An Orthodox Teenager Is Running The Most Unorthodox Presidential Campaign
The 2020 presidential race is only a few months underway and has already seen many firsts among its major candidates, including the first Asian-American, Hindu and openly gay contenders.
It’s also the first race where a serious candidate’s campaign manager is a teenager – let alone a teenager who’s equally comfortable quoting classic “Simpsons” episodes as the Israeli philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz.
That serious candidate is 89-year-old former senator Mike Gravel of Alaska, and his 18-year-old campaign manager is high school senior David Oks – though whether both are really “serious” about their run depends on how you look at things.
Powered largely by viral tweets (often mocking the other candidates) written by Oks and his friend and chief of staff, college freshman Henry Williams (who is not Jewish), Gravel is now close to qualifying for next month’s Democratic debates by hitting the party’s benchmarks – 65,000 individual donors by June 12, or hitting at least 1% in three major polls.
At first, they just wanted Gravel to run so he could perform the same function he did in his longshot 2008 campaign – yell at the other candidates on stage and push them as far left as possible, especially on an anti-war foreign policy.
But at this point, nobody can rule anything out when it comes to election outcomes.
“We’re running to win, of course, but we don’t expect to win,” Oks told the Forward. “I don’t think Mike expects to become president – it would probably be a hitch in some of his plans.”
But earning enough donations and poll support to get him on the debate stage, he explained, would allow Gravel to “put forth criticism of war and the military industrial complex, and even domestic policy, that hasn’t been seen in many decades, even more radical than Bernie.”
Gravel has an obscure but important place in the history of American leftism – in 1971, he read the Pentagon Papers into the Congressional Record, giving the press more leeway to report on the summary of the Vietnam War’s failings while the Nixon Administration was suing the New York Times to prevent their publication.
But Gravel had largely disappeared from the political scene after his 1980 reelection loss until 2008, when he ran for president on a platform of immediate withdrawal from Iraq, campaign finance reform and a single-payer healthcare system – all things that Barack Obama and the other candidates thought were extreme or outside the realm of possibility, but now have much broader support. In the few debates he was invited to, Gravel was unsparing in his criticisms, saying that Obama, Joe Biden and Hillary Rodham Clinton “frighten me” with their hawkishness.
Oks and Williams learned about Gravel earlier this year from the leftist podcast “Chapo Trap House.” They wrote him a memo urging him to run for president, or at least run for the debates, where he could push candidates to the left and make an unabashed anti-interventionist case to the viewing audience. Best of all, the retiree wouldn’t have to travel – it would be a viral campaign conducted almost solely over social media.
Where does Oks find the time? “You’d think it would be more difficult, but it’s not too hard to make it work….because I’m a second-semester senior,” he said.
The duo had political experience, of a sort – Oks ran last year for mayor of his hometown of Ardsley, in New York’s Westchester County, and Williams was his chief of staff. “I keep getting more ambitious with these failed plans,” Oks said.
The presidential candidates have largely been civil towards each other. Not Gravel – or at least, not Oks, who usually runs Gravel’s Twitter account (except on Shabbat).
Compared to President Trump, Biden is a “slightly older, slightly nicer authoritarian moron.” South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg “is what you get when [fictional serial killer] Patrick Bateman decides to pursue politics instead of banking.” Reps. Eric Swalwell and Seth Moulton “know they’re not gonna win. They’re running to raise their speaking fees.” And those are the tweets they didn’t delete after Gravel complained to them that they were being too mean.
It’s rare that we’ve faced problems as large as those we face today. And it’s rare that we find someone as hilariously ill-equipped to handle them as Joe Biden.
— Mike Gravel (@MikeGravel) May 10, 2019
But the campaign is no less outspoken when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – in fact, Gravel (or “Gravel”) has likely made the most statements about the Middle East out of all the candidates. “We cannot support a right-wing racist regime committed to annexation and gradual ethnic cleansing,” they tweeted on May 6. “Long live Palestine!” went a message on the previous day. The Israel policies on Gravel’s campaign website, which include ending military aid to Israel, can be found at mikegravel.org/issues/netanyahusucks/.
Oks himself said that U.S. foreign policy toward Israel “has been used to serve a project of very soft ethnic cleansing.”
“It’s important to Gravel because he’s always sympathized with oppressed people all over the world,” he explained. “For me, it’s important because I’ve seen Judaism, something I care very deeply about, become deformed into this monstrous justification for the Bibi Netanyahu government, and I think that if Israel continues doing these really atrocious things in Gaza and the West Bank, then global Jewry are going to be indelibly haunted by them.”
Oks, a senior at a private school called the Masters School who is bound for Oxford University in the fall, grew up in a family of socialist Argentinian Jewish immigrants. Their religious practices were “between Reconstructionist and Conservative,” but Oks himself has been transitioning towards Modern Orthodox Judaism, which he says has also inspired his views on Israel. Most Modern Orthodox Jews are hawkish on Israel, but Oks has been influenced by Leibowitz, who retained his Orthodoxy but said that Israeli soldiers serving in the West Bank were becoming “Judeo-Nazis.”
Oks has even used Gravel’s account to promote Leibowitz’s thoughts.
The soft linguistic genocide of “no such thing as Palestine” has its roots in the racist ideology of Meir Kahane, and for someone to spout it is profoundly un-Jewish. Read Yeshayahu Leibowitz – don’t sacrifice your morals and faith to support an evil government
— Mike Gravel (@MikeGravel) May 7, 2019
Oks is also an alumnus of the Bronfman Fellowship, the prestigious scholarship and leadership-training program for American Jewish high schoolers that includes a five-week stint in Israel. Many of the other fellows aren’t happy with him and the Gravel campaign’s statements on Israel, Oks said. The Bronfman Fellowship declined to respond to a request for comment.
In general, the campaign’s outspoken approach seems to be working – they say they’re around halfway to the 65,000-donor mark, and at various points have outpolled 15 of the other candidates, including ones presumed to be “top-tier” like Sens. Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand (though usually their victories come when they poll at 1% and opponents poll at zero).
The biggest challenges have been informing would-be donors of the campaign’s existence, and then convincing them that the campaign is actually serious – and that Gravel’s angry-debate strategy wouldn’t discredit the efforts of Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren to appeal to the majority with similar, though usually less extreme, policies.
Another worry about legitimizing Gravel by helping him go to the debates: As the Jewish Worker recounted, Gravel is a 9/11 conspiracy theorist, and his travels in those circles led him to speak on panels and appear on podcasts with Holocaust deniers and anti-Semites who share his skepticism about the 2001 attacks. The Gravel campaign has apologized, disavowed anti-Semitism, and said Gravel didn’t know the extent of his interlocutors’ beliefs.
“I believe the official story on 9/11,” Oks said. “I never thought I’d have to say that….But if I suspected that he was an anti-Semite, I wouldn’t be working for him. And I’ve always been very clear with him that I’m Jewish.”
“It’s a dumb error, but better than voting for the Iraq War,” he added.
Gravel has less than a month to reach the 65,000-donor minimum to qualify for the debates. Oks gave the campaign a 50-50 shot at reaching it.
Oks admitted that it was a “hackneyed argument,” but argued that Jews ought to support the Gravel campaign, at least through the debates: “If you believe in the traditional Jewish values of Tikkun Olam, and you believe in ‘beating swords into plowshares’…Having a massive military that patrols the world and every week bombs a Yemeni wedding — if you think that’s morally egregious, you should support someone who’s going to say that on the Democratic debate stage, and put forth a critique of a society that is morally dubious.”
“I’m a religious person,” Oks said, “and I like to think that everything I do flows out of my Judaism.”
Contact Aiden Pink at [email protected] or on Twitter at @aidenpink.