Whenever the current occupant of the White House does something erratic, there’s the inevitable whisper: What about a President Mike Pence? Perhaps Pence would be better for the country? Perhaps Pence would be better for the Republicans? Perhaps, some ask, Pence would even be better for the Jews?
As a longtime observer of the vice president from his home state, where I teach political science at Indiana University, I am not convinced. Mike Pence is a vocal advocate for Israel and a decent man, but that doesn’t make him “good for the Jews.”
Yes, he is a Zionist. Yes, he supports a strong alliance between the United States and Israel. Yes, he is even a darling of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. But American Jews want more from their elected officials than strong advocacy for Israel; survey after survey shows we vote far more based on matters of social justice, economics and health. So how does Pence fare on the issues that matter most to Jewish voters? Not so well.
When Pence ruled the roost at our Hoosier statehouse, he was known for his disregard for the rights and interests of some of our most vulnerable citizens. Two examples stand out: his support of our state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and his aggressive opposition to reproductive rights.
The RFRA fight was Pence’s first civil rights fiasco. As governor, he lobbied for the bill and signed it into law on March 26, 2015. The act protected the freedom of businesses and their owners to practice their religion at work, even if that would entail discrimination against their LGBTQ or other customers.
The Jewish Community Relations Council of Indianapolis, of which I’m president, testified against passage of the bill. We argued first and foremost that religiously justified discrimination is still discrimination. If businesses won’t serve you because they don’t like your sexual orientation, your race or your religion, it shouldn’t matter that the business owners’ intent was based on religious belief. That’s how many Southern business owners justified discrimination against blacks in the past, and it’s how many Americans justify their discrimination today. Discrimination is wrong whatever the reason, and Jews, like any minority group, are at risk from it.
Discrimination is also bad for the Jews because it’s bad for the economy. During the legislature’s deliberations on RFRA, our state’s leading companies, including Eli Lilly and Cummins Engines, testified and lobbied against it. They recognized that they wouldn’t be able to attract the most capable workforce if Indiana were not a state that welcomed everyone. Yet the governor seemed tone-deaf to these pleas. It doesn’t say much for his ability to lead the whole nation.
It was only after Indiana came under tremendous pressure from national media that the General Assembly stepped in and “fixed” the bill to make it less discriminatory. The fix came entirely from the legislature; even afterward, Governor Pence thought the only real problem had been a failure to sell the bill properly. On ABC’s This Week, for example, Pence refused eight separate opportunities to say that potential anti-gay discrimination might be a problem, and he insisted the law did not need to be changed.
Pence also deviates from the vast majority of Jews’ electoral positions on matters of reproductive health. According to McGill University historian Gil Troy, Jewish voters “are more pro-choice than pro-Israel.” In contrast, Pence signed eight pro-life bills into law in four years. The latest, signed in March 2016, turned out to be one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country.
The law included a constellation of provisions that cast many shadows on women’s right to reproductive choice. If a couple discovered their fetus had Tay-Sachs disease or Down syndrome and wanted an abortion, the law denied them that option. No abortions were to be permitted because of fetal abnormalities. The law also would have required abortion doctors to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital; a similar law in Texas caused half the state’s abortion clinics to close. Adding insult to injury, the law also required abortion providers or clients to bury or cremate fetal tissue.
The measure was a point of pride for Pence, and he signed it with a prayer for mothers and unborn children. Thousands of women rallied at the statehouse to protest the law, which was suspended by a federal judge before it could go into effect. (Many of the 2013 Texas law’s restrictions were struck down by the Supreme Court last year.)
Nevertheless, Pence, as vice president, has continued to support restrictive laws that would deny women access to safe and legal abortions, claiming at the annual anti-Roe v. Wade rally in DC that “Life is winning.”
In promoting laws that deny civil rights, Pence has championed policies that divide rather than unite. And policies that divide us are never good for the Jews. In a society of conflict, minorities suffer, and when minorities suffer, the Jewish community suffers. It is no coincidence that the rise in our country’s political polarization has been accompanied by a rise in anti-Semitic acts.
Jews should—and do—care about rights for all, not least because we are commanded in Deuteronomy to pursue justice. But it also behooves us to seek justice for all, because only in a strong and robust democracy can we thrive as American Jews.
Judith Lynn Failer is an associate professor of political science at Indiana University, Bloomington, and president of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Indianapolis.