West Bank.

At the launch of at times violent Palestinian protests on Israel’s Gaza border, she urged Israel to show restraint.

“I am deeply concerned about the deaths and injuries in Gaza,” Warren said. “As additional protests are planned for the coming days, the Israel Defense Forces should exercise restraint and respect the rights of Palestinians to peacefully protest.”

Warren voted for the 2015 Iran nuclear deal that J Street championed and that Netanyahu and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee vigorously opposed. She did not show up to listen to Netanyahu’s controversial March 2015 speech to Congress aimed at shutting down the emerging deal.

…but she will defend Israel against her base.

Warren faced down an angry progressive at an August 2014 town hall in Cape Cod. The man was furious that Warren had voted for additional funding for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system during Israel’s Gaza war with Hamas the same summer.

“When Hamas puts its rocket launchers next to hospitals, next to schools, they’re using their civilian population to protect their military assets. And I believe Israel has a right, at that point, to defend itself,” Warren said.

Warren joined a congressional delegation visiting Israel the same year.

She showed up for Shabbat

After an anti-Semitic gunman gunned down 11 worshippers in a Pittsburgh synagogue on Oct. 27, Warren joined a national Jewish initiative to “show up for Shabbat” and spoke at Temple Emanuel in Newton, Massachusetts.

She led the “Prayer for Our Country,” the Boston Globe reported.

“This act of pure evil was an attack on the Jewish community not just in Pittsburgh, but all across our country,” Warren said. “Anti-Semitism is at the root of so many vile and hateful acts. The danger anti-Semitism poses is real and tangible.”

Warren also decried the vandalism in 2017 of a Boston Holocaust memorial.

She thinks the “alt-right” is all wrong

Warren has been outspoken in criticizing what she sees as white supremacist influence on the Trump administration.

“The President of the United States should condemn bigots, @realDonaldTrump,” she said on Twitter in November 2016 when Trump announced that Steve Bannon, who is close to the alt-right, would be a senior adviser. “Not give them a West Wing office to decide our country’s future.”

She’s down with Jewish advocates for immigration

Congress, separate from the executive, does not suffer from government shutdowns, and so lawmakers often will pledge their salaries to worthy causes during the period.

Government was shut down now because Trump does not want to sign a funding bill until Congress earmarks $5 billion to build a wall with Mexico to stop the flow of migrants. Warren pledged to give up her wages and chose an immigration advocacy group that opposes Trump’s immigration restrictions as her beneficiary: HIAS, the lead Jewish group dealing with immigration issues.

JTA

Be the first to comment on "BEHIND BIDEN: Some Jewish things about the seven leading Democratic candidates chasing the frontrunner"

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.


*