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Special Interview with Arlen Specter, First Jewish Senator from Pennsylvania

January 2, 1981
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

(Editor’s Note: When the 97th Congress convenes this month, Philadelphian Arlen Specter will take his seat as the first Jewish Senator elected from Pennsylvania. The Philadelphia Republican joined Jewish Exponent editors in a "meet the press" session at the newspaper’s editorial offices before leaving for Washington. He will serve on the Senate Judiciary and Appropriations Committee, and will be chairman of the Juvenile Justice Subcommittee and a member of the Criminal Law Subcommittee, both of the Judiciary Committee.

(Specter answered questions for Jewish Exponent Editor Frank Wundohl, Managing Editor Al Erlick and News Editor David Gross, Specter and his wife Joan, a City Councilwoman, will take part in the Federation Allied Jewish Appeal’s Super Sunday Phone-a-Thon, Jan. 18. They were long-time members of Congregation Mikveh Israel and are currently congregants at Society Hill Synagogue.)

Senator-elect Arlen Specter was questioned about a host of foreign and domestic issues that would have an impact both on his own state and city and also on American Jews. What follows are excerpts from the interview which appears in full in the Jan. 2 edition of the Jewish Exponent.

SPECTER: I have a keen interest in the Judiciary Committee, in the issues that it has jurisdiction over. One of them is the issue of immigration and refugees, which is very important on the Soviet Jewry matter… The question of Soviet Jewry is a very personal one to me because my father was a Soviet refugee; in 1911 he came to Philadelphia. My mother came as a child of five from an area which was then Poland but which was shifted back and forth between Poland and Russia on many occasion. So there is a very deep personal interest on my part.

WUNDOHL: I read a background piece about you and Bob Dole. You mentioned that your father came here in 1911. Just briefly, how did he wind up in Wichita?

SPECTER: He worked in Philadelphia in a tailor shop–he called it a sweatshop–for three years, saved up enough money to buy a Model-T Ford, and then drove west selling blankets in the winter to farmers. He would tell me stories about how amazed the farmers were in the Midwest that he was Jewish without horns. I found that hard to believe when he told me that as a youngster in the 30s, but in 1915-16-17 that was an expectation that people in the Midwest had.

He met my mother when he was in St. Joseph, Mo., and then went to fight in World War I with the American Expeditionary Force. He came back to Missouri, where he was married. My brother was born in 1920 in St. Joseph. They moved back to Philadelphia and my sister was born here in 1921. I cannot tell you how many times they moved back and forth, but they did move back again when I started school here in 1935. They moved back to Kansas in 1936, always trying to earn a living, and then moved back to Philadelphia in 1948. It was his ambition to retire in Philadelphia, and he did.


GROSS: In the recent election, Israel lost many of its long-standing friends in the Senate and even worse, I guess you could say that some of those friends were replaced by people far less friendly. How do you see this as affecting Middle East legislation and Israeli matters in the Senate? What do you see as your role in counteracting these anti-Israeli forces?

SPECTER: I think it is true that Israel lost good friends or that good friends were not reelected. I do not think that we yet know that those who were elected in their place will not be favorably disposed toward Israel. I think that remains to be seen. I am very optimistic about President-elect Reagan, for example, as the focal point of American foreign policy. If the Secretary of State is Gen. (Alexander) Haig, I am very optimistic about that. I have a great deal of respect for Gen. Haig.

Then we have to see what the policies are of the men who come into the Senate replacing the good friends. I think there is a real need for people who understand the problems of Israel, and I think that I would have special insights to that for a lot of obvious reasons. I have been to Israel. I gave you chronology of my father’s travels to Philadelphia in 1948, but my father had a lifelong ambition to live in Israel. He made a trip and died in Israel and is buried there.

I have a sister who has established a permanent residence in Israel. I have nephew and family living there. I very much believe that American foreign policy should strengthen the Israeli nation. I believe that because it is in the strategic interest of the United States to have a strong Israel as the only democracy in the Middle East and the strongest ally historically of the United States, and also because of the importance to the Jewish people to have a homeland which should be secure.


WUNDOHL: While we’re on the subject of Israel, what are your feelings–where do you stand on the current policy of the Begin government, particularly with regard to settlements and the effort to resolve the autonomy question of the Palestinians?

SPECTER: I think that Prime Minister Begin has pursued a responsible policy. I think the Camp David accords were a very significant step forward, providing a structure which has real potential, and I have been disappointed that they have not been implemented on further negotiations between Israel and Egypt.

With respect to the issue of a separate government on the West Bank, I agree with the position of the Begin government that that is intolerable for Israel, that autonomy does not mean a separate PLO state on the West Bank. I think that would be very dangerous for Israel, and I do not think that that is what was contemplated by the Camp David accords. I think Prime Minister Begin and the Israeli government are on a very sound ground in opposing that and should continue to oppose it, and that the United States should not seek to impose that sort of a situation on Israel.

WUNDOHL: In that case, do you still believe that there is life left in the Camp David peace accord approach or will the new Administration be faced with finding a new modus operandi in the peace process to bring further progress?

SPECTER: I think there is vitality in the Camp David accords. There will have to be a development to see what can be done as the next step, but the Camp David accords are in existence and are a very important starting point, a very important structure. The issue then remains to be seen as to where we go next, whether we implement the Camp David accords or whether there can be steps taken which are agreeable to all the parties. But I think it’s

something that has to be negotiated in a free context, with nothing being rammed down the throats of the Israeli government.


WUNDOHL: The New Right or Moral Majority, as it has variously been labeled, has already warned Vice President-elect George Bush that unless he becomes a bit more conservative in his attitudes he might join a new "hit" list… Does this kind of a threat concern you, and how could this affect the ways in which you might vote on various measures in the Senate?

SPECTER: I think that we’re going to have to see how the situation unfolds with respect to specific issues which are taken by people on all sides of the political spectrum. I personally believe that the labels of "moderate" or "conservative" or "liberal" conceal a lot more than they reveal, that they are just not realistically descriptive of what goes on… I personally intend to vote my conscience on the matters as they come up. I was very concerned about the abortion issue in the last campaign. That was a very difficult political issue, and I am on record as opposing a constitutional amendment; that has made some people unhappy…


ERLICK: You mentioned the abortion issue specifically. Right now the Congress and the President are wrestling over the anti-busing provisions in the appropriations bill. We have indications that one of the pieces of the conservative agenda is a school prayer amendment. Where are you on these issues?

SPECTER: I think it is inappropriate through an appropriations measure to limit the executive branch on enforcement of the constitutional requirements for desegregation. I personally think that busing poses a lot of problems, and neither the blacks nor the white like busing. I think there is consensus that the answer is decent neighborhood schools so that children don’t have to be bused…

With repect to the issue of school prayer, I come to that issue without a clear-cut position. I know that when I was a child in school, prayers were uttered and these were not non-sectarian prayers. I recall as a youngster being concerned about what others were praying to and that I was expected to join in, and I chose just instinctively as a child of five or six or seven not to say the words because I was Jewish–the only Jewish student in a lot of the classes. I grew up in Kansas. I don’t think the availability of prayers for others was detrimental to my development…

I am for the Equal Rights Amendment, for example. The Equal Rights Amendment is an amendment to the Constitution. It is somewhat different from an amendment on abortion because the Equal Rights Amendment does not arise in a context of a specific Supreme Court decision the other way…


SPECTER: 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.

My parents kept kosher while we lived in Wichita, but could not when we moved to the small town of Russell, which was a town of 5,000. I have two very Orthodox sisters who have followed that line from our family training. There is a very deep sense of the need to provide opportunities for Jews worldwide, again in a very personal sense from the problems that my father and mother had–the great opportunities which my brother and sisters and I have had as a result of what my parents did.

There is a great spirit of philanthropy which comes with being Jewish. To say that my father was not wealthy is inaccurate. We were very poor in the ’30s. But he was always a generous man. There was always room at the table for somebody else to share what little we had. And he was impeccably honest. At a time when it was hard to maintain integrity, he maintained integrity. Those are very important values.

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