Jewish combat veteran, husband of a rabbi running for Senate in Tennessee

James Mackler, 47, an attorney who still serves in the National Guard, is a longshot.

James Mackler and supporters; Chattanooga Tennessee (photo credit: COURTESY/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS/JTA)
James Mackler and supporters; Chattanooga Tennessee
(photo credit: COURTESY/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS/JTA)
WASHINGTON (JTA) — James Mackler, a Jewish veteran who flew Black Hawk helicopters in combat in Iraq, wears his faith on his sleeve in his bid as a Democrat to win the open Senate seat in Tennessee.
Mackler, 47, an attorney who still serves in the National Guard, is a longshot, but his campaign intrigued me: He is just the latest in a proliferation of Jewish veterans transitioning to politics.
Some background: In November 2017, Tzipi Hotovely, then Israel’s deputy foreign minister, precipitated a storm of outrage when she told an interviewer that American Jews are “people that never send their children to fight for their country.”
She clearly didn’t know about the organization called Jewish War Veterans, or about Gen. David Lee Goldfein, who was then and is now the US Air Force chief of staff. Hotovely apologized.
At the time of Hotovely’s claim, the 2018 congressional race was well underway. There was a Jewish veteran in Congress, New York Republican Lee Zeldin. Two veterans running as Democrats, Max Rose of New York and Elaine Luria of Virginia, would go on to win. So would Elissa Slotkin, a Democrat and CIA alumnus. Jason Kander, a veteran and a Democrat, had nearly ousted Sen. Roy Blunt in ruby red Missouri in 2016. In one of his ads, Kander dismantled and reassembled an assault rifle blindfolded. Jewish veterans had also featured in the 2018 cycle in primary races in Virginia and West Virginia. Jews in the US military say they constantly have to deal with the misimpression that Jews don’t serve at all or underserve. (Numbers are hard to come by, but estimates suggest that Jews serve in slightly greater proportions than their overall representation in the population.)
I wondered if the Jewish veterans running for office were driven in part by a “we’re here” impulse and the frustration with how the myth of Jewish non-service is so potent that it is embraced even by a prominent Israeli politician.
The first thing you see on Mackler’s campaign page is this declaration: “I am a husband, a father, a man of faith, and a military officer.”
This is what he recently told The Tennessean, the preeminent newspaper in the state, about how he met his wife: “After combat in Iraq I really wanted to reconnect with the faith of my childhood.” His wife, Shana Goldstein, is a rabbi at Nashville’s The Temple.
On Wednesday, I spoke with Mackler and asked him about why he thought he would be able to wrest a Senate seat from the Republicans given the trouncing of a popular former Democratic governor, Phil Bredesen, in 2018, and what it was like being a rabbi’s husband. Here are some excerpts.
On a Democrat winning in Tennessee: Bredesen lost to Marsha Blackburn, a favorite of President Donald Trump, 56% to 44%. That fact alone would seem daunting enough. A poll in February shows Mackler trailing his likely Republican challenger, Bill Hagerty, 55% to 33%. Hagerty, until last year the US ambassador to Japan, has Trump’s endorsement. (There are literally dozens of candidates in the race, but the local media are betting it will be a Mackler-Hagerty faceoff after the Aug. 6 primaries.) Mackler has raised a respectable $1.6 million, but well off the $7.1 million brought in by Hagerty.
Mackler, who has Bredesen’s endorsement, says that turnout in a presidential election, as well as the economy and the collapse of health care, will help him make up the margin of Bredesen’s defeat.
“I need six points more in a presidential year when we know that voter turnout is going to be at high tide,” he said. “In fact, few people know this but Super Tuesday, our presidential primary, Democratic turnout was up by 40% from the last presidential primary.
“Things are not getting better in Tennessee. We lead the nation in rural hospital closures per person. [Mackler launched his campaign in January 2019 at a closed rural hospital.] We have an opioid epidemic that’s ravaging our communities. There’s no national solution to that. The trade war hurts Tennessee’s economy more than any other state.”
Talking (Jewish) faith is a net positive in Tennessee: “As I travel the state, most Tennesseans want to know about faith. [He hopes to visit all 95 counties, coronavirus notwithstanding.] They want to know that I’m comfortable talking about how my faith guides me. And for the most part, the vast majority of Tennesseeans are open and welcoming, and are very much willing to have discussions about faith and want someone like me who’s a person of faith.”
He would be happy if other Jews followed in his footsteps: “What I really want to model is service. It’s not a matter of even whether it’s political service or whether it’s military service. … If I can inspire young Jewish leaders, but really people of all faiths to serve, and then introduce legislation to help incentivize that service, I’ll be proud of that accomplishment.”
He is staunchly pro-Israel: I asked Mackler about the Bernie Sanders proposal of withholding aid to Israel to influence policy. Mackler, who skews moderate on a range of issues, including health care reform and gun control, comes down in that column on the Israel issue as well. “I think we have, the United States has, a multitude of instruments of power to influence our relationships with other countries, but something like the aid that we’ve been providing to Israel is so extraordinarily important,” he said. “There are other ways through our diplomatic channels to influence Israel’s actions and we should use those.”
His military service spurred his reconnection with his faith: Mackler tells a familiar American Jewish story: He lost interest in Judaism after his bar mitzvah. He also tells a familiar American recruitment story: He was spurred to enlist by the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In Iraq, he said, “I became a lot more aware of my faith. I felt like the only Jew in the entire country, which wasn’t absolutely true but was close to it. I was really moved by the interests of my brothers and sisters in arms in my faith, and we had some really interesting discussions about that, particularly around the holidays. So the whole experience made me more aware of being Jewish much more than I had been really previously.”
And led him to his current role as a rabbi’s husband: “So when I came back, I decided I was going to go visit the nearest congregation, which turned out to be the Reform congregation down in Nashville. I was stationed at Fort Campbell, about 45 minutes away. I showed up on Simchat Torah. There was a dinner afterward, and so the membership coordinator sat me at the rabbi’s table. Shana Goldstein at the time had been there a couple of years and was wondering how she’s going to meet a nice Jewish boy in Tennessee. And I walked in straight from Iraq and my combat deployment. We went out several times — she thought she was showing the new congregant around town, but I knew we were dating.”
His role as the rabbi’s husband has been elevated by the coronavirus: “I’ve certainly been helping with the virtual services we’ve been doing. But that means mostly keeping the dogs and the kids quiet and enabling her to do services and help the congregation.”
But don’t ask him about Pirkei Avot: “And if there’s one thing I hear all the time, it’s from people telling me ‘Yeah, you seem like a person of integrity, the best of intentions, but Washington is broken and you’re not going to be able to fix it.’ My response has always been the fact that I can’t fix all of it doesn’t free me from the obligation to try.” I tell him he’s just quoted Pirkei Avot. “I probably should know that.”