Eric Greitens

Jewish Navy SEAL Vet Jumps into Missouri Governor’s Race

The Republican primary contest for the 2016 Missouri governor’s race has barely begun. But it is already one of the most unusual and tragic in the state’s memory, upended by the suicide of a top contender followed by accusations that anti-Semitism played a role in his death, despite the fact that he was not Jewish.

Now an actual Jewish candidate is primed to enter the fray, even as the chief spokesman for Tom Schweich, the candidate who killed himself, has also committed suicide.

On February 24, just two days before Schweich killed himself following an alleged whispering campaign claiming he was Jewish, 40-year-old Eric Greitens launched an exploratory committee to raise funds for a gubernatorial run of his own. Greitens who, unlike Schweich, is Jewish, has already raised close to $400,000 for the GOP primary, according to public records.

A former Navy SEAL and Rhodes Scholar with a PhD from Oxford, Greitens is a St. Louis native and makes no bones about his background — no whispering necessary. He has also just released a book, Resilience, born out of a series of letters between himself and a fellow former SEAL struggling to adjust to ordinary life after combat.

An outgrowth of Greitens’ book has been his call to identify mental health sufferers early to get them needed services — a call that the March 30 suicide of Schweich’s spokesman, Spence Jackson, seemed only to underline.

“The best way to honor the legacy of a person who’s passed is to find a way to support the living,” Greitens told the Forward in a phone interview. He cited his own work assisting veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome through the organization he founded, The Mission Continues.

But Greitens declined repeated requests to outline why he was considering running, what issues he wished to run on, and what positions he took on the hot button issues currently preoccupying Missouri Republican voters. These include abortion rights, the state’s fiscal crisis due to its pension obligations to government workers and, not least of all, the Black Lives Matter movement that has risen from the shooting death of Michael Brown at the hands of a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.

“Unfortunately Eric isn’t doing political interviews at this time,” said Greitens’ press officer, Adam Miller, when pressed on this. Miller indicated that the Navy SEAL, who has not yet officially declared his candidacy, was more focused right now on his promoting his book.

In his interview, Greitens was willing to go on the record with a clear statement about his religion. “I’m proud to be Jewish,” he told the Forward.

Greitens said that he sees his entry into politics as an extension of the Jewish notion of tikkun olam, mending the world. “Judaism is a religion that’s built on us taking action, perfecting the world under God’s rule,” he said.

As to the question everyone is debating following Schweich’s suicide, Greitens takes a pass, for now. John Hancock, the chairman of the Missouri State Republican Committee, has acknowledged that he was one of those who had quietly shared with others his belief that Schweich was Jewish, albeit, he said, without any ill intention. Some, including former Republican U.S. Senator John Danforth, a dean of Missouri state politics, dismiss Hancock’s claim of benign intent. Richard Fox, a major Jewish donor to the Republican party in Missouri, who backed Schweich, is also among those who have called on Hancock to resign.

But Greitens declined to say whether Hancock should give up his position as chairman of the Missouri GOP. “Before I would make that determination I would want to talk with John Hancock and I would want to know more about what these accusations are,” he said.

The Jewish SEAL’s dive into a race already fraught with religious tension will make his run particularly pointed.

Schweich turned a gun on himself in his St. Louis home on February 26, less than a month after entering the governor’s race. His suicide came shortly before he was scheduled to speak with two reporters about his belief that Hancock had been spreading false rumors that he was Jewish to hurt his candidacy.

Hancock later said he might have occasionally let slip to various important donors that Schweich — an Episcopalian whose paternal grandfather was Jewish — was himself Jewish, something he believed to be true. But the GOP state leader, who had worked in the past for Catherine Hanaway, Schweich’s major primary opponent, denied having done so for malicious purposes. It was, he said, a biographical aside, like saying “I’m a Presbyterian and somebody else is Catholic.”

At least one Republican donor did not interpret it innocuously. In a sworn affidavit, David Humphreys said he understood Hancock to mean “that being Jewish is a negative attribute for Tom Schweich’s gubernatorial race.”

Nonetheless, a detective involved in the police investigation of the suicide told the Associated Press that “we have not been able to prove that there was a whispering campaign.”

Remarkably, this may not be the first time an Episcopalian candidate running for state office in a Missouri GOP primary has been dogged by rumors of being Jewish.

In 2002, St. Louis attorney Jay Kanzler ran in the Republican primary for state auditor — the position held by Schweich until his death — with the full backing of the party establishment and coffers. Yet he was trounced in one of the most baffling upsets in state history, defeated by an unknown candidate who had served prison time for fraud and larceny and spent barely $500 on his entire campaign, to the extent that he campaigned at all.

“There was a widespread belief that I was Jewish,” Kanzler told the Forward in a phone interview. In fact, the attorney related, he is an ordained Episcopal priest.

Ironically, Kanzler was also a former law partner of Schweich, and they attended churches on the same street. Yet Kanzler recalls a string of comical misperceptions about his faith: a prominent donor asked him to go on a speaking tour of Missouri synagogues for the Republican Party; Kanzler’s campaign aide was about to order food from Subway and, rather politely, asked him if he had any kosher dietary restrictions; the dean of Washington University law school considered running for the U.S. Senate and wanted to know, “What’s it like running for state office as a Jew?”

Why was he so frequently and so wrongly bageled? “Maybe it’s because of the name Jay,” Kanzler guessed, adding, “It didn’t bother me.”

Still, sometimes the confusion was less benign. Kanzler recalled the case of Martin Lindstedt, a white supremacist running for the U.S. Senate during that same 2002 primary season. Lundstedt, recalled Kanzler, “had a blog out there and was calling me the effing Jew lawyer.”

Because Kanzler’s blowout loss to a convicted financial felon running for auditor was so inexplicable, some local analysts theorized that off-the-mark anti-Semitism played a role, “but I have never really believed that,” Kanzler said.

All of this raises the question of whether simply being perceived as Jewish could pose hurdles for GOP political candidates in Missouri.

“It certainly could be that there are prejudices around,” said Greitens, the honest-to-goodness Jewish GOP gubernatorial candidate. “I can only speak to what I have lived, and I have experienced that people have been incredibly welcoming to me as a Jewish Republican.”

According to Kanzler, “In this part of the country religion is something that people consider.” Yet he is firm in his belief that a candidate’s faith is not a genuine political obstacle. “We’re called the Bible Belt, but that’s not to say, ‘You’re Christian or I don’t vote for you,’” he explained.

In his interview with the Forward, Greitens cited figures ranging from Zionist anti-Nazi fighter Hannah Senesh to Solomon ibn Gabirol, the medieval Hebrew poet, as personal inspirations. And when it comes to trauma recovery, he sees wisdom in the writings of Viktor Frankl, the Austrian Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist, who said that one must create positive meaning from suffering. “The story you tell yourself shapes your trajectory,” said Greitens.

The former SEAL says that his Jewish background has also motivated his research into the genocides that took place in Bosnia and Rwanda.

As for the race he now faces, “There is no room for anti-Semitism in the Republican Party,” Greitens insisted, “and the leaders need to show that.”

Contact Jesse Lempel at lempel@forward.com.

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