Jews in Texas: What We Learned from the Reelection of Speaker Straus

Sermon delivered March 25, 2011, by Rabbi Barry H. D. Block

“You mean there are Jews inTexas?”  Each of us has heard these words at one time or another.  When Toni and I had been dating for about two months, I took her to her first State of Israel Bonds Dinner, replete with some 300 participants.  Toni exclaimed that she had no idea San Antonio had so many Jews.  She had lived here four years by then!

Yes, some people imagine that American Jews live only in New York, or perhaps in very large metropolitan areas like Chicago and Los Angeles.  Some who do realize that 2011 finds more than a few Jewish citizens of Texas still imagine that we must all be transplants from Brooklyn or New Jersey.

Of course, many Texas Jews have moved here in recent decades, seeking opportunity, a hospitable environment, and a friendly community.  Others of us are natives, and are grateful that our ancestors found their way to Texas long ago.

In the late 19th Century, a group of wealthy German Jewish industrialists in New York hoped that large numbers of Eastern European Jews could be routed to Galveston Island instead of Ellis Island.  That so-called “Galveston Plan” was cooked up in cooperation with the great Rabbi Henry Cohen of Galveston.  The established New York Jews were afraid of massive numbers of new Jewish immigrants, known as “greenhorns.”  Anti-immigrant feeling was high, then as now.  Jewish leaders worried that their neighbors would have a hard time distinguishing between the new Jewish immigrants and the more refined Jews who had immigrated to these shores decades earlier.  Rabbi Cohen was eager to build the Jewish community in his own city, throughout Texas, and in surrounding states.  He found work for thousands of immigrants who entered through Galveston.  My own family, on my father’s paternal side, was among those who came to Texas that way, as were the ancestors of many of our Temple members.  The founders of Temple Beth-El, though, were German Jews who found their way to Texas even earlier, just as others of my own relatives migrated to the Mississippi delta region.

The Speaker of the Texas House, Joe Straus, III, is the scion of one of those German Jewish families who founded Temple Beth-El and other Reform Temples in Texas in the 1850s through 1870s.  Like many of us, natives and newcomers alike, the Speaker is comfortable in Texas.  We fit in.  We are Jews.  We are Americans.  And we are Texans.

Texas does not have a notable history of anti-Semitism.  Of course, no place where Jews have lived has been completely free of anti-Jewish bias.  My own father graduated number 1 in his University of Texas Law School class in 1961, but was not even interviewed by most distinguished law firms in Houston or Dallas.  The one firm representative who did meet with him was surprisingly candid:  “If we were looking for somebody like you right now, we would certainly hire you.”  My father went to work for a “Jewish” firm, and did just fine, and that hiring situation had changed before the decade was out.  My father’s story would have been the same in most parts of the country at that era.

Texas has never been notorious for anti-Semitism.  When Joe Straus was elected Speaker in January, 2009, the press noted that he was our first Jewish Speaker.  Whatever our political affiliation, members of Temple Beth-El could take pride that one of our congregants had been elevated to such a powerful and respected position.  We could be particularly pleased, because the Speaker was selected for his skills at bringing people together; Joe Straus is not a polarizing, hard-line, ultra-partisan figure.  His being Jewish was little more than a footnote in 2009.

All that changed, or so it seemed, in the last months of 2010.

Early last fall, I received an email from an Austin friend, alerting me to something called “the Peter Morrison Report.”  Morrison writes an obscure, extremist political newsletter distributed via the Internet.  Months before the November election, which changed the partisan complexion of the House, Morrison called for Joe Straus to be replaced as Speaker.  Morrison’s attack was as much on Straus’ Rabbi, on me, as it was on the Speaker himself.  Morrison cited, more or less correctly, my stances on immigration reform, reproductive freedom, and gay rights.  He called me “Joe Straus’ Jeremiah Wright.”  Morrison was likely unaware that my positions are not unique to me, but are identical to social justice resolutions of our Union for Reform Judaism and Central Conference of American Rabbis – and in some cases, of Temple Beth-El itself.

In any event, that particular Morrison letter never attracted any press coverage.  Thankfully, neither this congregation nor its Rabbi was at the center of the issue by the time it became public after the November election.

The election of November, 2010 changed less in Texas than in much of the country, since all statewide offices and the majorities of both houses of the legislature were already held by one party.  The one place where power had been almost shared before last November was the State House of Representatives.  Now, though, the majority party would hold fully two-thirds of the seats.  Some legislators who had never supported Joe Straus as Speaker now claimed that he was not conservative enough for this new super-majority.  The Speaker would face a challenge for the gavel.

The challenge had nothing to do with religion.  The legislators running against the Speaker did not bring up his religious affiliation.

Peter Morrison, though, had other plans, as did other extremists.  Morrison’s letters no longer referred to me as “Jeremiah Wright,” though he continued to hammer on my association with Planned Parenthood.  Morrison proclaimed that, if his pastor were on the Planned Parenthood Board, he would find a new church.  Morrison suggested that, by remaining affiliated with Temple Beth-El, the Speaker was assenting to all the positions taken from this bimah.  Peter Morrison, of course, knows nothing about Reform Judaism.  He does not know that the Rabbi of Temple Beth-El in the late 1930s was a strident supporter of a pecan shellers’ strike, directed specifically at businesses owned by Temple leaders who did not resign from the congregation.  He does not know that the Rabbi of Temple Beth-El during the Civil Rights Movement was a leader of peaceful desegregation in San Antonio, a matter on which many Temple leaders asked him to keep quiet.  He does not know that the Rabbi of Temple Beth-El in the early 1980s gave a pointed sermon opposing “contracts of sale” commonly used by Temple members and others who built, sold, and managed low-income residential real estate. Morrison does not know that Joe Straus’ family has been part of Temple Beth-El since it was founded in 1874.  Morrison is probably unaware that the Speaker could not find a Reform Jewish congregation in San Antonio or just about anyplace where the Rabbi would fail to support reproductive freedom and the like.

But Peter Morrison and extremists like him are not interested in facts or in knowledge.  Writing about my involvement about Planned Parenthood, for example, soon was exposed for what it was:  thinly veiled religious bigotry.  Morrison and others began to write that Texans had elected a strong majority of “Christian conservatives” to the House of Representative.  Therefore, the extremists argued, the Speaker should be a “Christian conservative,” something that Joe Straus could not be, no matter how conservative his politics.

Soon, the extremists’ incendiary words attracted national, even international, attention.  Texas was branded as a hospitable environment for anti-Semitism, with our Jewish House Speaker threatened with defeat because he is Jewish.  We heard that the Speakers’ party had often referred to the United States as “a Christian nation.”  Indeed, the Texas Republican Party platform in 2004 did include an offensive statement characterizing the nation that way.  By 2010, the phrase had been amended to “Judeo-Christian.”  The United States, according to our nation’s Constitution, is not a “Judeo-Christian” country either, and we should equally fight this calumny about America.  However, the platform’s change from “Christian” to “Judeo-Christian” does speak volumes about the acceptance of Jews by the mainstream of the Texas majority party.

The world was wrong about Texas once again.  Soon, the Speaker’s opponents in the Legislature issued statements strongly criticizing religiously-motivated opposition to Speaker Straus.  Whether those legislators had any connection to the hateful, anti-Jewish polemics swirling on the Internet, they were branded by it.  The election for Speaker became largely a referendum on a religious test for office.  Our nation’s Constitution says that no person may be restricted from holding any governmental office in this land on the basis of his or her religion or lack thereof.  At its first opportunity, a super-majority of the new legislative super-majority reelected the Speaker.  And at its first opportunity, the full House of Representatives did the same.

What did we learn?  To those who would say that we found out that extremists on the right tend to be anti-Semitic, I would answer:  Extremists are often anti-Semitic, right or left.  This kind of anti-Semitism can turn deadly, but nobody should have been surprised.

We also should not have been surprised that a substantial majority of fair-minded Texans rejected this contemptible religious bigotry.  To the extent that the extremists impacted the election for Speaker by calling for a “Christian conservative,” they helped cement the reelection of Joe Straus.  Some legislators doubtless feared that voting against the Speaker could brand them as anti-Semites, as well.  A vote for Joe Straus came to mean even more than a vote for a terrific human being who can bring people together at a time when we are too often divided.  A vote for Joe Straus became a vote against religious bigotry, a vote for America.

In this week’s Torah portion, in words that I read tonight, Moses proclaims that God must be sanctified through the leaders’ actions.  Our State, sacred to so many of us, was slandered by extremists:  They imagined that Texans would be swayed against a politician because he is Jewish.  In January of 2011, the Texas House of Representatives stood up against religious bigotry.  With their help, God blessed Texas once again.