Specter an iconoclast shaped by his Jewish upbringing

During his 30 years in the clubby confines of the Senate, Arlen Specter never lost his acerbic prosecutorial zeal, friends and associates say.

The insistent questions, the commitment to independence that made the longtime Pennsylvania senator a critical player in recent U.S. history, ultimately did in his career. In his 2010 bid for a sixth term, Specter lost the support of both Democrats and Republicans.

Specter, who had been the longest-serving senator from his state, died Oct. 14 of complications from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He was 82.

Arlen Specter speaking at AFL-CIO convention in 2009 photo/jta-steve dietz-sharp image

His iconoclasm was his brand, from the outset of his career, when he made a name for himself as the young Philadelphia assistant district attorney on the Warren Commission who first postulated that a single bullet hit both President John F. Kennedy and Texas Gov. John Connally.

And he wore his independence as a badge of honor: the pro-choice Republican who helped fell Robert Bork’s nomination to the Supreme Court, and then ensured Clarence Thomas’ ascension by leading what many liberal groups saw as the smearing of Anita Hill, a one-time aide to Thomas who had accused the former head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Com-mission of sexually harassing her.

Running for district attorney in Philadelphia in 1965, he left the Democratic Party, but he returned in 2009 frustrated with what he said was the Republican Party’s lurch rightward. Specter the Democrat helped pass President Barack Obama’s health care reforms.

“He would tell me, ‘Every morning I wake up I look in the mirror and I see the toughest guy in politics,’ ” recalled Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America who first lobbied and then befriended Specter.

Specter, who represented Pennsylvania in the Senate from 1981 to 2011, was shaped by his childhood as the only Jewish kid in his class in a small Midwestern town, Russell, Kan., said David Brog, a longtime aide to Specter.

“He was a tough Jew,” Brog said. Specter’s upbringing — helping out his father, a peddler and scrap metal business owner, when he was not more than a toddler — was a factor in his pro-Israel leadership, Brog said.

In a 1981 interview with the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent, Specter talked about his relationship with Judaism. “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,” he said.

“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.”

Specter, who had two Orthodox sisters, was not outwardly religious himself, though he maintained a strong sense of his Jewish identity. Among other things, Specter was a leader in advancing the cause of Soviet Jews, recalled Mark Levin, who directs NCSJ, the former National Council on Soviet Jewry.

“He wanted to know what more could be done, at the most difficult time when so few people were getting out,” Levin said. “He was tough but fair.”

Specter also helped preserve the Lautenberg Amendment, named for Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), which eased immigration for refugees escaping persecution. Designed as a way to advance the exodus of Soviet Jews, Specter extended the amendment to minorities from other nations, including Iran.

“A prescient leader, he understood early on that religious minorities within Iran needed special protection,” said a statement from the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. “The senator never forgot his Jewish roots, and his legacy within the Jewish community is great.”

Specter throughout his career was a pro-Israel leader, in recent years leading efforts to condition aid to the Palestinian Authority on its peace process performance. He also aimed to protect Jewish students on campuses from anti-Israel harassment.

An array of Jewish and pro-Israel groups mourned his passing.

“Time and time again, Sen. Specter worked to ensure that America’s ally had the resources necessary to defend herself and protect U.S. interests in the Middle East,” the American Israel Public Affairs Committee said in a statement. “He was a good friend of our organization and a leading architect of the congressional bond between our country and Israel.”

The Israeli Embassy in Washington called Specter “an unswerving defender of the Jewish state and a stalwart advocate of peace.”

Yet Specter also courted the region’s tyrants, including Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and the Assads in Syria. He longed for a role brokering peace between Israel and Syria, even after his departure from the Senate.

“He visited these tyrants, and he was convinced that he could convince them to moderate their policies,” Klein said. “And as we know, he never did.”

Brog said that from his days as a prosecutor, Specter relished the challenge of going toe to toe with bad guys and getting them to stand down.

“He and Hafez Assad would sit for hours on end drinking tea, seeing who would need to go for a bathroom break first,” Brog said, referring to the late Syrian strongman and father of the country’s current ruler, Bashar Assad.

As the political climate grew more polarized, Specter found himself assailed by the left and the right. In 2004, he barely fended off a Republican primary challenge from his right by Rep. Pat Toomey.

Five years later, realizing he would likely not be able to beat Toomey again, Specter switched parties, saying the GOP had “moved far to the right.” Yet the Democratic Party proved no more welcoming; he lost in the 2010 primary to Rep. Joe Sestak, who in turn was defeated by Toomey in the general election.

The Jewish affiliates of both parties issued statements commemorating Specter’s career. Each emphasized different aspects — the National Jewish Democratic Council called him a “crucial voice of moderation,” and the Republican Jewish Coalition said he was a “staunch supporter of Israel.”

But both groups echoed one another in praising Specter’s higher calling: public servant.