A recent ad promoted by one of the longshots running for the Republican nomination for an Ohio Senate seat may have established both a new low, as well as an interesting milestone, in the participation of Jews in American politics.
Mark Pukita, an IT entrepreneur running far behind the frontrunners in the race to succeed retiring Sen. Rob Portman, took aim at Josh Mandel, the candidate who has been leading in all the polls. According to a report in Politico, Pukita thinks that Mandel’s championing of "Judeo-Christian values" and his frequent campaigning among evangelicals and in churches is somehow false advertising.
One of Pukita’s ads asks, "Are we seriously supposed to believe the most Christian-values Senate candidate is Jewish? I am so sick of these phony caricatures."
When asked to respond to charges of antisemitism, Pukita said, "In terms of antisemitism, all I did in an ad was pointed out that Josh is going around saying he's got the Bible in one hand and the constitution in the other. But he's Jewish," Pukita added, pointedly. "Everybody should know that though, right?"
His assumption was that the evangelicals being wooed by Mandel don’t know that he’s Jewish. But Mandel, who has been running for statewide office since 2010, has never made a secret of his faith. To the contrary, in a career that began with a meteoric rise that seemed to stall in recent years but may now be about to be revived, Mandel has always worn his Jewish identity and support for Zionism on his sleeve.
But Pukita was on to something that illustrates how different Mandel’s approach is to that of other Jewish politicians.
Rather than celebrating the separation of church and state, at the heart of the liberal tradition to which the overwhelming majority of American Jews subscribe, Mandel sounds like a typical Christian conservative, who believes the point of the First Amendment is freedom of religion, not freedom from it.
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Yet Mandel himself soon after gave reason to wonder what exactly he means when, as his Twitter profile states, he says he’s "fighting to protect the Judeo-Christian bedrock of America."
That’s a phrase that was once the cornerstone of interfaith dialogue. But it has ceased to be in general use in an era when Muslims, Hindus, Budhists, among others, have entered the mainstream of American life. But many conservatives, who believe that a shift in opinion on issues like gay marriage and transgender rights has marginalized them, have revived the term as a way to uphold values that they believe are under attack.
By championing this conservative iteration of "Judeo-Christian" values, Mandel has found fertile ground for his campaign among conservative Christian voters.
But a tweet by him this past weekend seemed to validate concerns that he had lost his constitutional bearings and had decided to ditch the "Judeo" part of his campaign mantra entirely.
Mandel responded to a speech by Gen. Michael Flynn, briefly former President Donald Trump’s National Security Adviser before being forced to resign because of the Russia collusion investigation in which he was found to have lied to Vice President Mike Pence about his activities. He was ultimately pardoned by Trump and, due to what came to be seen as the dubious nature of the Russia charges, has become a martyr in the eyes of many Republicans.
Since then, Flynn has become more extreme and gone rather far down the QAnon rabbit hole, along with committing to a host of related conspiracy theories. Last Saturday night he gave a speech to a church-based extremist group in which he asserted that the United States should be "one nation under God and one religion under God."
Flynn’s rewording of the traditional American pledge of allegiance seemed to say that the only acceptable religion was Christianity. Yet Mandel responded by seemingly endorsing this call for an exclusively Christian America with a tweet that read, "We stand with General Flynn."
That was just the latest episode in the Ohio campaign, in which Mandel and the man who may be his main competitor, author and venture capitalist, J.D. Vance, are locked in what The Atlantic characterized as a "race to the bottom."
Vance’s book, "Hillbilly Elegy," about growing up among poor whites, which was interpreted by many as a way to understand why that group abandoned the Democrats for Trump, earned him celebrity status. His ties with the high tech industry not only made him rich but won him friends like billionaire PayPal founder Peter Thiel who are helping fund his political ambitions. Just as important is the support he’s gotten from Fox News host Tucker Carlson.
With support for Trump among Republicans remaining at historic levels, even as most of the rest of the country continues to dislike him intensely, the question for GOP candidates is not whether to embrace him and the electorate who loves him, but how far do they have to go to achieve that goal?
Mandel was not an early Trump supporter in 2016, despite now claiming he was the first statewide official to back him back then. Vance was a Never Trump stalwart, terming him "reprehensible" and an "idiot." For Mandel, therefore, the transition to all-out Trumpism was easier.
Vance has tried to stake out the same Trumpist territory as Mandel but with less success. Like Carlson, Vance regularly denounces "globalist oligarchs." That’s language which scares some Jewish voters because of the assumption that it is an antisemitic trope.
But like the general conservative critique of liberal mega-donor George Soros, it can be defended as simply fair comment about the untrammeled powers of the owners of Internet companies, though Mandel’s willingness to also blame the billionaire for COVID "deep state" conspiracies and the January 6 Capitol riot goes way further than that.
Indeed Vance, who also describes himself as a "Christian" on his Twitter account, has found that his Silicon Valley pedigree has engendered distrust among Republican voters.
Mandel has concentrated on trying to appeal to evangelicals. Mandel was an ardent Tea Partier a decade ago, but it’s a short trip from small government zealot to social issue warrior whose stands on COVID vaccines and abortion puts him firmly on the right. In some ways, it’s a natural fit, since his support of Israel is easily embraced by conservative Christians who regard the issue as more of a litmus test than most Jews do.
That horrifies liberal Jews, who don’t trust conservative Christian backers of Israel and view their stands on social issues as abhorrent. But Mandel isn’t planning on winning a Senate seat by appealing to the one percent of the population of Ohio that is Jewish.
In a country in which politics has replaced the role religion used to play in most people’s lives, many Jewish conservatives may now feel they have more in common with their Christian peers than with fellow Jews on the other side of the political aisle. But with his Flynn tweet, Mandel is crossing a line that U.S. Jewish politicians have never before approached.
Rather than merely argue, as most Jewish conservatives do, for school choice programs that will allow state support of private and parochial schools, he has called for the abolition of "government schools" and their replacement by religious institutions. His embrace of the culture war over Covid restrictions also led to him terming those seeking to enforce vaccine mandates as the "Gestapo" in a controversial video he posted on Twitter.
With Democrats routinely calling Trump a Nazi, he’s not the only one to use inappropriate Holocaust analogies. But by embracing extremists like Rep. Marjorie Taylor-Greene who peddle antisemitic QAnon conspiracies, Mandel isn’t so much forging a coalition with the far right as joining it. If the Ohio primary race is defined by who can go the farthest to the Trumpist right, Mandel appears to be winning it.
In recent decades, Jews on both sides of the partisan divide have shown that no one needs to hide or downplay their Jewish values and identities in order to be accepted in American political life.
But in supporting the notion of the United States is a country where only one religion should be acceptable — even if, to take a generous reading, it is a reference to Judeo-Christian traditions — Mandel is not so much criticizing extreme interpretations of the separationist principle as abandoning the idea altogether, something that would seem to endanger all minority faiths. Indeed, he went on to tweet, "America was not founded as a secular nation."
There are six months to go until the GOP primary. But if Mandel holds onto his lead, he will head into next November with the advantage of running in a state that is growing more conservative, and in a year in which Democrats are expected to take a shellacking because of dissatisfaction with the Biden administration.
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This creates the possibility that the next Jewish member of the Senate could be someone closely identified with far right forces that most American Jews regard as greater threats to their security than those on the intersectional left whose antipathy for Israel has led them to cross into antisemitic invective.
But Mandel won’t be so much separating himself from the mainstream liberal Jewish opinion as he will be dragging the quarter of American Jewry who vote for the Republicans even farther to the right.
Even if few will join him in endorsing Flynn’s bizarre theocratic stand, in the current hyper-partisan environment, they are far more likely to wind up instinctively supporting him, just as they have done for Trump because of his pro-Israel stands, rather than condemning him. Which is no different from the many liberal Jewish Democrats who have done for anti-Israel leftists like Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib.
In doing so, Josh Mandel may wind up demonstrating just how deep the divisions in American politics and those among American Jewry have become.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of the Jewish News Syndicate and a columnist for the New York Post. Twitter: @jonathans_tobin