Arlen Specter wasn’t afraid to make waves–he was a Jewish Republican who later switched sides and became the longest-running senator in Philadelphia.
Specter was a celebrated moderate and the only Jewish Republican in the Senate by the end of his career with the GOP in 2009. He often broke with party lines, particularly on social issues like gay rights, abortion, gun control and stem cell research. His support helped President Barack Obama ultimately pass the healthcare reform package.
The Kansas-born politico wrote in his memoir about being the only Jewish family growing up in his hometown of Wichita. A commitment to Israel would color his 30-year tenure in Congress, where he worked as a broker in peace talks between the Jewish state and Syria and was a senior member on the appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations, overseeing aid to Israel.
In a 1982 interview with JTA, Specter spoke of his Judaism, saying, “It is a tradition which identifies my roots and gives structure to religious beliefs and ethical beliefs and family background. Being Jewish to me means that life has a lot of struggle to it; that my father came from Russia, where he was oppressed, where there were pogroms and people were fearful about the Cossacks riding down the streets of Russia, and he come to the United States.”
His opposition to a nomination of Robert Bork, a conservative, to the Supreme Court shaped issues like women’s rights and affirmative action. His endorsement would later help Clarence Thomas into a Justice seat.
Specter’s political career came to an end three decades after taking office. He died October 14, 2012, at the age of 82 after a battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He was survived by his wife, Joan, two sons, Shanin and Steve, and four granddaughters.
Upon his death, a statement by the National Jewish Democratic Council read: “Senator Specter sat in the Republican Party for most of his career, and he was a consummate public servant whom we respected greatly as he advocated for Pennsylvanians —and a crucial voice of moderation. When he joined the Democratic Party later in his career, we were proud to welcome him as a Jewish Democrat—and his votes were crucial to helping President Obama during the first year of his presidency. Senator Specter has left behind a proud legacy of public service that will hopefully guide future generations of public servants, Jewish and non-Jewish alike.”
The Republican Jewish Coalition added: “Arlen Specter was a devoted public servant with a great passion for justice. He was a staunch supporter of Israel in the US Senate and during his tenure led efforts to expand and enhance the US-Israel relationship. He was also a leading advocate for freedom for Soviet Jewry.”
The Anti-Defamation League concluded, “Especially in this age of increasing polarization in politics, his moderate voice and unparalleled leadership will be sorely missed.”