JI INTERVIEW: Jason Kander, the Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate in Missouri, discusses his race against the incumbent Republican senator, Roy Blunt, and how his Jewish faith influenced his public service and political life. The outcome in red-state Missouri could help determine control of the Senate. “I don’t think about that all that much, because I’m going to be the exact same senator from Missouri no matter who’s in the majority or the minority and no matter which party owns the White House,” Kander told us in a phone interview. “ It’s pretty clear that my opponent, Senator Blunt, is very focused on which political party does what, because that seems to be mostly what his approach to politics is. For me, it’s just really not something I think about, because it’s not going to change how I represent Missouri.”
On Iran deal: “I did not think that the Iran deal made sense for America as it was constructed. So far, I have not seen a lot of evidence to the contrary of my view, and at the same time I feel that I just hope that it turns out that both Senator Blunt and myself were wrong and that it does work out well. If that happens, that would be a good thing. So far, it hasn’t been particularly encouraging. I think, in the short term, what has to be done is there’s a deal in place that I didn’t really agree with, but that means that we should make sure that every single aspect of that deal is enforced as stringently as possible. Again, it’s not something I’m particularly optimistic about. That’s why I opposed it in the first place.”
On foreign policy as an issue in the election: “I think that what voters want is the same thing that I want, which is for foreign policy to be kept separate from domestic politics. There was a time in this country, the majority of history in fact, where politics stopped at the water’s edge and foreign policy was not something that got wrapped up in partisan political maneuvering. Unfortunately, now we seem to be in a time where we don’t even bother to lament the fact that politics doesn’t stop at the water’s edge. I strongly believe that when we allow partisan politics to dictate our foreign policy, no matter which party is in charge, it makes us less safe, because it hinders our ability to adequately respond to changing events around the world.”
On his first and only trip to Israel at age 26: “I went on a birthright trip, and it meant a lot to me. My wife came to the United States as a refugee from religious persecution in the Soviet Union, in Ukraine, when she was eight years old. Some of her family went to Israel, and so, for her, it was definitely a connection with her familiar history and with her Jewish identity through being able to visit family there. We went together. For me, it was really an opportunity for me to, and it really did this for me, to really connect with my faith and with my own personal identity as a Jew, because I can remember at one point being at a kibbutz and opening up the prayer book at Sabbath services and seeing that the first page of the prayer book was saying that the prayer book was there due to a sponsorship from a congregation in Kansas City, Missouri and in particular a certain congregant. That congregant was actually a distant cousin of mine. That, for me, was a moment that I’ve never forgotten because it definitely was an affirmation for me of just how connected I felt to other folks in the Jewish faith.”
Q: How did your Jewish faith shape your political ambitions?
Kander: “I think my parents, through their example, whether it was about our faith or not, their example was always just that my brothers and I had a responsibility to do everything we could in a position where we knew that we could be of help to someone else. They never really had to tell us that it was tikkun olam, but now I look back and I realized that that’s really sort of the ethic I grew up in.”
Q: Have you experienced any anti-Semitism in this campaign?
Kander: “The answer really is no. Like anything else, people just want to know that you’re being real with them and that you’re authentic and that you’re not trying to be something that you are not. I have found as I’ve campaigned, I’ve visited a lot of churches with friends to meet people, they’ll bring me along to meet people in the congregation and sometimes the pastor will ask me to address the congregation, and I usually talk about my faith background. I’ve been 100% of the time received with warmth. That is because people in my state really just want to know that you share a faith in something above yourself and above the day-to-day life, for instance, the politics, that you have something that anchors you. I do. More than that, though, they want to meet the authentic you. They don’t want to meet some other version. Whether it’s your stance on a particular issue or your religious affiliation, people in my state tend to appreciate authenticity.”
Q: What’s your favorite Jewish food?
Kander: “Let’s see. Boy, that is a softball question, but probably I would have to say anything with smoked salmon, to be honest.”