Arlen Specter's stunning loss in last week's Senate primary is quickly becoming old news. Pundits are moving beyond the analysis of why Pennsylvania's longest-serving senator lost in the final weeks to U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak, the political upstart who bucked the Democratic Party machine and capitalized on the anti-incumbent wave flooding the country.
But before we turn to the tough election fight ahead — both Sestak and his Republican rival, Pat Toomey, have their work cut out for them in vying for Jewish support — it is fitting that we pay tribute to the important role Specter played in looking out for Jewish interests during his 30 years on Capitol Hill.
Often the maverick, who sometimes was a bit too abrasive, Specter garnered cross-party Jewish support for good reason. His record speaks for itself when it came to fighting for issues Jews care about. On Israel, he was an ardent supporter of aid to the Jewish state. He also was a passionate advocate of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, even as he counseled holding the Palestinians accountable for their actions.
His focus on Jewish concerns went beyond Israel, fighting for the freedom of Soviet Jews and restitution for Holocaust survivors, working to open an Israeli Embassy in Kiev, and even helping a constituent navigate the bureaucracy needed to move his Russian relatives from Leningrad to Philadelphia.
One of a rare breed — he was a Jewish Republican senator before his party switch last year — he became an important "go-to" guy with congressional clout that comes from seniority. As a moderate voice on social issues from abortion rights to stem-cell research, he played a central role in reaching across the aisle and trying to broaden the GOP's tent. It was members like Specter to whom Jewish Republicans pointed in arguing that the Republican Party could be a place where Jews could feel comfortable.
Specter's short-lived run for the presidency in 1995 proved unsuccessful, but in doing so, he staked out new territory — giving rise to the seemingly unthinkable notion that a Jew could become president of the United States.
Marc Felgoise, a pro-Israel activist in the community, put together a full-page ad in the Jewish Exponent in advance of the primary, focusing on Specter's attributes.
"Arlen Specter has always made the time for the Jewish community when it has shown up in Washington," Felgoise said on the eve of the primary. "Win or lose, the Jewish community owes the respect and appreciation due to Arlen Specter."
Specter did indeed lose, but his legacy lives on. Whether he got all of our votes last week or not, whether he riled some in our midst over some of his positions and his posturing, the senator deserves our thanks for a long and distinguished career.
May he finish out his Senate term in good health, and may his Jewish record provide a blueprint for those who follow.