Obama's Grassroots Ambassador In Tel Aviv
President Barack Obama’s relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is an epic of neurotic interchange, of which Netanyahu’s address to the American Congress—scheduled without consulting the Obama administration—is only the latest chapter. But the next chapter has already begun to be written.
Young Israelis eager to replace Netanyahu’s government have turned for help to an Obama stalwart, an integral player in both the 2008 and 2012 campaigns. A group known as “Victory 15”—V15, for short—has put up shop on Tel Aviv’s Lilienblum Street and joined with OneVoice, a political grassroots organization that aims to propel “mainstream Israelis and Palestinians…toward the two-state solution.” According to the reporter Roy (Chicky) Arad, writing for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, the alliance’s “secret campaign weapon” is 36-year-old Jeremy Bird, who has flown in with a team of four consultants. In a photograph in Haaretz, Bird is shown in plastic-framed glasses and arms crossed, affecting a serious mug. He’s leaning against a yellow wall that boasts a poster: “Big Data,” it reads, in obtrusive capitals. At the center, in a circle that matches Bird’s pin, in Hebrew and in English: “V15.”
Bird is not a typical traveler to the Holy Land. He was raised Southern Baptist in a trailer park in High Ridge, Mo. He ran cross-country in high school, and was recruited by Wabash College, a small, all-male liberal-arts school in Crawfordsville, Ind. Bird became the sports editor of the school paper, the Bachelor, and in a column there made a call for the school to form a lacrosse team. He got the student council to give $8,000 and the president of the school to give $5,000. The lacrosse team began.
Bird majored in religion, and studied abroad in Israel. He had never focused on politics but, while there, attended his first political rally: for Ehud Barak, at the University of Haifa, in 1999. He told the Bachelor in 2013, “I couldn't understand what [Barak] was saying, but I noticed how many young people were there.” Bird had never taken a political science class, and didn't follow U.S. politics at all, but found the whole thing—wait for it—“disruptive.”
He went on to Harvard Divinity School, where he could enroll in classes at the Kennedy School of Government, and there, moved by a community-organizing class project, decided to move full-time into politics. Through a divinity-school professor, Bird got a position as New Hampshire deputy field director for Howard Dean's presidential campaign, which translated into a job on John Kerry's presidential campaign. Neither man won, but Bird’s work gained admirers; four years later, he heard from members of the Hillary Clinton camp, hungry for his prowess. But, Bird told his college paper, he had read then-Senator Obama's autobiography. “I could tell he had sat around the kitchen tables,” Bird said. “That he had done the same type of community organizing in Chicago that I did in Boston.”
In 2007, Bird became field director for Obama in South Carolina, a key primary state. He had been told that, there, “you go to church for the good, prison for the bad, and the barbershops for the real. So that’s what we did.” Obama won the Democratic primary in South Carolina by close to 30 percentage points. Bird was made deputy director of Organizing for America, and, for Obama's reelection campaign, national field director. He headed the grassroots push, a marriage of volunteerism and tech-heavy data analysis.
After Obama was reelected, Bird decided to leave the White House orbit, for love of campaigning. In January 2013, he and several other partners launched a political firm called 270 Strategies (that being the number of electoral votes needed to win the American presidency). It combines not-for-profit issue advocacy with data analysis, and has had for clients Wendy Davis, Cory Booker, Teach for America, Ro Khanna, and the Chicago Cubs. In July 2013, Ready for Hillary announced that they were adding themselves to that list.
But Bird’s back on the ground where he studied abroad, and apparently has held on to a little Hebrew. Bird’s current Twitter feed is a combination of Obama quotes, celebrations of client successes, and now perspective on Israeli politics. Last week, Bird tweeted, “What do you think Adelson promised GOP in exchange for this insane BiBi House visit? Blatant attempt to bolster Israeli PM before elections.”
Bird told Haaretz that the the feel of OneVoice/V15 headquarters remind him of Obama’s, when that operation was a bootstrap field game. Netanyahu’s government is formidable—but every country has beauty salons, barbershops, and doorknockers.