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On Tuesday night, without much fanfare, Missouri elected its first Jewish governor.
Governor-elect Eric Greitens was part of the Republican red tide that swept across the state, defeating Attorney General Chris Koster with 51 percent of the vote
. Greitens, a first-time politician and former Navy Seal, generated plenty of controversy during his race — but not because of anything to do with his religion. His Jewish heritage drew little media attention or commentary.
And that was a surprising finish to a gubernatorial race that began with Judaism front and center — particularly the idea that it could hurt a Republican running for statewide office in Missouri. Missouri Auditor Tom Schweich, who was running for governor, killed himself in February 2015 after expressing angst about what he believed was a “whisper campaign” that he was Jewish. Schweich was Episcopalian, but had Jewish ancestry.
But for Greitens, a political neophyte who bested three other Republican challengers even before taking on Koster, religion never even seemed to be an issue.
Missouri Republican Party chairman John Hancock was at the center of the Schweich controversy. Schweich blamed him for the rumors, a charge Hancock has denied.
Now, Hancock says, he’s “as proud as I can be” of Greitens’ victory. For him, the gubernatorial election demonstrates that Missouri Republicans have moved beyond religious divisions and do not harbor more prejudice than any other group.
“[Anti-Semitism] is certainly not a problem that is endemic to being a Republican,” Hancock says. “It doesn’t just exist in our party.”
Karen Aroesty, the Brentwood-based regional director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), agrees that Greitens’ election is a positive sign. She’s not surprised his Judaism didn’t become an election issue.
Of Schweich, Aroesty says, “I think there were unique issues that came up in Tom’s experience in his race that uniquely highlighted his family’s Jewish history that he connected so much with."
And Aroesty believes a candidate’s religion should be largely unrelated to their public service.
“His constituency becomes any single religious denomination that any one member of the state of Missouri has,” she says.
Rabbi Hyim Shafner, who leads the Bais Abraham Congregation in the Delmar Loop, says he feels optimistic about Greitens’ election. He says Greitens, like former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, was seen as an individual, rather than as a Jewish candidate first.
“Obviously, it’s a positive thing in terms of how people see Jews and how they see Israel,” Shafner says.
After a difficult and divisive election, Aroesty hopes that both Greitens and the ADL can be part of the process of helping Americans come together.
“The question is how do we move forward, regardless of political and religious affiliation, and come together as a community in Missouri,” she says.
For Hancock, at least one unifying process has already taken place.
“The Republican Party is more united than it’s been in a long time,” he says.