State politics could use more Mr. Spock, less whispering

By Gail Appleson

On Feb. 26, Missouri auditor and Republican gubernatorial hopeful Tom Schweich put a gun to his head and killed himself. While we may never know the final straw that made him pull the trigger, Schweich alleged he was the victim of bigotry employed in an apparent bid to derail his political ambitions. He believed his opponents’ tactics included an anti-Semitic “whispering campaign” about his Jewish roots.

The day after Schweich’s suicide, Jewish actor Leonard Nimoy, famous for his role as Mr. Spock on television’s “Star Trek,” died at age 83 of late-stage chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. 

I found the timing of the deaths of these two public figures uncanny because the “Star Trek” franchise has won countless fans over the years by championing diversity and inclusion. However, prejudice was at the heart of the smear campaign Schweich described and it was a necessary element for the alleged scheme to succeed.

The original “Star Trek” series was launched in 1966 with one of television’s first multiracial casts. Since then — almost 50 years — it has generated a series of movies, spin-offs, novels and comics. The growth of the franchise has delivered new characters: humans and aliens of all different sizes, colors and planets of origin.

Over the years, Starfleet vessels have employed a host of unlikely crew members who worked together in harmony despite dramatically different backgrounds — such characters as Worf, a Klingon; Data, an android; and Seven of Nine, a former Borg (resistance is futile!) drone. Spock, himself, was the offspring of a mixed marriage between a Vulcan father and human mother.

But the Spock character was also a reflection of Nimoy’s own beliefs, including his Jewish education and traditions. Even the famous Vulcan hand gesture came from Nimoy’s interpretation of the priestly blessings performed by Kohanim in which the hands are held in a position to represent the Hebrew letter Shin.

He was certainly well acquainted with Jewish laws that require kindness to others and prohibit oppressive prejudice against the vulnerable. In fact the most repeated principle in the Torah deals with welcoming strangers and treating them well. For example, in Parsha Kedoshim, found in Leviticus, G-d instructs the Israelites not to wrong strangers.

“The stranger who sojourns with you shall be as a native from among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

The parsha also contains the famous command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Indeed, Rabbi John Rosove, who delivered the eulogy at Nimoy’s funeral, said the late actor’s interests and concerns “were founded upon his faith and belief in the inherent dignity of every human being.

“He treated everyone regardless of station, friend or stranger, with kindness and respect,” the rabbi said in the eulogy posted online. “His world view was enriched by his Jewish spirit and experience.”

Judaism also played a role in Schweich’s life, although he was Episcopalian. The late auditor’s grandfather was Jewish and he was proud of his connection to the Jewish faith. It was apparently for this reason that Schweich called several people to discuss what he alleged was an anti-Semitic whispering campaign aimed at hurting him politically. Former U.S. Sen. John Danforth and St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Tony Messenger were among those he contacted.

In addition, Spence Jackson, Schweich’s spokesman, has reportedly commented that while Schweich was disturbed about other ugly campaign tactics including an ad that compared him to goofy sheriff Barney Fife from TV’s “Andy Griffth Show,” he was most hurt by the comments that attacked the Jewish history of his family.

In a column following Schweich’s death, Messenger wrote: “He said his grandfather taught him to never allow any anti-Semitism to go unpunished, no matter how slight.”

And that’s exactly what has happened, regardless of the exact motivation behind Schweich’s suicide and whether his allegations about the whispering campaign are true. The national publicity generated by Schweich’s death shines a harsh spotlight on anti-Semitism in general and more specifically, its possible role in Missouri politics.

The circumstances surrounding Schweich’s death led Danforth, now an Episcopal priest, to deliver a scathing eulogy at Schweich’s funeral, widely covered by news media.

“Words do hurt. Words can kill,” Danforth said as he called for an end to the “bullying” kind of politics” that may have played a role in Schweich’s death.

“Let’s pledge that we will not put up with any whisper of anti-Semitism…We will take the battle Tom wanted to fight as our own cause,” he said. “This will be our memorial to Tom: that politics as it now exits must end and we will end it.”

Treating opponents with decency and respect might sound like impossible, but politicians would be wise to learn a lesson from “Star Trek.”  After all, it boldly went where no TV series had gone before by promoting diversity and inclusion, winning it countless fans.