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Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Mike Bloomberg Brings a Biblical Fire to JCC Rally. But the Crowd Wants Details.

AVENTURA, Fla. (JTA) — Like the biblical Moses, Mike Bloomberg spoke to the Jews in grandiose terms, declaring that the nation was in peril and needed to be saved.

Bloomberg, however, was speaking at a Jewish community center in this Miami suburb to an audience of about 800 people seated on white folding chairs. And his message was that during this moment of national danger, Jewish Americans could help the United States rededicate itself to the rule of law — by electing Bloomberg over President Donald Trump.

“The Bible — and our history — teaches that there will always be a pharaoh who knows not Joseph,” the former New York mayor and billionaire media mogul said at the emotional height of his speech. “And in those times – in all times – we must depend on the rule of law and the guarantee that all of us are equal before it.”

His followers, wearing shirts emblazoned in Hebrew with “Mishpucha for Mike” or “Mike 2020,” ate up his words as eagerly as they picked at fresh-baked rugelach off small paper plates.

But they also wanted more — well, manna: What was Bloomberg’s economic message? How does he reach folks who are suffering in the heartland and voted for Donald Trump in 2016?

“This election is going to be campaigned by Republicans on the economy,” said Debbie Picker, who said she was pleased when Bloomberg announced his late entry into the race in November — but was frustrated at the lack of detail in his speech. “It’s important to remember that if you want to win.”

In chats with about a dozen supporters before the event started, the economy was the first thing that came up. The attendees did not highlight Bloomberg’s Jewishness, even though the event was held at the Aventura Turnberry Jewish Center.

Martin Rubenstein, a housing consultant, said he was “not thrilled” with the left-leaning Democratic candidates in the race like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren because they had not adequately explained how much their proposed health care overhauls would cost.

“I don’t know much about his policies,” Rubenstein said of Bloomberg. “I came because I want to know more.”

Sylvia Rosenwasser, 69, a Cuba native, said she was primarily there to see what Bloomberg had to say about preserving capitalism. Sanders’ purported socialism, she said, “makes my hair stand on end. I don’t want to lose another country.”

Instead of details, supporters heard soaring rhetoric and dire warnings about the dangers Trump posed to America. Abigail Pogrebin, the author who is his director of Jewish outreach, set the tone by implying that Trump’s presidency may have been friendly to the Jewish community — but not others.

Bloomberg, she said, is making “a promise to protect not only the Jewish people but every person who has felt prejudice shake the ground beneath them.”

It was a theme that Bloomberg picked up and delivered with a vengeance. He especially targeted right-wing Jews who favor Trump because of his substantive changes to U.S.-Israel policy and his closeness with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Bloomberg in essence accused right-wing Jews of seeking the favors of a king rather than the protections of the Constitution.

“The United States – like Israel – is an expression of our deepest values,” he said. “And throughout our history, we have seen that the best guarantee of safety in this country is the rule of law, not proximity to the throne of the powerful.”

Bloomberg rolls out his Jewish campaign at a JCC in Aventura, Jan. 26, 2020. (Ron Kampeas)

Bloomberg said Trump posed a danger due to his divisive rhetoric and abusive policies — and implied that Jews were well placed to broadcast that warning to other Americans.

“When children are ripped from mothers at the border because their skin is darker, or when immigrants are denied entrance based on their religion or nationality, we hear history’s dark echoes – while others hear a dog whistle and become emboldened and empowered,” he said.

It was a message that resonated. Bloomberg earned his biggest and longest cheers when he said, “To me, there is no such thing as a ‘very fine’ white supremacist. I choose inclusion. I choose tolerance. I choose America.”

The reference was to Trump’s equivocations in condemning white supremacists following a deadly neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017.

Bloomberg said there was anti-Semitism on the right and the left, but Trump’s position of power made him the more potent threat.

Bloomberg’s hyper-Jewish messaging was notable at a time that another Jewish candidate, Sanders, also is emphasizing his background. Bloomberg once famously said he did not believe a Jew could win the presidency. Phil Levine, a former Miami Beach mayor, said that thinking was out of date, and just as African-Americans overcame similar skepticism to vote for Barack Obama, so, too, should Jews turn out for Bloomberg.

“We need as Jews to get that thought out of our mind!” Levine said. “A Jew can become president!”

Bloomberg twice referenced to the week’s Torah portion, which includes the account of the 10 plagues. Another speaker was Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, a best-selling writer on Jewish thought, who noted (as Bloomberg did multiple times) that the former mayor had visited Israel at the height of the 2014 war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Even Bloomberg’s digs at Sanders were Jewish.

“I’m not the only Jewish candidate running for president,” he said. “But I am the only one who doesn’t want to turn America into a kibbutz.”

Bloomberg also jabbed at Sanders’ attacks on Netanyahu and his pledge to leverage aid to pressure Israel into concessions.

“I will never impose conditions on our military aid, including missile defense – no matter who is prime minister,” he said.

(All but one or two at the rally who spoke to JTA said they would vote for any of the Democratic nominees.)

Bloomberg’s ad blitz since he launched his campaign in November has purchased results: He is not in the lead, but is a distant fourth in some polls, which is notable for a late entrant. His ads emphasize his generosity, particularly in pushing back against the gun rights movement, and his record as a jobs creator as CEO of a media empire and then as New York mayor. He is paying $10 million to run an ad during the Super Bowl, a gambit that reportedly has spooked Trump.

Those who attended the JCC rally appreciated the messaging but also expressed concern that Bloomberg needed to do more to get into the field and press flesh like other candidates. A hefty portion of the room was very much like Bloomberg — in their 70s, trim and healthy, outspoken and still gainfully employed, and mindful of the nuts and bolts of getting a job done. Some expressed disappointment that he did not take questions. Instead, following a brief interaction with voters, his handlers hustled him off the stage.

“He’s got to get out!” said Adelaide Schiff, 77, a retired jewelry store owner.

Bloomberg, she said, could make an impact in middle America because “he doesn’t talk down to people. He comes alive.”

“Can he resonate with the red counties?” asked David Gray, 53, a publishing CEO. “How is he engaging?”

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