In June, Missouri’s state legislators were called back to Jefferson City for a special session. Such a move is rare, and Gov. Eric Greitens did it to try to push through legislation significantly limiting access of women in the state to abortions.
Other red states have passed similar laws. But the one Greitens wants, which won’t be passed until after the July 4 recess, stands out because Greitens is the unlikely figure in the center.
Jewish Republicans like Greitens have historically avoided entering the minefield of abortion politics. Even those who had considered themselves pro-life preferred not to highlight the issue lest they jeopardize their natural supporters in the Jewish community who are overwhelmingly in favor of abortion rights.
Yet Greitens is asking Missouri lawmakers to pass some of the strictest anti-abortion regulations in the country. The Supreme Court struck down similar rules in Texas.
For Jewish abortion opponents, who are used to living on the sidelines of the Jewish communal discourse, Greitens’s bold move was a welcome overture. “I think the governor of Missouri is a hero,” said Cecily Routman, who founded the Jewish Pro-Life Foundation, a tiny not-for-profit organization promoting anti-abortion views in the Jewish community. “He gives pro-life Jews the voice we need.”
And in the current political era, where conservatism has taken over Washington and where pro-life activists are emboldened, this voice, once absent from the Jewish communal discourse, is now making itself heard. Greitens may be the hero of Jewish pro-lifers, but he is not alone in his convictions.
Making his first step into politics last year, Greitens, a tough-talking, blue-eyed conservative with an impressive military and academic background, made no secret of his views on abortion. “I believe that every life is precious. I am pro-life, and I very strongly believe we must promote life, defend life, and that in a free society, no person should have their tax money taken from them and spent on organizations like Planned Parenthood, that engage in activities that are, quite simply, barbaric,” he promised. Those words are boilerplate for any conservative candidate in America’s heartland. But Greitens pushed for legislative action and turned the abortion issue into the main focus of his first year in the governor’s mansion.
Fellow red-state Jewish Republican David Kustoff is just as tough on abortion as Greitens is. “I will always fight for the West Tennessee values we so strongly believe in. I believe life begins at conception,” Kustoff, a first-term congressman, stated when he ran for office. When asked if there are any circumstances under which abortions should be allowed, Kustoff replied, “Should not be allowed; no exceptions.” He also supports full defunding of Planned Parenthood clinics.
In Ohio, Republican State Treasurer Josh Mandel, who is running for the Senate in 2018, signed a pledge of Right to Life of Greater Cincinnati “opposing abortion on demand without exception,” though he struck a slightly more moderate tone by noting that he believes in exceptions to protect the life of the mother.
Rep. Lee Zeldin from New York, perhaps reflecting the more liberal views of his constituents, holds a pro-life approach while agreeing to more exceptions, including support for abortions in cases of rape or incest.
To be sure, making opposition to abortions a pillar of Jewish conservatism is still a daunting task. Even with Greitens’s pronounced focus on the issue and with other Jewish Republicans feeling free to speak out, it hasn’t been taken up by Jewish conservative organizations, and no major Jewish donors have provided backing.
Still, some Jews who oppose abortion have found in the new administration an opportunity to cooperate fully with the broader pro-life movement.
Routman and her colleagues attend the annual March for Life event in Washington, which enjoyed atypical prominence this year because of the participation of Vice President Mike Pence. They carried a banner stating they are pro-life Jews. “I learned a lot and I decided to associate myself with the pro-life movement,” the 58-year-old Pennsylvania social worker said. “Most of my interactions with pro-life Christians were good.”
She founded the Jewish Pro-life Foundation in 2006 because she felt Jewish liberals wrongly claim that pro-choice is the Jewish way. “That didn’t sound kosher,” she said, “so we decided we need a Jewish voice in the public square.” The group focuses on education, not political advocacy, and hardly has any financial assets, according to tax filings. Routman, who grew up Conservative and now attends a traditional synagogue, feels the Jewish community stifles pro-life voices. “We have a genetic feeling for compassion, for tikkun olam [repairing the world], but we never talk about the pain of these unborn babies.”
Routman sees there have been small signs of change in recent years. As a sign of growing awareness in the Jewish community of pro-life positions she pointed to a Baltimore-based organization, In Shifra’s Arms, that provides “Jewish support for pregnant women.” She also noted the work of Simcha Felder, a Democratic New York State senator who holds strong pro-life views and has recently succeeded in derailing an abortion rights bill.
These pro-life voices in politics join a long-standing opposition to abortion by those in Orthodox circles, who decry what they refer to as “abortion on demand.” Still, Orthodox Jews are usually reluctant to join forces with pro-life forces regarding access to abortion clinics, imposing hurdles on the work of doctors and facilities providing abortions, parental notification, waiting periods and limitations on abortions in cases of risk to the mother’s health.
“Our theological approach doesn’t fit in with the pro-life movement,” said Rabbi Abba Cohen, vice president of federal affairs at Agudath Israel of America, an ultra-Orthodox group. The organization has broken ranks with pro-life on many pieces of legislation, including those stating that human life begins at conception.
But in a Jewish communal environment dominated by liberal pro-choice activism, Cohen said Orthodox Jews feel that it is incumbent on them “to set the record straight and to present the true view of the Torah” on abortions — and the Trump era gives them a better chance to do so.
This view shares little with the liberal consensus in the Jewish community, but it is also different from the conservative Christian approach of the pro-life movement. It manifests itself in a unique thread of anti-abortion philosophy, which focuses on Jewish demography more than on the status of the unborn baby.
This approach was in full view June 15, when dozens of Jewish activists and conservative lawmakers gathered on Capitol Hill to pay tribute to Efrat, an Israeli organization working for the past four decades to dissuade women from choosing abortion by providing them financial support and educational material. As participants cheered Sen. Rand Paul and four House members who praised the group and delivered pro-life messages, it was clear that Efrat’s focus is different.
“You can be pro-choice and pro-life at the same time. It’s the mother’s choice and we help her,” said Ezra Friedlander, a New York-based public relations executive who organized Efrat’s Capitol Hill reception. “This approach can be replicated in America. When the women hesitates because of financial reasons, Efrat comes and helps with all her needs.” Each year 50,000 pregnancies are terminated in Israel, said Efrat’s founder, Eli Schussheim, adding that the organization has helped 70,000 women over four decades rethink their decision to end their pregnancy.
“Efrat’s work dovetails perfectly with the work of the ZOA,” said Joshua London, co-director of government relations at the Zionist Organization of America, a hawkish Jewish organization. He said the group is the “most effective organization” in solving Israel’s demographic issue, and expressed his amazement that despite Israel’s perilous security situation, “yidden [Yiddish for “Jews”] should be aborting babies simply because of economic concerns.”
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.