Until his recent downfall, Eliot Spitzer was one of America's most prominent Jewish politicians. Yet his Jewishness has been almost completely absent from the public debate occasioned by his disgrace and resignation. Pundits haven't been pontificating about the implications of Spitzer's downfall for the future of Jewish participation in politics. No one of any consequence has claimed that his misdeeds reflect badly on Jews as a group. And Spitzer himself hasn't tried to "play the anti-Semitism card" by claiming that the feds targeted him because he is Jewish. To paraphrase Sherlock Holmes, the absence of anti-Semitism from the discussion of Spitzer is a crucial dog that didn't bark.
The lack of focus on Spitzer's Jewishness is all to the good. It shows that both the political elite and the general public broadly accept the role of Jews in public life and that anti-Semitism has largely been marginalized in mainstream political discourse. That marginalization, in turn, helps ensure that Jews are unlikely to rally to a Jewish public figure accused of wrongdoing if he makes unsubstantiated claims of being a victim of anti-Semitism. That may be one of the reasons why Spitzer didn't try to use anti-Semitism as a defense. Obviously, anti-Semitism hasn't disappeared in America. But it has been reduced to relative insignificance.
Unfortunately, however, we haven't advanced quite as far with respect to some other minority groups. Had an equally prominent black or Hispanic politician landed in the same kind of fix as Spitzer, it is highly likely that his race would be a major part of the discussion. Pundits would grouse about the implications of the scandal for black leaders more generally. And the politician himself might well play the race card in order to defend himself. The reasons for this are understandable. We have not overcome racism and its legacy to the same degree as we have with anti-Semitism. As a result, public discourse focuses on race far more than on Jewish-gentile differences. And blacks are understandably more suspicious of efforts to prosecute the alleged misdeeds of black leaders than Jews are of similar efforts with respect to Jewish ones.
However, the Spitzer case does offer a measure of hope. If this scandal had occurred just a few decades ago, Spitzer's Jewishness would have been a much larger part of the discussion, and that discussion would have been vastly more poisonous. In time, we may be able to achieve the same sort of progress in race relations. As flawed as they are, race relations today are still much better than twenty or thirty years ago. In time, if we are lucky, a public figure's race might become just as insignificant as Spitzer's Jewishness is today.