Jewish leaders call on GOP candidates to reject antisemitic comments

Photo for The Washington Post by Hannah Beier, Mark Makela
Left: Democratic Senate candidate John Fetterman speaks during a rally at Nether Providence Elementary School in Wallingford, Pa., on Oct. 15, Fetterman and Jewish groups have condemned his GOP opponent, Mehmet Oz, for supporting gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano, who has a history of extremism.
Right: Republican gubernatorial hopeful for Pennsylvania Doug Mastriano held a Chester County rally at the Kimberton Fairgrounds on Oct. 1 in Phoenixville, Pa.

Jewish leaders raised alarms Monday about antisemitism they say is increasingly normalized in American politics after a series of bigoted comments from associates or supporters of GOP candidates and growing calls for them to firmly reject such rhetoric.

In Nevada, the campaign of GOP Senate nominee Adam Laxalt on Monday denounced antisemitic tweets linked to a recently fired staffer who said Jews are part of a “cult” rather than a religion. But in Georgia, Republican Senate candidate Herschel Walker did not publicly reject a show of support from Ye, the rapper formerly known as Kanye West, who has made a slew of comments attacking Jewish people in recent weeks, including a tweet threatening he would go “death con 3 on JEWISH PEOPLE.”

Democratic-aligned Jewish groups also on Monday criticized Mehmet Oz, the Senate candidate in Pennsylvania, for planning to appear at a rally this weekend with GOP gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano. Mastriano has unsettled Jewish Democrats and Republicans alike with his extremist ties and comments about his Jewish opponent, state attorney general Josh Shapiro. The Republican candidate’s wife asserted over the weekend that she and her husband “probably love Israel more than a lot of Jews do.”

Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), the former U.S. senator and first Jewish candidate on a national ticket, said he is confident most Americans reject antisemitism and other forms of bigotry. “But if the leaders are not explicit and right out front against it, it can grow.” He said Walker should reject Ye’s support given his “explicit and vile antisemitism.”

Lieberman, now an independent, said things have gotten worse since he made history as Al Gore’s vice-presidential pick in 2000. He blamed, in part, a degraded political discourse in which bigoted people “can feel some confidence to come out from their holes in the ground.”

Jack Rosen, president of the advocacy group American Jewish Congress, said a seeming rise in antisemitic rhetoric in politics is “disturbing to all of us” and argued that “on the right . . . we don’t see the kind of leadership it’s going to take to stop the growth of this kind of antisemitic hatred.”

His nonpartisan group recently criticized former president Donald Trump for saying American Jews have to “get their act together” and be more appreciative of Trump’s work for Israel. While Trump has been “a true friend to Israel,” the American Jewish Congress said, such statements “contribute to the rising antisemitism too many Jews are forced to face.”

“We are in a particular time in our country where bigotry like antisemitism is being normalized, where people can make statements and there are no real repercussions in the political sphere,” said Marilyn Mayo, a senior research fellow at Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism.

In Arizona, the GOP candidate in a marquee House race, Eli Crane, urged the audience to look up an antisemitic sermon at a recent campaign stop. Speaking last month in Casa Grande, Crane said he was motivated to run because of “radical ideologies that are destroying this country” and that he was most concerned about “Cultural Marxism,” which the Southern Poverty Law Center has described as an antisemitic conspiracy theory gaining traction on the American right.

He encouraged the audience to watch a speech by a right-wing pastor that blamed cultural change on a group of German-Jewish philosophers and condemned Barack Obama for having a “homosexual agenda.”

“If we don’t wake up,” Crane said, “if we don’t study what they’re doing, and if we don’t put people in influential positions that understand what this war is all about, what they’re trying to do and have and have the courage to call it out, we’re going to lose this country.”

The Crane campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Republicans, including GOP Jewish leaders, defended their candidates and leaders’ responses to antisemitic comments and said many Democrats have failed to denounce troubling remarks within their own ranks. A Republican National Committee spokesperson pointed to comments from Democratic lawmakers using language widely denounced as antisemitic, such as Rep. Ilhan Omar’s (D-Minn.) 2012 tweet saying Israel “has hypnotized the world.” Omar defended the comments as aimed at the country’s military action.

Matt Brooks, the executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, said Walker, Laxalt and Oz have all “been very clear in terms of their strong opposition and condemnation against antisemitism.” He said he was “absolutely not” concerned about the fired staffer for Laxalt, who joined the RJC for an event this fall where he stressed his support for Israel.

As for Trump’s tirade against Jews in the United States, Brooks called it a “Rorschach test” that offended critics but for Trump supporters expressed something “absolutely accurate” – that the Jewish community should take a stronger stance on issues such as Israel’s security.

The RJC has declined to endorse Mastriano, however, who came under fire this summer for paying $5,000 for campaign consulting to the far-right site Gab – where a gunman posted antisemitic screeds before murdering 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue four years ago. Gab chief executive Andrew Torba said he has a policy of only speaking to Christian reporters and said that Mastriano did as well. Mastriano put out a statement distancing himself from Torba and said, “I reject antisemitism in any form.”

Mastriano was also criticized after telling supporters that his Democratic opponent, Shapiro, had “disdain for people like us” because he attended and sent his children to a “privileged, exclusive, elite” school, a Jewish institution. Over the weekend, an Israeli reporter asked Mastriano about those comments, which were widely condemned as promoting antisemitic tropes, as well as about his association with Gab.

Rebbie Mastriano, the candidate’s wife, stepped in and said, “We probably love Israel more than a lot of Jews do.”

Halie Soifer, the CEO of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, noted that the words echoed Trump’s social media post touting his relationship with Israel and said others in the GOP should have criticized Trump. “To have a former president direct that kind of animus at Jews, two weeks ago . . . of course it’s then going to be echoed by other Republicans,” she said.

Democratic candidates have drawn attention to GOP candidates’ responses to antisemitic remarks. The campaign of Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D) on Monday took aim at Walker’s silence on Ye’s social media post praising Walker as “PRO LIFE,” saying in a news release that Walker “should tell Georgians: does he accept Kanye West’s endorsement despite his divisive, racist and antisemitic comments?”

The National Republican Senatorial Committee did not comment on the support from Ye, whose business empire is in tatters after Adidas and other companies cut ties due to his repeated antisemitic comments.

In Nevada, Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto (D) and Jacky Rosen (D), who is Jewish, joined Jewish leaders Monday to denounce antisemitism, including the former Laxalt staffer’s comments first reported Sunday by Jewish Insider.

A spokesman for Laxalt, Brian Freimuth, initially told Jewish Insider only that the person was fired in August and unaffiliated with the campaign. On Monday he issued a fuller statement, saying the “bigoted opinions” attributed to the former field representative don’t reflect Laxalt’s views. He did not elaborate on the circumstances of the firing and said Laxalt’s “public and private life show that he believes there should be zero tolerance for antisemitism in any form and any suggestion otherwise is a politically motivated lie.”

A Twitter user with the handle “LaxaltStan,” who at one point identified himself as a GOP political operative named Michael Pecjak, described Jewish people as part of “a cult”; retweeted an image of the words “I hate” and “Jews”; and suggested they were unhappy with a Breitbart editor’s comment that the right-wing website is “pro-Jewish with a reputation for treating women and minorities well.”

“I don’t know if I like Breitbart anymore,” LaxaltStan wrote in early October.

Jewish Insider said other now-deleted tweets stated that “guns should have more rights than women” and that supporters of gay rights are “going to hell.” The LaxaltStan account disappeared after the publication tried to contact him for comment last week. Pecjak did not respond to requests for comment.

Gavriel D. Rosenfeld, president of the New York-based Center for Jewish History, warned that hate speech en masse can lead to violence.

“I think the overheatedness of the of the rhetoric is getting worse and I think people realize that with the election only a week away and control over the House and Senate being at stake . . . people don’t just see these statements as flashes in the pan,” Rosenfeld said. “They see them as potentially being mobilized for nefarious political purposes.”