Noah Arbit: Why I founded the Michigan Democratic Jewish Caucus

Members of the Michigan Democratic Jewish Caucus Executive Board with Attorney General Dana Nessel and State. Sen. Jeremy Moss at a caucus meeting in Bingham Farms on Sept. 10 | Michigan Jewish Democrats photo

American Jews have always excelled in community organizing. Some of the most prominent movement leaders of the past century have been Jewish: Saul Alinsky, Gloria Steinam, Harvey Milk and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. 

Jews have become so skilled at organizing to fight the “big man,” because far too often in our history, the “big man” has organized to fight us — and won, with devastating consequences.

Sen. Winnie Brinks (D-Grand Rapids) speaks at the Michigan Democratic Jewish Caucus West Michigan Kickoff in Grand Rapids on Aug. 27 | Caucus photo

While Michigan’s almost 100,000-strong Jewish community is largely politically engaged and liberal, our communal organizations have yet to mobilize Michigan’s Jews to vote in elections, support political candidates, and fight anti-Semitism on an explicitly partisan platform. Until now.

In March, I launched the Michigan Democratic Jewish Caucus — a grassroots political organization representing Michigan’s Jewish community within the Democratic Party, organizing to combat anti-Semitism, recruit and train Jewish Democrats to run for office and elect Democratic candidates. In doing so, we strive to build a better, stronger and fairer Michigan. 

The idea for a Jewish Caucus first occurred to me after the 2016 election. But in the two intervening years, a number of disturbing events convinced me that Michigan’s Jewish Democrats critically needed a platform to organize collectively.

Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh after the October 2018 shooting | Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf photo, Flickr

There was Charlottesville, where neo-Nazis raged that “Jews will not replace us!” After that was the heart-stopping horror of Pittsburgh, where a far-right terrorist violated the sanctity of a synagogue and murdered 11 Jews on Shabbat. 

Each of these events was heartbreaking and terrifying, but not shocking or surprising. We anticipate virulent anti-Semitism on the far-right, and we should expect it to explode under a demagogue president like Donald Trump who exploits hatred for his own gain. 

What I did not anticipate was the level of vitriol on the left.

First came the rampant anti-Semitism within the Women’s March, ostracizing Jewish activists from a progressive movement that viewed us as somehow part of the problem. Then came a series of ignorant remarks by U.S. Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit) — from Omar’s “all about the Benjamins” tweet, insinuating that Jewish money held sway over support for Israel in Congress to Tlaib’s ahistorical “calming feeling” remarks about the Holocaust — which many in the Jewish community found offensive or anti-Semitic.

U.S. Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) and Ilhan Omar (D-MN) listen during a news conference at the U.S. Capitol on July 15, 2019 in Washington, DC. | Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images

While I found these statements to be offensive, what disturbed me far more was how so many on the far-left closed ranks so quickly around the congresswomen, dismissing any criticisms made by Jews around the country as disingenuous, made in bad faith — or even Islamophobic.

Indeed, observing leaders like U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), always trusted allies of the Jewish community, concede that deeply offensive point-of-view shook me to my core. 

The point at issue over the congresswomen’s remarks was never legitimate criticism of Israel, because few American Jews truly believe that all criticism of Israel is reflexively anti-Semitic (it is not). Rather, the issue was that Omar, in particular, crossed the line from legitimate criticism to outright anti-Semitism. 

Not unsurprisingly, many American Jews began to consider whether the Democratic Party would continue to be our community’s natural political home even as it shifts leftward. My fear was the answer could lie in the disturbing example of the British Labour Party, whose hard-left pivot in recent years has been accompanied by vitriolic anti-Semitism, leading to hate crime investigations and a mass exodus of British Jews from Labour.

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To be clear, the anti-Semitism in the Republican mainstream is far worse than anything seen on the Democratic fringe. We must be clear about those Republicans, led by Trump, who seek to mask their intolerance, xenophobia and racism behind concern for Israel’s security or the sanctity of the Holocaust. 

American Jews want no part in that ugly charade — not while Republicans nominate an open anti-Semite for Virginia’s U.S. Senate seat; while the president deems Jews “disloyal” for voting for Democrats and fails to denounce Nazis in Charlottesville; and while his campaign airs a cartoonishly anti-Semitic ad invoking a global conspiracy of Jewish financial elites including Janet Yellen and George Soros.

And so, with Trump exploiting Democratic divisions over anti-Semitism and Israel, I knew it was time to launch the Michigan Democratic Jewish Caucus. What started as a simple Facebook page has in just six months become a robust political organization with hundreds of active members, hosting events with many of Michigan’s leading Democrats.

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And in a state where just a couple thousand votes can make all the difference, mobilizing Jewish Democrats has never been more critical. But Michigan Democrats must demonstrate that they hear Jewish concerns and actively work to fight anti-Semitism. Our caucus will provide a vital forum for Jewish voters to share their concerns with elected officials and candidates, and thereby ensure an MDP more responsive to Michigan’s Jewish community.

As the 2020 election draws closer, the words of the great Rabbi Hillel come to mind: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” 

I am struck by how Hillel’s ancient adage, which is rooted so deeply at the heart of Jewish identity and Jewish values also represents the best of what it means to be a Democrat, and indeed what it means to be an American. 

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Because as Jews, we believe in “tikkun olam,” our duty to repair the world. And as Democrats, we believe that our own interests are served when our fellow Americans have access to the rights and liberties that enable them to go as far as their talents and ambitions will take them. 

And it is these values, both Jewish and Democratic, which will bring us together as a community, and which will carry us forward to victory — in 2020 and beyond.

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