FARGO - Martin Wishnatsky was a well-known anti-abortion activist when he lived here, but since he left for law school in 2009, he's been mostly out of the spotlight.
That is, until about a week ago.
The world learned that Wishnatsky is the person the wife of Alabama Republican U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore was referring to when she announced at a Dec. 11 campaign rally that "one of our attorneys is a Jew." Moore's wife, Kayla, said it as a way to defend her husband against accusations of anti-Semitism.
The comment launched a search among news organizations for the identity of the Jewish attorney that ended Jan. 4 when the news website AL.com said in a headline: "Roy Moore's wife reveals their 'Jewish attorney' and he's a Christian."
"It's very surprising," Wishnatsky told The Forum, describing his reaction to being singled out. "It's like a spotlight came looking for me." To him, he said, it was just an offshoot of the character assassination of Roy Moore.
He said he's Jewish by birth and Christian by religion, having converted in his 30s. "It's not either-or. In this case it's both."
Wishnatsky came to Fargo from New York City in 1991 with Lambs of Christ, a group of anti-abortion activists, and ended up staying for nearly two decades, working with other anti-abortion activists, especially Darold Larson, a controversial one-time U.S. Senate candidate.
Wishnatsky went to work for Moore in 2012 after graduating from law school. Moore had just been re-elected as chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court. When a disciplinary court suspended Moore in 2016, Wishnatsky went to work for Moore's Moral Law Foundation, run by Kayla Moore.
Roy Moore lost to Democrat Doug Jones in a special election Dec. 12 after several women accused Moore of trying to or actually dating them when they were teens and he was in his 30s; some accused him of sexual assault.
Wishnatsky, who played no role in the campaign, said, "It was very distressing and in no way represented the person that I know." He said he doesn't know why the women would make those accusations. For Moore, he said, "I think it was very difficult for him."
Growing up Jewish
Wishnatsky's grandparents on both sides of his family were Jews from Eastern Europe who came to New York before World War I, he said. "All our relatives, all our family, and indeed most of our friends were all Jewish. We were part of the Jewish world. In addition to that, I went to Hebrew school for five years and then was bar mitzvahed at the age of 13."
He converted to Christianity in 1977 at age 33 after meeting a "gypsy fortune teller" whose prayer for him compelled him to learn more about the religion, he said.
Kayla Moore appeared to have been thinking about Jewish religion, though, when she told the crowd, "One of our attorneys is a Jew. We have very close friends that are Jewish and rabbis, and we also fellowship with them." She didn't initially identify any of these people leading to much speculation among political observers.
Wishnatsky didn't identify himself, either, even as some news media identified Richard Jaffe, a Jewish attorney who represented the Moores' son Caleb several years ago on a drug charge. Jaffe happens to be a strong Jones supporter.
"I was not interested in entering into that because it seems to me that it was another gotcha game being played with Judge Moore, in this case with his wife, to try to take a brief statement and make a major cause celebre out of it," Wishnatsky said.
Sojourn in Fargo
Wishnatsky, who grew up in New Jersey, ended up in Fargo because the anti-abortion activists he was with wanted to force the closure of the only abortion clinic in North Dakota.
He became an activist after encountering an anti-abortion pamphlet filled with bloody images in 1987 that convinced him abortion was no different than murder. Lambs of Christ, the activists he became involved with, specialized in blocking the entrances to abortion clinics.
By the time he got to Fargo, he'd already been in jail for his part in these blockades and lost his computer programming job on Wall Street.
Wishnatsky would serve more time in jail in North Dakota for blocking the Fargo clinic against court orders. Because he refused plea deals, he said he served 10 months, a longer term than others, so none of the Lambs he came with were left when he was released. He decided to stick around because local activists in Fargo gave him a home and jobs, he said.
Working for Moore
Wishnatsky ended up attending law school at Liberty University, a Christian institution in Lynchburg, Va., after he got a scholarship there. He was about 68 when he graduated and went to work for Moore.
Wishnatsky said he enjoyed being a law clerk because it involved a lot of research and writing, and he liked working with Moore. "Judge Moore has an original mind. He would often come up with approaches to cases that hadn't occurred to any of us on his staff."
He lost the clerkship in 2016 when Moore was suspended by a disciplinary court for, essentially, telling lower courts to ignore a U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage. But Wishnatsky found work at the Moral Law Foundation equally rewarding.
He said he got to work more frequently with issues that he cares most about.
The foundation primarily writes "friend of the court" briefs in support of other parties in what he calls "religious liberty" cases. Currently, he said, he's working on a case to block a California law requiring crisis pregnancy centers to mention abortion as an option.
Wishnatsky suggested he might be working with Moore again now that the campaign is over. "It's quite possible that he might resume participating in the work of the foundation."