Jackie Headapohl | May 29, 2019
The Michigan Democratic Party has a new caucus, founded and chaired by Noah Arbit. The Michigan Democratic Jewish Caucus held its inaugural meeting May 1, attended by 80 people from ages 20-80 and from all streams of Judaism — secular, Reform, Conservative and Orthodox. House Democratic Leader Christine Greig (D-Farmington Hills) was the keynote speaker.
Arbit, 23, a member of Temple Israel, graduated from Wayne State University in 2018 with a degree in political science and Jewish studies. He cut his political chops working on the campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Gretchen Whitmer and was recently hired as a finance associate with Michigan House Democrats.
Arbit had been thinking of starting a Jewish caucus since 2017, when he first looked at a program for the Michigan Democratic Party convention. “I saw all kinds of caucuses but not one for Jews, which I thought was kind of strange,” he said. He sent out a few emails seeing if there was support, but the idea didn’t really go anywhere.
Fast forward to this year. “One thing that’s been very disturbing to me is the implosion of the British Labour Party and virulent anti-Semitism… to the point where Jewish members of parliament have left the party. It’s like watching a slow-moving car crash.”
For those not up on British politics, Britain’s Labour Party is led by Jeremy Corbyn, a man who considers Hamas and Hezbollah “friends,” who defended a luridly anti-Semitic mural in East London and laid a wreath at the gravesite of participants in the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, just to name a few. Eighty-five percent of British Jews consider Corbyn to be an anti-Semite; almost 40 percent say they would “seriously consider” leaving the country were he to be elected prime minister.
For Arbit, it’s an “aha” moment. “I was reading articles online from Jewish activists in the UK who warned Democrats to ‘nip anti-Semitism in the bud.’”
Elevating Jewish Voices
Anti-Semitism comes from the right and left, Arbit said. “I think we have higher expectations of Democrats because our party's entire ethos is supporting people who’ve been marginalized or oppressed. I learned from the UK that often progressive language can be used as a cudgel against Jews.”
Arbit said he would not presume to know what is in freshmen Democrat Ilhan Omar of Minnesota’s heart, but knows that she has invoked anti-Semitic tropes numerous times.
“I believe the comments she made were beyond disturbing and incredibly ill-judged, and I was among those very publicly upset by it,” he said. “The backlash to many prominent Jewish peoples’ criticism of Rep. Omar’s statements was even more disturbing to me and was ultimately what crystallized to me that what was occurring was indicative of a more systemic issue that could only be rectified by elevating Jewish voices and concerns in the Democratic Party.”
Because Democrats refused to rebuke Omar personally, Republicans began calling Democrats anti-Semitic. “For me, it’s important to say that we’re not,” Arbit said. He wondered whose responsibility it was to teach Democrats what anti-Semitism really is. His answer: the Michigan Democratic Jewish Caucus.
Arbit is awaiting the official charter for the caucus from party officials. “The caucus will be a conduit for party leadership and elected officials to receive input from us as Jewish constituents and will help elevate issues of concern to us,” he said. “As a consequence of the charter, our leadership team will become party to regular communications with Michigan Democratic Party leadership. Additionally, we will be provided a space to rally with elected leaders and party activists at the next state party convention in 2021, which will bolster the strength of the caucus as a whole.”
According to Michigan Democratic Party Chair Lavora Barnes: “Michigan’s Jewish community has long been a powerful voice for justice, equality and progress — both as a people and as part of the progressive movement in our state. The formation of a Michigan Democratic Party Jewish Caucus gives us a strong partner within our organization and a stronger voice statewide for the social, political and cultural concerns of our state’s Jewish community.”
At the May 1 meeting, Arbit invited attendees to say why they wanted to be part of the caucus. Some mentioned their concerns about a rise in hate, especially anti-Semitism, since President Donald Trump’s election. Some wanted to take action because of their fears for the kind of world their children and grandchildren will inherit. Most of the statements were met with applause.
Annual member dues were set at $36 and Arbit invited everyone to sign up for a work committee; four are available: finance, political, membership and outreach, and events.
“We intend this to be a working group,” said Arbit, who added he hopes to work with the ADL to put on a training for the caucus about anti-Semitism.
The caucus’s first fundraiser will be on July 28 and will feature Congresswoman Elissa Slotkin. Arbit also invites allies to follow their Facebook page (facebook.com/MIJewishDems).
“Fighting for the election of more Democrats is important to our vision, as is the opportunity to give Jewish Michiganders a greater voice within the party,” Arbit said. “We hope to raise enough money to hold a series of town halls with candidates about issues that matter to the Jewish community.”