wolverine politics

Noah Arbit wants to bring Jewish values to the Michigan statehouse

The 25-year-old Democrat from West Bloomfield, a seasoned community organizer, is stressing issues that go beyond Israel

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Noah Arbit

Noah Arbit founded the Michigan Democratic Jewish Caucus in 2019 with a goal of increasing Jewish representation in state and local politics. 

Now, the 25-year-old community organizer and Michigan native is mounting his own bid for public office. Late last month, Arbit, 25, announced his candidacy in the open-seat race to represent Michigan’s 39th state House district, which includes his hometown of West Bloomfield.

“I have spent the past two-and-a-half years mobilizing and empowering the Jewish community to get involved in politics in a way that was unprecedented in Michigan,” Arbit said in a recent conversation with Jewish Insider. “I think I’ve set myself up to be successful.”

If elected, Arbit would join a long list of Jewish politicians in the state, including former Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) as well as Reps. Andy Levin (D-MI) and Elissa Slotkin (D-MI).

In the interview, Arbit discussed his path forward in the red-leaning district, how Jewish values inform his campaign and why Yom Kippur is particularly meaningful for him this year as a first-time candidate.

The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Jewish Insider: Why are you running now?

Noah Arbit: I have lived in Michigan all my life. I’ve been a staffer for Hillary Clinton’s campaign in Michigan. That was my first political job. I worked for [Democratic] Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s campaign in 2018. I was on staff at the legislature for a while. Then I founded the Michigan Democratic Jewish Caucus in 2019. And I currently serve in my day job as director of communications for the Oakland County prosecutor’s office.

In my various roles, I feel like I’ve helped lead the fight against hatred and extremism in Michigan — whether it has been working for Gov. Whitmer, empowering the Jewish community as chair of the Michigan Jewish Democrats or at the Oakland County prosecutor’s office. I’ve loved all of those jobs, and I could be just as happy continuing to work as a staffer and as chair of the Michigan Jewish Democrats. But I’ve really watched and seen how political violence, conspiracy theories and hate crimes are rising in Michigan and across the country, and I really felt compelled to do something about it.

We’ve seen state legislators across the country who have acted in bad faith to undermine democracy. It’s crazy that I’ve had to say it, but I will never vote to overturn the votes of my fellow Michiganders if I’m elected because I believe in democracy. That’s such a low bar for an elected official, but unfortunately, so many have failed to clear it, including right here in Michigan. I really believe that good governance has to start with electing better people — people who care about their communities far more than they care about the title. We haven’t had that representation in my hometown for a long time. I’m running to remedy that. 

Noah Arbit

JI: How do you see a pathway to victory, particularly with upcoming redistricting?

Arbit: This is the bread and butter for this race because redistricting is really the end-all-be-all for my path to victory. This House district, as it currently stands, is a Republican district. It was the number-one targeted seat by both parties in 2020 and the most expensive race in Michigan. Democrats lost it narrowly. But the thing is that these lines were drawn in such a way as to ensure that a Democrat couldn’t win. My hometown, West Bloomfield Township, is unique because it’s one of those traditionally purple, highly educated, upper-middle-class suburban towns that zoomed left in the Trump era and really sort of hit the high watermark in the 2018 election when it powered Democratic victories up and down the ticket. 

Importantly, it’s home to the greatest proportion of Jews in the entire state of Michigan. It’s 25% Jewish, and when you talk about the electorate, it’s probably closer to 40%. It’s incredibly diverse beyond the Jewish community as well. We have a huge Iraqi Christian Chaldean community and Black community… The Muslim community is very large. There’s a very active Asian community. We have the largest community of Japanese Americans in Michigan. 

What’s interesting is, we talk a lot about racial gerrymandering to dilute the Black vote or to dilute the Latino vote or the Asian vote in certain places. The last redistricting cycle, the GOP legislature was in full control of the process and really drew some crazy lines. They actually deliberately drew the state legislative and congressional districts in such a way as to dilute and gerrymander the Jewish vote. I don’t know of any other example in the country where that has happened. They split West Bloomfield in half down the middle and really divided this town in a way that’s kind of unlike any other place in Michigan. This is something I’ve been very vocal about before I even decided to run. I knew that my hometown had been cracked in half. I really think that it has inhibited collective political action in my community and sort of stunted the development of a collective political identity.

JI: What does that mean for your candidacy?

Arbit: Michigan has a new redistricting process that was passed by ballot initiative in 2018, where we set up an independent citizens’ redistricting commission. So we have the opportunity to reverse that punitive, partisan gerrymander that deliberately disempowered the Jewish community. Hopefully we’ll have a district that is actually fair and representative of the community I’m from. I think that is the pathway to victory.

I’m excited about the prospect of my community having true representation again, and I hope the voters in the community will think that I’m the best candidate. We should at least find out the draft lines of what the commission is thinking in the next couple of weeks. But it’s such an obvious gerrymander. All the redistricting experts are looking at West Bloomfield. Obviously, my run is a little bit of a leap of faith to say that they’re going to put it back together. But regardless of my candidacy, I think it would be an egregious dereliction of duty if they do not.

JI: Do you expect to garner wide support from the Jewish community no matter how the district is redrawn?

Arbit: Yes. I have spent the past two-and-a-half years mobilizing and empowering the Jewish community to get involved in politics in a way that was unprecedented in Michigan and unprecedented in a lot of different states. We raised more money than any other similarly situated state-level Jewish Democratic organization in the country. We’re by no means the largest community, but we are involved. When I worked in the legislature, there was no political platform for the Jewish community to get involved with candidates. That’s because most of our institutions are nonpartisan, and, of course, that’s important. But there was a gap within the party where Jewish voices weren’t being represented. I don’t know that I’ll ever have a job that I’ll enjoy as much as doing that. My politics are incredibly informed by my Judaism.

Of course, as a candidate, I’m not just representing the Jewish community. I believe there are some people in politics whose faith governs everything, and they try to impose their faith on others. Part of what I have tried to do is put a new face on faith in politics, particularly in the Democratic Party. So often, I believe that the way Republicans approach faith is very much as a cudgel against other people. That’s unfortunate. But my Jewishness is about the values that my faith, my community, my culture, my heritage teach me.

I wouldn’t want to run anywhere else. I’m doing this because this is my community. I’ve organized in this community for years. I think I’ve set myself up to be successful, and of course, I take no vote for granted, Jewish community or otherwise. I’m excited about the prospect of giving a voice to the Jewish community in the legislature while, of course, also giving voice to my entire wider community. 

JI: What are the Jewish values that resonate with you?

Arbit: Everyone talks about tikkun olam and repairing the world, and I feel like I’m running to repair my little small corner of the world. The gerrymander has literally ripped my community apart. But I really think about how my great-grandparents came from Hungary and Poland and Belarus and Ukraine. They came escaping antisemitism in the early 1900s. They didn’t experience any pogroms, but it was something that I know compelled them to leave. I think about how they ended up in Detroit, which was really like the engine of the world at that time. What a hopeful existence to have to leave the place that you knew because it was no longer safe for you and coming to this roaring, exciting place that was powering the world and doing so much for so many. 

We’ve lost that, and we have to get back to that. I think about the grit and determination of my great-grandparents, who were market vendors and shop owners, and how they worked so hard and probably got spat at and their English wasn’t good. Now here I am, a candidate for the state legislature. It really is l’dor v’dor, an unbroken chain of service and of giving back and of building something better for the next generation.

JI: Have you been on the receiving end of any antisemitic attacks during your time in politics?

Arbit: It’s funny because sometimes I don’t even think about it. I’ve received a number of hateful, grotesque emails that are not only targeting me being a Jew but also being gay. Certainly there’s been a lot of hate mail coming my way, but also on Twitter. Back when I was working for Hillary, I got comments like, “Oh, you should have gone to the gas chamber with the rest of your people.” I think the biggest thing that I am concerned about is not ad hominem attacks. I could talk a blue streak about antisemitism on the far right and far left. 

But part of starting the Jewish caucus was always about how I can help my side of the political aisle better understand Jewish issues and have a cultural competency to talk about Jewish issues. I am so sick of politicians getting in front of Jewish audiences and saying, “I support Israel,” or “I don’t support [the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement targeting Israel],” and suddenly that’s enough for you to get the Jewish vote. That doesn’t cut it anymore. Not now, not for me, and certainly not for a lot of people in my generation. It’s not that we don’t care about Israel. But that is a very puerile way of trying to connect with Jewish voters. I have really been trying to push the envelope in trying to ensure, when we’re talking about these issues, that especially people on the left don’t get caught up in an antisemitic tropes and that Jews are just as worthy of protection and solidarity as all the other groups of people that the left cares about protecting. I care deeply about that.

One of the tangible reasons I’m running is to rewrite Michigan’s hate crimes law, which is woefully inadequate and just so antiquated and not fit for what we’ve seen over the past four-plus years of rising hate crimes. We have an insufficient reporting infrastructure. In working in the prosecutor’s office, I’ve seen the tensions in that law. It’s just not on the level. The penalties are so low and the prosecutorial resources to prove a crime of bias are so hard that it’s almost not worth it. We need to make it more efficient and effective as a deterrent.

JI: You mentioned Israel and BDS. What can you do in the statehouse to effect policies with regard to those issues?

Arbit: There’s already a law in Michigan regarding BDS, so that’s not really a live issue. I’m really tired of people believing that Israel is the sole focus of Jews and politics and it’s the only issue that we care about. So the locus of my organizing work has always been about antisemitism and Jewish representation, not about Israel. It’s not because I don’t care or my community doesn’t care. Of course we do. I certainly am a progressive Zionist; that’s how I see myself. But it is essential that we model to the people who are listening — the politicians and the leaders and the candidates — that the Jewish community cares about so much more than that. 

So when I talk about the kind of Jewish legislator that I’m going to be, it’s going to be focusing on how I can advocate for funding for a lot of the communal services and organizations that serve not just Jews but the entire community, and how I can be a leader on combating antisemitism and hate crimes and extremism. I believe that Jews know when democracy falters, minority groups are among the first to be threatened. All of this is part and parcel with my identity as a Jew, and certainly also my identity in the LGBT community. 

We’re lucky in Michigan, because we have quite a number of Jewish elected officials, including our attorney general, Dana Nessel, who is also another gay Jew, and state Sen. Jeremy Moss, another gay Jew. So I’m very excited by the prospect of joining this caucus of three in Lansing. It’s amusing to me. But I think there’s something to be said about the values that are sort of inculcated in you in such a strong community as we find in Michigan and the metro Detroit area. That’s something I really care about and am interested in giving voice to.

JI: We’re talking on the eve of Yom Kippur. Is the holiday particularly meaningful for you this year as you mount your first bid for public office?

Arbit: I enjoy the High Holy Days immensely, and I was incredibly saddened last year to not be able to participate in the way that I usually do. Life is so complicated and moves so fast, and we hardly ever have time to reflect and consider and make amends and resolve to be better people. That’s something that I value so much about our tradition. It’s not confessional. We’re not about browbeating people for their sins. It’s about taking ownership for yourself and resolving to do better next year. 

Of course, there are mistakes that I’ve made and people that I’ve hurt and things that I’ve done that I’m not proud of. It is very surreal to me to be a candidate. Truthfully, it’s not something I ever dreamed about. To feel like I’m in this place after a long time of some hard things happening and going through some stuff, you get this opportunity with our tradition to look back and say, here’s how far I’ve come.

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