WASHINGTON — When Democrat Michael Bennet goes on the campaign trail, he often talks about his mother. That’s not unusual for a presidential candidate; they often invoke their family as an inspiration for getting into politics. But Bennet’s Jewish mother has a story that none of the other candidates’ mothers do.
A native of Poland, she was separated from her family as a young girl and survived the Holocaust. The experience, Bennet said, has made her acutely aware of the danger posed by US President Donald Trump.
“When I see these kids at the border, I see my mom, because I know she sees herself, because she was separated from her parents for years during the Holocaust in Poland,” Bennet said during the first Democratic debate in June.
In an interview Monday with The Times of Israel, the Colorado senator elaborated on how his mother views the parallels between her experience and that of immigrant children now in the United States.
“I think she’s mostly seen it at the separation of families at the border,” he said. “That’s a very personal thing for her. I wouldn’t want to overextend the analogy or the metaphor, but I think that’s where she really sees that. And I think she does see Trump as a tyrant.”
Susanne Bennet, 80, was born in 1938 in Warsaw, Poland, where her family owned a small art gallery. After the Nazi invasion, they had to separate to survive. (In 2012, she offered an oral history to the United States Holocaust museum.)
“My grandfather didn’t want to leave his family,” candidate Bennet said, “so my mom and her parents were split up during the war. My mom went out to a suburb of Warsaw and lived there. My grandmother lived with a convent of nuns and my grandfather hid underneath a candy manufacturer in Warsaw.”
The family was reunited after the war, and went on to live in Sweden and Mexico before settling in the United States in the 1950s.
Rarely did they discuss what happened to them, Bennet recalled.
“They seldom talked about their experience,” he said. “You could tell something terrible had happened. But only until later in life would my grandmother talk about it.”
That family history, Bennet said, has profoundly shaped his political outlook.
“I’ve never met people who were greater patriots than my grandparents were, and I really mean that,” he said. “America gave them a lot, and they gave a lot to America. And I think that’s the way this place is supposed to work.”
As a candidate he regularly touts his immigration bona fides — he was part of the “Gang of Eight” senators who wrote and shepherded an immigration reform bill in 2013 that passed the Senate but died in the House — as he tries to climb from the bottom of the polls. (He’s currently under one percent in most surveys)
“I know — notwithstanding our imperfections — how much the world looks to us as an example of pluralistic, democratic leadership in a world beset by sectarian hatreds and violence,” he said.
“We really remain a singular example. That’s why I find Trump so offensive, because he rejects the tradition of responsibility for the rest of the world, for living up to those democratic ideals,” Bennet said.
On US policy toward Israel
On Monday, Bennet appeared at J Street’s National Conference along with four other 2020 Democratic hopefuls.
While his main policy position vis-a-vis the conflict is in line with the liberal Mideast advocacy group’s — supportive of a two-state outcome — he differs from some of his 2020 rivals on tactics.
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has vowed to leverage US military aid to pressure Israel to roll back its settlement enterprise and enter peace talks with the Palestinians. South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg has floated the same possibility if Israel creeps closer toward annexing the West Bank settlements. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren has promised to work to end the occupation.
Bennet, on the other hand, wouldn’t go quite that far.
“I think what we’ve got to do is reassert the importance of there being a two-state solution and having the United States play whatever role is constructive to achieve that,” he said. “We’re living in an era where I recognize that there is not a domestic constituency in Israel, or in the Palestinian territories, for that solution. I hope that’s not a permanent state of things.”
He went on, “But I don’t think this is really about whether you are willing to use this lever or that lever so much as it is, I believe, about trying to forge a relationship between the American people and the Israeli people in our mutual self-interest and democratic impulses.
“In a post-Trump, post-Netanyahu era, I believe those impulses are very important. I would do everything I could as president to rebuild those bridges.”
Bennet suggested that cutting aid to Israel could ultimately backfire on an American president’s attempts to move Jerusalem closer to a peace deal.
“I’m not saying it would, but I’m saying it could,” he said. “I would want to make sure that whatever we’re doing was weakening the resolve of the elements trying to push for settlements, rather than strengthening their resolve. And I think that’s just realistic. I mean, I don’t want to be seen as overly pessimistic, but I think it’s important to take those things into account when you’re deciding what your policies are.”
Another priority, he said, would be to repair the relationship between Washington and Ramallah, which has deteriorated under the Trump administration.
Since Trump ordered the relocation of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in December 2017, the Palestinian Authority has refused to engage with the White House. In retaliation, Trump cut aid to the PA and the East Jerusalem hospital network, and shuttered the PLO’s compound in Washington.
“The United States is, I believe, in the end, the only one that’s going to be able to bring the parties together to forge a peace,” Bennet said. “It doesn’t when the Palestinians believe we’ve completely put the thumb on the scale for Israel, which is what they believe today.”
In the interview, Bennet also said he would seek to either reenter the Iran nuclear deal that Trump withdrew from, or bring Tehran and world powers back to the negotiating table to broker a new one.
“I think that it would be really important to put our allies in a room who helped negotiate that deal and see where it is they see the prospect for restarting it,” said Bennet, who voted for the landmark pact as a member of Congress in 2015. “And Iran would obviously want to weigh in as well.
“I think it’s unlikely that we could end up with an identical deal because times have changed, we’re further along in the calendar, but there’s no doubt in my mind that we would be better off having the parties sit down and negotiate and see if we can make progress,” he added. “There’s not a shred [of doubt] in my mind that the whole world would be better off if Donald Trump had never pulled the plug on the Iran deal.”