NEW YORK (JTA) — Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has said he is “seriously thinking of running for president,” and a lot of people aren’t happy about it.
Schultz, who stepped down as chairman of the coffee chain in June, is a lifelong Democrat but has said he would run as a “centrist independent.” That has many on the left worrying that he could split the vote and help re-elect President Donald Trump.
“He should stick to coffee,” Washington Democratic Rep. Pramila Jayapal joked.
Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who has announced her intentions to run for her party’s 2020 nomination, grouped Schultz with other “billionaires who think they can buy the presidency to keep the system rigged for themselves while opportunity slips away for everyone else.”
Plenty of non-politicians have excoriated the Jewish billionaire, too, like this guy who yelled at him during an event for Schultz’s new book in New York City.
Others think that Schultz, who has publicly lamented the polarization of the Democratic Party, has actually done Democrats a favor by warning them that there is still a large contingent of moderate voters who they shouldn’t neglect leading up to 2020.
Regardless of perspective, the potential for a Schultz campaign has shaken up the political landscape. The 65-year-old, who Forbes estimated last year has a net worth of approximately $2.9 billion, has an intriguing backstory, from growing up in a working-class household in Brooklyn to making Starbucks into the global giant it is today.
Asked “what effect” his Jewishness would have on a campaign, Schultz said that “I am not running as a Jew if I decide to run for president, I’m running as an American who happens to be Jewish.”
Still, there are more than a few interesting Jewish tidbits about the coffee magnate and possible presidential contender.
He was raised in a working-class Jewish family
Schultz grew up in federally subsidized housing in Brooklyn and his father, a World War II veteran, had a series of blue-collar jobs, including delivering cloth diapers. In a 2011 article for the Jewish website Aish, Shultz recalled coming home to find his father on the couch with a broken leg.
“He hated this job bitterly, but on this one day, he wished he had it back,” Schultz wrote. “In 1960 in America, most companies had no workers’ compensation and no hospitalization for a blue-collar worker who had an accident. I saw firsthand the plight of the working class.”
That experience influenced Shultz, who said that at Starbucks, “What I wanted to try to do was build a kind of company that my father never got a chance to work for.”
He had a transformative encounter with an Orthodox rabbi
In the Aish essay, Schultz recalled his meeting with the late Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel on a trip to Israel with a group of American businessmen. Finkel, who led the prominent Mir Yeshiva, asked the group what the lesson of the Holocaust was, but no one could come up with a satisfactory answer. The rabbi shared a story of Jews in a concentration camp that made a point related to Schultz’s business.
“As they went into the area to sleep, only one person was given a blanket for every six. The person who received the blanket, when he went to bed, had to decide, ‘Am I going to push the blanket to the five other people who did not get one, or am I going to pull it toward myself to stay warm?’
And Rabbi Finkel says, “It was during this defining moment that we learned the power of the human spirit because we pushed the blanket to five others.”
And with that he stood up and said, “Take your blanket. Take it back to America and push it to five other people.”
Talking to the rabbi clearly had a big impact on Schultz. In a 2015 article in The New York Times, he shared another anecdote from the meeting.
“A decade ago, I visited the Western Wall in Jerusalem with Nosson Tzvi Finkel, a widely respected rabbi in Israel. As we approached one of the holiest sites in Judaism, the rabbi halted about 10 yards away as a crowd of admirers gathered nearby. I beckoned him further.
“I’ve never been closer than this,” the rabbi told me. Astounded, I asked why.
“You go,” he said. “I’m not worthy.”
He received an award from Aish Hatorah
In 1998, Schultz traveled to Israel to receive the award from the Orthodox outreach group and met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Among his fellow honorees were then-Sen. Joe Biden and former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher. The Aish award is given to “men and women who have made dramatic contributions to American society and Jewish heritage.”
Starbucks once issued a statement saying Schultz does not donate to the Israeli government or army
In 2014, the company clarified that neither it nor Schultz provide financial support to the Israeli government or army. Starbucks spokesman Jim Olson told CNN that the company released the statement because there had been an “uptick in false rumors out there about Starbucks and the Middle East.” At the time, a campaign calling for a boycott of the coffee chain due to its support for “the occupation of Palestine” had gained more than 240,000 supporters, according to CNN.
It wasn’t the first time Schultz caught fire from pro-Palestinian activists. They have claimed his receiving the Aish award in Israel, as well as remarks he made at a Seattle synagogue in 2006 regarding the rise of anti-Semitism in the Middle East, show that he is anti-Palestinian.
Is Starbucks kosher? It depends on who you ask, and when
The question of whether kosher observers can enjoy Starbucks coffee isn’t a straightforward one to answer. Star-K used to keep a list of beverages that were “kosher friendly,” meaning the agency deemed them permissible to consume without actually certifying them as kosher. But in July, Star-K said it could no longer vouch for those products. The agency now provides a more limited list of kosher-friendly products.
The list also includes items from Teavana, the tea company that Starbucks acquired in 2012, although it deems that three of the items are only acceptable for people who are traveling. In 2013, Schultz indicated that the tea store would be certified kosher in the future. The clock apparently is still ticking on that one.
After the far-right rally in Charlottesville, Schultz spoke about being Jewish to his employees
Days after the violence in Virginia, where neo-Nazis and white nationalists gathered and clashed with counterprotesters in August 2017, Schultz held a meeting with Starbucks employees.
“I come to you as an American, as a Jew, as a parent, as a grandparent, as an almost 40-year partner of a company I love so dearly,” Schultz told them. “I come to you with profound, profound concern about the lack of character, morality, humanity and what this might mean for young children and young generations that are growing up at a time that we are imprinting them with behaviors and conduct that are beneath the United States of America.”
Starbucks came under fire for including a Jewish group in its diversity training
After a Starbucks employee at a Philadelphia shop called police on two black men and had them arrested last year, the company announced that it would launch a new diversity training program. Starbucks said it consulted five civil rights leaders, including Anti-Defamation League’s national director, Jonathan Greenblatt, to develop the anti-bias training.
The inclusion of Greenblatt drew criticism from the anti-Zionist group Jewish Voice for Peace and Women’s March organizer Tamika Mallory, who accused the ADL of “constantly attacking black and brown people.”