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Is being Jewish a political liability in America’s heartland?

Republican state Auditor Tom Schweich, who committed suicide last week. Photo courtesy of Missouri State Auditor's Office
Republican state Auditor Tom Schweich, who committed suicide last week. Photo courtesy of Missouri State Auditor's Office

Events surrounding the apparent suicide of Tom Schweich, Missouri’s Republican state auditor and a contender for the governor’s office, have left some grappling with the connection between anti-Semitism and state politics. Photo courtesy of Missouri State Auditor’s Office

ST. LOUIS (RNS) Events surrounding the apparent suicide of Tom Schweich, Missouri’s Republican state auditor and a contender for the governor’s office, have left some grappling with the connection between anti-Semitism and state politics.

Kenneth Warren, a professor of political science at St. Louis University, said he has no doubt that Jewish candidates face greater obstacles when running for statewide office in Missouri.

“All other things being equal, if you’re running statewide it would be better to be non Jewish,” Warren said. “It’s certainly not going to be a help.”

That view isn’t universally held among political experts in the state. Some, including Jewish elected officials, say Judaism isn’t an impediment to political success.

But for others, the disadvantages of being a Jewish politician are tangible. And they’re amplified for statewide candidates who must win over rural voters with little exposure to the faith.

Just before his apparent suicide, Schweich had planned to discuss with reporters his accusation that John Hancock, Missouri GOP’s new chairman, had mentioned to others that he was Jewish.

Schweich felt the comments were anti-Semitic and were designed to hurt him politically. In fact, Schweich was an Episcopalian, but he had said his grandfather was Jewish.

Spence Jackson, Schweich’s spokesman, has said that of all the recent political tension, including a negative ad that compared him to Barney Fife from the Andy Griffith Show, “it was the comment about the Jewish faith, the Jewish history of his family, that had hurt him the most.”

Hancock, for his part, has said any references to Schweich’s faith weren’t meant to be disparaging.

In a stinging eulogy for Schweich,, former U.S. Senator John Danforth, dismissed that argument.

“The only reason for going around saying that someone is Jewish is to make political profit from religious bigotry,” Danforth said.

“Someone said this was no different than saying a person is a Presbyterian. Here’s how to test the credibility of that remark: When was the last time anyone sidled up to you and whispered into your ear that such and such a person is a Presbyterian?”

Other recent tragedies in Missouri have been linked to anti-Semitism.

Last year, Kansas City experienced a triple killing at a Jewish community center and retirement complex on the eve of the Jewish festival of Passover. Frazier Glenn Miller, the man accused of the killings, was known for his fervent anti-Semitic views and shouted “Heil Hitler” at television cameras during his arrest after the shootings.

The number of anti-Semitic incidents in Missouri increased after the tragedy, according to Karen Aroesty, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League. In 2013, there were two reports of anti-Semitic episodes in Missouri. In 2014, that number jumped to 11.

“There’s palpable anxiety” in the Jewish community, Aroesty said.

Nationally, the number of anti-Jewish crimes decreased, from 868 in 2012 to 625 in 2013, according to Federal Bureau of Investigation statistics. The FBI reported, however, that 60 percent of the reported religion-based crimes were directed against Jews and Jewish institutions.

An urban-rural divide

Political scientists admit, however, that because of the decline of anti-Jewish sentiment since the end of World War II, Jewishness is nowhere near the political handicap that it once.

They also cautioned that other racial and religious minorities — such as African-Americans and Hispanics — may face the same kind of political uphill battles.

“Unquestionably, the bottom line is that people tend to vote more for people that have traits like their own and against people who have traits dissimilar to their own because they feel more uncomfortable with them,” Warren said.

In fact, Warren and other experts say the biggest political barrier in Missouri isn’t religion, but the divide that exists between urban and rural communities.

“As you’re developing a biography to run statewide, you want to have as part of that biography that you are not solely urban bred,” said Terry Jones, a political science professor at the University of Missouri – St. Louis.

Or as David Robertson, a political science professor at the University of Missouri – St. Louis, puts it, “I don’t see decisive evidence that a Jewish background has been an impediment on its own.”

‘What’s in your heart’

In certain circumstances, however, a Jewish faith, as well as ties to an urban region, can actually work in a candidate’s favor. Missouri state Rep. Stacey Newman, D-St. Louis, for example, represents Clayton, University City and Ladue, areas with a heavy Jewish population.

Still, Newman said a Jewish female politician can feel lonely in the Missouri House of Representatives.

Sen. Jill Schupp, D-Creve Coeur, said she’s been disturbed by proposed legislation that “has tried to advance the cause of Christianity over other religions.”

But St. Louis County Assessor Jake Zimmerman, a Jewish Democrat who is running for Missouri Attorney General, said he feels confident about his chances in next year’s elections.

“I wouldn’t say it’s an obstacle at all,” Zimmerman said about his faith. “I have found people across the state are interested in the character of the people who represent them.”

“They want to know what’s in your heart.”

Zimmerman also says people of faith are more alike than different.

“Many people with deeply held Christian beliefs feel a very strong tie with the state of Israel,” Zimmerman said. Zimmerman noted that he did not believe Hancock’s comments were meant to harm anyone.

“I wear who I am on my sleeve,” Zimmerman said. “I don’t think it makes any sense in this business to run from who you are. I think voters value authenticity.”

(Lilly Fowler is the religion reporter for The St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She can be reached on Twitter at https://twitter.com/LillyAFowler.)

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  • World’s richest ethnic minority group:
    Ethnic Groups in the USA by household income (2010 census)

    1.Indian American : $86,130
    2.South African American : $81,913
    3.Filipino American : $76,954
    4.European American : $75,466
    5.Taiwanese American : $73,988
    6.Maltese American : $72,847
    7.British American : $72,268
    8.Russian American : $72,179
    9.Australian American : $72,104
    10.Latvian American : $71,797
    11.Iranian American : $68,028
    12.Lithuanian American : $67,493
    13.Lebanese American : $67,264
    14.Chinese American : $67,211
    15.Fijian American : $67,003
    16.Austrian American : $66,928
    17.Israeli American : $66,695

  • Well Karla, would you vote for someone who did not accept Jesus as their savior? I doubt it, but I could be wrong. You completely avoided the queston in the post.

    There are problems being Jewish in many different places, including UCLA, which is not in the Midwest. There are specifically problems in GOP primaries where many Evangelical Christians now vote.

  • Being wealthy or being poor (whatever the ethnic group) gives no one the right to discriminate against that group period. Unless one is a communist or socialist. Anti-Semitism is evil period! It has nothing to do with wealth and everything to do with social stereotyping, discrimination, ethnic cleansing, and on and on and on.

  • My parents both grew up poor. They became Middle Class through education and hard work. That is true of most American Jews. The entrance of the Jews into the Middle Class is a very recent phenomenon. Most Jews are not rich. There are a few wealthy Jews who get a lot of publicity, but they are a small group. Actually, in American, there were years when Jews were blocked out of banking which was a pretty WASP field for a long time. Jews in banking at least in America is also a very recent phenomenon.

  • Stephen, that’s why I almost didn’t respond to you. You may have Jewish parents, but you are no longer Jewish. The rest is a nonsensical tirade that I should have ignored. You are not a genetic scientist. You never quote real genetic scientists. You are not credible on this subject.

  • Stephen-Bible is Word of God. For that many different people over a 1500
    year period of time to get that many predictions right with 100% accuracy
    proves it was/is from God! Bible says that many shall depart from the faith
    and not stick to sound doctrine and we see it everywhere today with people
    not sticking to what the Bible says. If Jesus was still in the grave why would
    Saul convert to Paul/say Jesus appeared to him if it wasn’t true? Why would
    the Roman soldiers lie and say the body was stolen? The Roman soldiers
    lied cause they didn’t want the Bible to be true and the same thing is now
    happening today with people trying to discredit the Bible/Truth. God bless.

  • Ok, Ok, I GET IT !!!

    Religion News Service is a website devoted to hating and denigrating Christians in every way imaginable.

    Can’t believe it took me this long actually. It’s so prominent.

  • New Zealand’s leader, John Key, is Jewish. It is of little interest and seldom mentioned.
    Perhaps the U.S. could emulate it’s friend from south of the Equator and keep religion and politics separate 😉 .

  • Karla, would you vote for a non-Christian for a public office? You haven’t answered my question.

  • @Ken,

    Religion is losing all of the arguments. Not the Religious News Service.
    You won’t find a religion which is doing well these days.

    No religion can survive examination. Journalists at RNS keep asking questions and religion fails to answer any of them.

    – which is why Atheism is today the fastest growing response to Religion worldwide (Pew).

  • Is being Jewish a political liability in America’s heartland? Who was that guy who just got the loudest standing ovation and support from the most “red” aka “Heartland” state senators and reps in US Congress? Net-n something…. do u know who i mean? have you heard of him?

  • John Danforth is not only a former US senator, he is also an ordained Episcopal priest and an individual of enormous integrity. It was Danforth who presided at the funeral of Ronald Reagan at the National Cathedral in Washington.

  • As late as the late 70’s and into the 80’s, anti-Semitism was still an acceptable prejudice in “America’s heartland”.

    “GOD almighty does not hear the prayer of a Jew”. F. Bailey smith, president of the Southern Baptists, in, I think, 1978.

    I’ve heard worse since.

  • Hey, Stephen Lewis, you’re really funny! You have allot of knowledge but your straw man argumentation technique isn’t as tight as you think it is. If people like Karla are not supposed to become knowledgeable about religion by reading religious writings, then where should they get that knowledge? Oh, yes, from people like you who have been told directly by God how the religion thing should shake out. So, Stephen, where to you meet God? Does he come over to your house for a couple of Buds every Wednesday? Or, does his voice magically make itself heard somewhere in your vacuous head? My stomach hurts too much from laughing so I’m going to stop reading your posts, Stephen.

  • Corey, Evangelical Christians support Israel for very dubious reasons. It is part of their beliefs about the End Times and the Second Coming. They want all Jews to convert which will bring about the Second Coming. They want a Jewish state with no Jews in it.

  • Corey, Evangelical Christians support Israel for rather dubious reasons. They believe that Israel and Jews have a role to play in the Second Coming and the End Times. They want all Jews in Israel to convert to help bring about the Second Coming. They want a Jewish state with no Jews in it.

  • he is also an ordained Episcopal priest and an individual of enormous integrity.

    People of integrity do not engage in poses of rectitude or use a eulogy as an occasion to offer absurd theses or settle political scores.

  • As late as the late 70’s and into the 80’s, anti-Semitism was still an acceptable prejudice in “America’s heartland”.

    He says, thereby revealing he was not there.

    “GOD almighty does not hear the prayer of a Jew”. F. Bailey smith, president of the Southern Baptists, in, I think, 1978.

    I’ve heard worse since.

    Nice try, Ben. Nathan Perlmutter was asked about that remark and he replied that it was of no interest to his organization because it was, he said, ”a religious conceit”. He said that an Orthodox rabbi might make a precisely analogous remark about the efficacy of prayer in Reform and Conservative settings and the Anti-Defamation League was not in the business of theological discussion.

  • Does anyone here recognize that Jesus was really named Joshua, was born Jewish and died Jewish? If you all recognized that, the world would be a better place.

  • He may have been
    Messianic, but we say
    Adonai, not
    Jesus,just differant name. As for me, i am going through
    Anti semitism, as we speak, i have said nothing to her, just request,
    Seder,
    Pass
    Over , she was asked to take my place, i did for her the week before, and put my boss through the ringer, another woman filled in for me. But she said in the hall, you need to do something, about your faith and its doings, (practises )
    Branson,mo

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