The forum’s topic was "Jews in Politics," and it was a sure bet that Rep. Barbara Leff, RParadise Valley, would retell her classic story from April 1999, the one where then-House member Barbara Blewster, R-Dewey, told Leff that she didn’t look Jewish.
As the story goes, Leff had raised a complaint that then-Gov. Jane Hull had unwittingly called a special session of the Legislature for the first night of Passover. Blewster, who had a reputation for insensitive bloopers, had been unaware Leff was Jewish until then.
"She was just mortified that I had made this issue about Passover," blond-haired and blue-eyed Leff said. "She walked up to me and said, ‘You can’t possibly be Jewish. It is impossible. . . . Why, you can’t be Jewish because you don’t have a big hooked nose and you don’t act like one.’ "
In sharing that story on Sept. 16 as part of a panel discussion at the Hillel Jewish Student Center at Arizona State University, Leff said the "good part of that story is that she was not re-elected. People voted her out."
Leff and three fellow Jewish panelists offered a litany of stories during the 90-minute discussion to an audience of about 50, most of them Jewish college students.
INSENSITIVE VIEWS FROM BOTH SIDES OF THE FENCE
"Both (political) parties have problems with anti-Semitism, both parties share problems with racism and there are extremists in both," said George Weisz, a former legislator from Phoenix and now the governor’s special assistant for criminal justice.
He complained how his own Republican party passed a resolution in the 1980s "that this is a Christian nation." As a Jewish lawmaker, Weisz had to respond. "When you are a Jew in politics, you just stand out a little more, the attention is on you and the press is ready to put that microphone in front of your face," Weisz said.
Panel moderator Bill Strauss, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, asked participants about "how big a deal is Judaism in doing your job?"
"Your values should be shaped in large part by your religion," said former Arizona Congressman Sam Coppersmith, a Democrat. "The most difficult thing, however, is that we don’t feel comfortable with public display of our religion." Coppersmith said he was irked by politicians who are demonstrative at touting their faith in the public square — "all those people who talk about Judeo-Christian values, but sort of do not know much about the ‘Judeo,’ and it is not a high priority."
A SLAP IN THE FACE
Because about 80 percent of Jews traditionally vote Democrat, her being a Republican politician rubs people wrong, Leff said.
"When I pledged to run for office, I found that the Jewish community itself was horrified that I put an ‘R’ behind my name," she said. Leff said she had proved herself in her work with Jewish refugee resettlement and other community work. "I had worked all that time and they loved what I was doing, and they say, ‘I can’t believe you are a Republican. How can you be a Republican? We have no respect for you any longer because you are a Republican.’ It was very strange."
Leff told how honored she would have been, as a Jew, to be invited to be the bill sponsor on a measure for "Holocaust survivors’ families to be able to get insurance money." Instead, "The Jewish community chose non-Jewish people to run every single one of those bills. No one asked me. Now, that’s a bizarre situation."
PROVIDING EQUILIBRIUM FOR ARIZONANS
Strauss asked panelists whether they ever thought "that if I do this, I am going to be perceived as a puppet of the Jewish community or that I’m kowtowing to the special interest groups of my religion?"
Ruth Solomon of Tucson, who spent 14 years in the Legislature and later was an unsuccessful candidate for state treasurer as a Democrat, said she strived to make decisions that benefitted Arizona and not specifically Jews.
"Jews share, with other major religions, the same principles of caring and compassion," she said. ". . . We have an obligation to give back to the community, and that is how I spent my life."
"There are many who embrace the ideals of the Christian Coalition because of ‘family values,’ " said Solomon, now a policy adviser to the state superintendent of public instruction.
Weisz told about growing up in Skokie, IIl., and his memories of George Lincoln Rockwell’s American Nazi Party-sponsored march there in 1977.
"They came to march on my temple in order to show they could go right to the heart where there was the most concentration of Holocaust survivors and families in the United States," he said. The experience taught Weisz to become active in justice issues.
"I think Jews per capita probably get involved, if not more involved, than any other ethnic group," he said. "It is amazing to see those who attain leadership positions because they worked hard and they cared. It is really amazing how far we get involved."
STANDING UP FOR JEWISH CULTURE
Solomon said her Judaism became a political issue during the tenure of Gov. Fife Symington, when he called a special legislative session to begin on the eve of Yom Kippur.
"I blew up and called the governor’s office" and complained to Barry Aarons, a Symington aide and a Jew. "How could he have possibly allowed this?" she asked him.
Though a brief perfunctory opening took place that Friday, substantive legislative work waited until the following Monday, and a plan was launched to develop a religious holiday schedule to avoid future conflicts.
"I am really tired of praying to Jesus every morning in the Legislature," Leff said. Christian lawmakers don’t give a thought "that it might be a problem to somebody else." She said during her House tenure, she got nowhere convincing those giving invocations to be sensitive to non-Christian faiths.
Instead, the reaction seemed to be, ‘Well, when it’s your turn, you pray the way you want to, and we’ll pray the way we want to," Leff said.
In the Senate, she said she has found better understanding from lawmakers "that when children are sitting up there in the gallery and they are Jewish or some other faith, they are not going to feel left out."
As Jewish politicians, the issue of Israel looms large, even when they are dealing with local or state issues.
"It’s the litmus test for some people," Weisz said.
A MEANS FOR OTHER PEOPLE’S DESIRES
"I have had people support me because I was Jewish, and they were John Birchers," he said, referring to an ultraconservative, anti-Communist political group. "The reason they supported me is because they supported Israel, and Israel was fighting communism. It was more important that Israel stay strong because they hated communism. I was acceptable though they didn’t like me as a Jew."
Several panelists said they meet people who embrace one issue — the preservation of Israel. Leff said conservative Christians often support Jews because of their belief that "for the Second Coming (of Christ) to occur, the Jews have to go back to Israel. They have a passion to protect Israel."