North Carolina’s lieutenant governor has Jewish community on high alert

Republican Mark Robinson has drawn scrutiny for past antisemitic comments, refusing to apologize even after assuming office

Earlier this month, Mark Robinson, North Carolina’s outspoken new Republican lieutenant governor, organized a press conference to protest an editorial cartoon published in the opinion section of WRAL.com, a local news site in Raleigh. The drawing waded into a controversial debate around proposed education standards requiring that social studies teachers acknowledge systemic racism. But it drew fierce condemnation for its depiction of Republican school board appointees, who objected to the rule change, as members of the KKK.

“We prefer to start with a clean sheet,” read a speech bubble emanating from a menacing elephant — the GOP’s mascot — begarbed in the Klan uniform of a white hood and robe.

Robinson, who sits on the board of education, was outraged. The 52-year-old politician emerged from relative obscurity when he was elected North Carolina’s first Black lieutenant governor in November — and, addressing a gaggle of reporters on February 2, he railed against the admittedly preposterous suggestion that his beliefs in any way aligned with the Klan. “Free speech, yes, I’m all for it,” Robinson huffed. “But when your free speech proves you to be a hypocrite — and I will say this publicly, proves you to be a hypocrite and a liar — we won’t stand silent.”

North Carolina Lieutenant Gov. Mark Robinson gavels in the opening session of the North Carolina General Assembly in Raleigh, N.C., Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2021.

Those familiar with the multitude of inflammatory pronouncements Robinson put forth before he became a public servant were no doubt rolling their eyes at the lieutenant governor’s complaint. During the election, Robinson came under scrutiny for a litany of troubling past comments in which he denigrated Jews, Muslims, transgender people and Black voters who support Democrats, among other groups.

The lieutenant governor, a devout Christian who presents as a brash and unfiltered conservative culture warrior, invoked a number of antisemitic tropes in the years leading up to his election. In strongly worded Facebook posts, he decried a “globalist” conspiracy to “destroy” former President Donald Trump and took aim at Black Panther, the Marvel film whose titular protagonist, as Robinson put it, was “created by an agnostic Jew and put to film by [a] satanic marxist.” He went on to allege, using a Yiddish slur, that the movie “was only created to pull the shekels out of your Schvartze pockets.”

Last fall, Raleigh’s News & Observer unearthed an interview in which Robinson spoke with a fringe pastor, Sean Moon, who claimed that the modern incarnation of the four horsemen of the apocalypse includes China, the CIA, Islam and the Rothschild family of “international bankers that rule every single national or federal reserve-type style of central bank in every single country.” 

Rather than objecting to the blatantly antisemitic conspiracy theory, Robinson grunted along in agreement. “That’s exactly right,” he said.

Jewish leaders in North Carolina are alarmed by Robinson’s views — all the more so because the rhetoric he has employed has not hindered his prospects at the polls. Robinson beat out eight Republican opponents in the crowded primary, going on to defeat Democrat Yvonne Lewis Holley by more than three percentage points in the general election, pulling in nearly 52% of the vote.

“I believe that Mark Robinson’s election in North Carolina is, as we would say in Yiddish, a shanda,” Lucy Dinner, senior rabbi at Temple Beth Or, a Reform synagogue in Raleigh, said in a recent interview with Jewish Insider. “It is a black mark on this state.”

Rep. Kathy Manning (D-NC), a first-term congresswoman and Jewish activist from Robinson’s hometown of Greensboro, expressed a similar view, describing the lieutenant governor’s statements as “appalling” in comments to JI. “His hate-filled rhetoric is laced with sexism, discrimination and antisemitism,” said Manning, who is the former chairwoman of the Jewish Federations of North America. “His words contribute to the division in our nation that is fueling the rise in hate crimes and extremism and they degrade the office he occupies.”

“I’m very used to the anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, anti-LGBTQ rhetoric of the Trump wing of the Republican Party,” Steve Schewel, the Democratic mayor of Durham, who is Jewish, said in a recent conversation with JI. “But I haven’t heard very often the kind of antisemitism that Mark Robinson has added to that toxic mix.”

As his profile has risen, Robinson’s comments have caught the attention of Jewish groups outside the state. In a statement to JI, the Anti-Defamation League denounced the lieutenant governor in the group’s first public remarks on the upstart lawmaker. “It is incumbent upon all public leaders to forcefully condemn antisemitism, racism, xenophobia, homophobia and all forms of hate,” Doron Ezickson, vice president of the ADL’s Mid-Atlantic and Midwest division, told JI. “Robinson must apologize.”

But Robinson has refused to do so. “When I made those posts as a private citizen, I was speaking directly to issues that I’m passionate about,” he said at the news conference in early February. “As a public servant, I have to put those opinions behind me and do what’s right for everyone in North Carolina,” he added. “I’m grown enough to do that.”

Robinson’s office did not respond to numerous email inquiries and phone calls from JI.

Such deflections are woefully insufficient, argued Daniel Greyber, a rabbi at the Conservative Beth El Synagogue in Durham. While Greyber found the WRAL cartoon distasteful, he believes that Robinson must reckon with his own rhetoric if he wants to use his bully pulpit in good faith. “Unfortunately,” the rabbi told JI in an interview, “the lieutenant governor is living in a world that is in many ways of his own making.”

For Robinson, who seems to thrive in combat, that may be by design. “He’s good at using controversy to his advantage,” said Chris Cooper, a professor of political science at Western Carolina University. 

The former factory worker and gun rights advocate shot to fame three years ago when a video recording of a fiery speech he delivered on the floor of a Greensboro city council meeting went viral. “We want to keep our rights,” Robinson shouted as he vociferously objected to the proposed cancellation of a gun show at a city-owned sports and entertainment complex. “And by god, we’re going to keep them, come hell or high water.”

The following month, Robinson’s newfound notoriety earned him a high-profile speaking slot at the National Rifle Association’s annual leadership forum, at which President Donald Trump also gave remarks. About a year later, in July 2019, he announced his candidacy in the open-seat race for lieutenant governor, all the while racking up a sizable following on social media as he spoke out against abortion, the evils of socialism and other bugbears of the far-right.

His victory came as a surprise to political observers in North Carolina who assumed that his off-putting remarks would repel voters. “I thought that his controversial and, frankly, antisemitic statements would have made the difference in a close election,” Cooper told JI. 

But because Robinson had established himself from the get-go as a contentious figure, his questionable social media activity likely flew under the radar. “He’s more like a Trump in that the norm-breaking behavior was baked into our assessment of him from the second we knew his name,” Cooper said. “Trump made it easier for Mark Robinson.”

Robinson’s rise occurred during roughly the same period in which another outspoken Republican in North Carolina has gained prominence: Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-NC), a 25-year-old first-term congressman. Cawthorn’s Jewish constituents had raised concerns with some of his statements, including an old Instagram post in which he appeared to express reverence for Adolf Hitler as well as an admission after being elected that he has tried to convert Jews to Christianity.

But while Cawthorn has apologized for some of his past remarks and has actively worked to ease relations and engage with Jewish community members in his district, Robinson has been conspicuously silent. 

This comes at a moment when hate crimes in North Carolina are on the rise, including an incident late last month in which a building at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was vandalized with antisemitic symbols. 

“I’m deeply troubled by the fact that he refuses to come out and renounce what he said,” Rabbi Eric Solomon, who leads the Conservative Beth Meyer Synagogue in Raleigh, told JI. “It’s shocking in today’s world, post-Charlottesville, post-Pittsburgh, post-Poway. Can someone actually say this and win an election? Apparently they can.”

Adding to Solomon’s concern is the fact that Robinson occupies a role just one step removed from the governor’s office. In North Carolina, the lieutenant governor and governor are elected separately, though the two jobs differ greatly in scope. The lieutenant governor’s powers are limited to a smattering of duties, such as serving as president of the state Senate and sitting on its community colleges board. “It’s more of a show horse position, rather than a workhorse position,” said Cooper, adding that lieutenant governors in the Tar Heel State have historically struggled to achieve higher office because of their thin policy credentials. 

In this Nov. 12, 2019 photo, Mark Robinson speaks to the audience urging the board to vote against the short term suspension policy change at the Guilford County Schools Board meeting in Greensboro, N.C.

But Robinson has defied expectations before, and his firebrand reputation in North Carolina politics suggests that he may be poised for higher office of some sort. Robinson could also simply inherit the governor’s seat, though North Carolina’s Democratic governor, Roy Cooper, has indicated that won’t happen while he’s in office. In a recent Atlantic interview, Cooper claimed to have no interest in running for Senate in 2022 — partly because, if he wins, vacating the seat before his term expires means it would automatically go to Robinson.

Either way, Beth Meyer’s Solomon is still willing to take a charitable view of the new lieutenant governor. “People make mistakes. I can have compassion on mistakes,” he said. His patience, though, is wearing thin. “When you’re given awareness, to double down on it, it’s insulting, offensive, and it’s scary — because then it means you don’t have any desire truly to learn about the Jewish community.”

A member of the Jewish Community Relations Council in Raleigh is currently working behind the scenes to arrange a meeting with Robinson. The emissary asked to remain anonymous so as not to compromise a work in progress. The idea is simply to start a dialogue, though at the moment, it is unclear if Robinson is interested, according to the JCRC member.

Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, offered a forceful denunciation of the lieutenant governor, noting that Robinson’s comments are “clearly antisemitic.” 

“His refusal to apologize is troubling and unacceptable to us,” Brooks said. “These kind of comments have no place in our society.”

The North Carolina Republican Party, on the other hand, was comparatively silent on Robinson’s controversial remarks. Press secretary Tim Wigginton suggested that JI contact Robinson’s office “with all questions regarding his Facebook posts,” adding: “I’m going to pass on commenting on posts that I haven’t seen.” 

However, in correspondence with Wigginton, JI made no mention of Facebook posts, only referring to Robinson’s “past statements.” 

Wigginton also recommended getting in touch with Ada Fisher, a former state representative to the Republican National Committee who is Black, Jewish and an avid Trump supporter. At first, she dismissed the accusations of antisemitism against Robinson. “I didn’t see anything antisemitic in what he had to say,” Fisher said when reached by phone last week at her home in Salisbury, outside Charlotte. 

“You can say whatever you like,” she added.

But as she spoke with JI, Fisher seemed to be changing her mind. “I don’t know, it’s not that big a deal,” she mused. “I think it’s unfortunate, some of the things he said that were reported as said, but I didn’t hear him say it.” Fisher acknowledged that Robinson’s statements were, at the very least, inartful. “When people are new,” she told JI, “they often have problems with foot-in-mouth kinds of things, and as they become more politically astute, they don’t always say what they think.”

Did it bother her that Robinson has refused to apologize for his comments?

“The question is, is that what you want from your leaders?” she replied. “I think that depends on which side of the fence you’re on.”

As the conversation ended, though, it appeared as if Fisher was, like several of her fellow Jewish community members in North Carolina, growing weary of Robinson, finally making clear that she wasn’t letting him off the hook just yet. “You call me again if he makes some other statements,” Fisher said. “But he hasn’t said too much since he got installed as lieutenant governor. If he comes back with his statement, then we gotta start to talk about it.”

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