Column: Josh Shapiro’s Jewish ‘Privilege’ at Issue in PA Governor’s Race

It is no wonder that Doug Mastriano assailed a prominent Jewish day school attended by his rival for the Pennsylvania governor’s office. How else can he possibly woo antisemitic voters?

During a rally last week, Republican state Sen. Doug Mastriano reminded his followers that Democrat Josh Shapiro, the state attorney general, “grew up in a privileged neighborhood, attended one of the most privileged schools in the nation as a young man – not college, I’m talking about as a kid.”

He added that Shapiro is now “sending his four kids to the same privileged, exclusive, elite school, $30-40,000 per pupil. We talk about him having disdain for people like us.”

Disdain for people like Donald Trump, Mastriano’s most important cheerleader? Our former president attended two private schools throughout his childhood – the Kew-Forest School from kindergarten through seventh grade and the New York Military Academy, a private boarding school above West Point.

Sigh. This is one of two disgusting election campaigns that more than 12 million fellow citizens in my state must endure until Nov. 8. Mastriano is crass enough to take revolting positions on the issues, but he has injected antisemitism into the race, if indirectly. The other is the Senate campaign pitting Democrat John Fetterman against Republican Mehmet Oz, whose top campaign position is mocking his opponent’s health.

Until now, Mastriano’s stands have affected me personally in one area. He wants repeal of a law that permits mail-in ballots. Because of a leg injury, I found it too difficult to make my way to the voting booth and have relied on mail-in ballots for the last few years. Mastriano’s strategy is understandable: Senior citizens and those on disability will be unable to vote against Mastriano without mail-in ballots.

Mastriano did not identify the school in question, but Shapiro attended the Akiba Hebrew Academy in Lower Merion Township on Philadelphia’s lower Main Line, and the school underwent relocation to Bryn Mawr further west along the Main Line and a name change to the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy. Rabbi David Wolpe, rabbi to the late Don Rickles, is among notable graduates who include author Mitch Albom, documentary filmmaker Allison Klayman and CNN’s “The Lead” host Jake Tapper.

It was Tapper who made an issue of it on his show last Thursday, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reports. “I don’t think I have ever heard Mr. Mastriano describe any other Pennsylvania parochial schools in that way: elite, exclusive, privileged, full of disdain for fellow Americans,” Tapper said.

Strange that Mastriano’s outburst comes in 2022. Despite the onslaught of antisemitic expression in recent years, politicians have mostly avoided references to a rival’s religion or ethnicity. That especially applies to Pennsylvania, which has advanced from center-right to center-left during the last three decades.

Edward Rendell’s religion was rarely an issue when he ran for governor in 2002 and was subsequently elected to two terms. Shapiro has not bothered to conceal his name and in fact informed television viewers how he returns home for Shabbat dinner every Friday night.

We cannot forget that a Democratic Jewish candidate, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, was elected vice president in 2000. That is, he won the popular vote, but was blocked from taking office because Dick Cheney was selected by the electoral college.

Mastriano could have gotten away with these tasteless comments a half-century ago. In 1970, Milton J. Shapp was elected as the state’s first Jewish governor. His last name was no longer his birth name, which interestingly was Shapiro. Nationwide, Abraham Ribicoff served as governor of Connecticut and later as a senator. In between, President Kennedy offered Ribicoff his choice of cabinet posts, and he agreed to be Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare. He reportedly would not accept the Attorney General’s job because he feared that being Jewish might provoke controversy within the civil rights movement.

To be sure, Pennsylvania is known as a deeply prejudiced place in many regions outside Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, but Philadelphia’s suburbs have become more liberal, owing in part to Jewish migration.

If Shapiro grew up with privilege, he is not alone. We can start with Trump. He had no need to search for a job. His father hired him so he could join the family’s real estate business. Singling out Shapiro is a desperation move, and Mastriano – like other Republican candidates across the country – has little going for him. Even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell complained of the “quality of candidates” of Republicans running for the Senate.

Mastriano seeks to slash per-student public school funding almost in half, likens the anti-abortion drive to the abolitionist movement, introduced a bill to ban enforcement of federal gun laws, labeled climate change as “fake science,” opposes same-sex marriage and voted in 2019 against raising the minimum wage to $9.50 per hour, according to WHYY, Philadelphia’s public radio station.

He compounded these stands by spending $5,000 last April using Gab, a favorite social media platform for antisemites, to plug his campaign. A Gab user is accused of posting plans on the site that resemble what he is charged with actually doing four years ago: slaughtering 11 congregants at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, The Philadelphia Inquirer reports.

Gab is operated by Andrew Torba, a Christian nationalist who routinely badmouths other religions.

Mastriano has also compared abortion to the Holocaust and gun-safety measures to Nazi Germany, and labeled as “a myth” the separation of church and state, according to the Inquirer.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is expected to run for president in 2024, drew fire from Pittsburgh leaders for appearing with Mastriano at a rally there five miles from the Tree of Life shul in the heavily Jewish Squirrel Hill section. DeSantis’s history as governor involves lax steps to control Covid-19, censoring classroom discussions and blocking dissent from a Tampa prosecutor and professors at the state-run University of Florida in Gainesville.

Mastriano did close his Gab account last month after being criticized for his involvement with Gab.

Though he gave up the Gab, his attack on what amounts to Shapiro’s Jewish “privilege” should tell antisemitic voters what Mastriano can do for them.

About Bruce Ticker

Bruce S. Ticker, who writes from Philadelphia, also blogs for The San Diego Jewish World and Smirking Chimp and previously for the suspended Philadelphia Jewish Voice. He was previously a reporter and copy editor for daily newspapers in eastern Pennsylvania.

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