In Review

Jewish leaders give mixed reviews of Madison Cawthorn’s antisemitism resolution

The Republican congressman introduced the resolution following a meeting with Jewish community members last February

Gage Skidmore/Flickr

Madison Cawthorn

Freshman Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-NC) began his first term in Congress earlier this year on uneasy footing with Jewish leaders in his district of western North Carolina. Even before assuming office, the 25-year-old political upstart had come in for criticism due to an old Instagram post in which he described Hitler as “the Führer” as well as an admission that he had tried to convert Jews to Christianity. Weeks after being sworn in, the congressman drew further scrutiny when he invoked a poem about the Holocaust while hawking campaign merchandise on Twitter.

In February, after months of fraught planning, Cawthorn finally met with a group of Jewish community leaders at his district office in Henderson County for a listening session in which they aired their concerns with his controversial rhetoric. Despite some tension, attendees largely emerged from the hour-long discussion with a sense of cautious optimism, characterizing the congressman as a careful and engaging listener notwithstanding his incendiary social media personality. At one point, a participant requested that he consider re-introducing a previously unpassed resolution addressing the rise in antisemitism, and Cawthorn asked a staffer to look into it.

The suggestion appears to have made an impact. On Tuesday, Cawthorn introduced a House resolution, co-sponsored by three Republican congressmen, condemning the uptick in anti-Jewish hatred that followed the recent conflict between Israel and Hamas. The GOP firebrand wastes no time identifying what he characterizes in the strongly worded resolution title as the “malignant and metastasizing ideology of antisemitism.”  Further down, Cawthorn runs through a series of antisemitic tropes, including accusations of dual loyalty, while finally“rejecting the idea that Jews are some nefarious force controlling the world behind the scenes.”

The resolution also rejects “any moral equivalence between the United States and any regime that represses minorities, abuses its’ citizens, murders civilians” or withholds “inalienable rights.”.” And it  singles out, among other things, “evil people” who “try to cloak antisemitism in criticism of the Israeli government.”

The charged language — perhaps weakened by more than one grammatical error — is in keeping with a private acknowledgement that Cawthorn has built his staff “around comms rather than legislation,” as he told GOP colleagues in an email at the beginning of his term. But more broadly, the resolution represents the continuation of a trend in which Republican lawmakers have combatively sought to drive a wedge between pro-Israel House Democrats and some far-left colleagues who have escalated their criticism of the Jewish state in recent months.

“I strongly condemn all acts of antisemitism, and have introduced this legislation with my colleagues to shed light on the radically destructive statements and stances being advocated by some of my very own colleagues here in Washington,” Cawthorn said in a heated statement on Tuesday. 

The North Carolina Republican was alluding, at least in part, to recent comments by Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN), who came under fire last month when she appeared to equate the U.S. and Israel with Hamas and the Taliban. Her assertion was promptly condemned as “offensive” and “misguided” by a group of Jewish House Democrats.

But for Cawthorn, an evangelical Christian who casts himself as an ardent supporter of Israel, Democrats did not go nearly far enough in denouncing their fellow party member. “It is nothing short of shameful that only twelve Democrats possess the backbone to oppose antisemitic radicalism flowing from members of their own party,” he writes, without explicitly mentioning anyone by name.

Morton Klein, the president of the Zionist Organization of America, said in an interview with Jewish Insider that he believes Cawthorn’s decision to omit direct references to particular members of Congress is part of a strategy to shore up bipartisan support for the resolution. The pro-Israel activist was unaware of the resolution until Wednesday afternoon, when JI asked for comment. 

But he expressed admiration for Cawthorn’s effort, noting that he was about to call the congressman’s office to discuss the resolution in further detail. “This is one the strongest resolutions against antisemitism that I’ve seen a member of Congress issue,” he said, arguing that Cawthorn’s decision to use the “powerful word evil in describing Jew hatred” was “especially important.” 

Klein said he was already working to lure additional co-sponsors to the resolution, venturing there was a chance that a handful of Democrats would sign on.

Jewish leaders in Cawthorn’s home district, which includes the liberal redoubt of Asheville, offered somewhat more mixed reviews of the congressman’s resolution, which arrives at a moment when hate crimes in North Carolina have been on the rise. In the district last week, for instance, an antisemitic flyer was found attached to a gas station pump at a convenience store in Fairview — a photo of which has been circulating via email among Jewish community members in the area. The flyer was reported to the Anti-Defamation League through its website form. 

“When the group of us that met with Rep. Cawthorn talked with him back in February, the rise in antisemitism and security concerns was the topic of our entire meeting,” said Rochelle Reich, executive director at Congregation Beth Israel, an independent synagogue in Asheville, who was one one of five Jewish leaders present at the meeting. “We spoke with him about our concerns — many of which are outlined in this resolution.”

Reich was unaware the resolution was in the works but emphasized that she was nevertheless pleased that Cawthorn seemed to have made an effort to address their concerns about antisemitism. “Legislation condemning it is certainly a start and I’m happy to see it introduced by our congressman,” she said. “Similar legislation has been introduced in years past, so it will be interesting to see if it will be passed this time.”

Still, she noted, the resolution suffered from one glaring omission — an actual plan on how to confront the problems associated with antisemitism. “This is concerning at best, but I also realize that it is a single step in a larger staircase,” Reich told JI.

Frank Goldsmith, a Jewish community activist who lives in the Asheville area, was less forgiving. “This resolution is political window-dressing,” he said bluntly in an email exchange with JI on Wednesday, after reading through the document for the first time. “It is not a serious attempt to legislate against antisemitism.”

Echoing Reich, Goldsmith argued that the resolution fails to put forth “any concrete measures to combat” anti-Jewish hatred, “such as education about how important antisemitism is to white supremacist ideology.” To be sure, he added, “antisemitism emanates from other sources as well,” including some Palestinian supporters “who falsely conflate Judaism and Israeli policy.” 

But those attacks “are relatively rare and episodic, flaring up only when there is an outbreak of armed conflict between Israel and Hamas,” Goldsmith contended. In the United States, he said, making a veiled dig at Cawthorn, “the principal, ongoing threat to Jews comes from white supremacists” as well as “politicians who, whether through overt praise or through subtle dog-whistles, encourage them.”

Ultimately, Goldsmith suggested he was viewing the resolution with a guarded sense of suspicion. “One suspects that the sponsors are merely seeking to curry favor with Jewish voters and supporters of Israel for their own political gain,” he said. “Indeed, the resolution is nakedly partisan in its aim, as revealed by the sponsors’ rants against Democrats in their accompanying tweets.”

“This is not serious policy-making,” he concluded.

Micah Bock, a spokesperson for Cawthorn, defended the congressman’s efforts. “Rep. Cawthorn has been working on his antisemitism resolution for quite a while, a number of months,” he told JI in an email. “Rep. Cawthorn thinks that it is incredibly important to draw attention to a rising wave of hate-motivated violence targeting the Jewish community.”

“This resolution represents just one example of Rep. Cawthorn’s commitment to the Jewish community in NC-11,” Bock added, referring to North Carolina’s 11th Congressional District. 

In a phone conversation on Wednesday afternoon, Bock said he would have to check — but did not follow up — when asked about any further engagement Cawthorn had initiated with Jewish constituents in his district since the February meeting at which he seemed to have allayed some apprehensions over his past comments. 

During the discussion this past winter, Cawthorn, who delivered sermons throughout North Carolina before he was elected to Congress, expressed a desire to attend services at a local synagogue — a level of interest one Jewish leader who spoke with JI at the time viewed as a positive sign.

But Cawthorn doesn’t yet appear to have acted on that impulse.

“No other outreach to me or anyone I know has taken place,” Rabbi Batsheva H. Meiri of Congregation Beth HaTephila, a Reform synagogue in Asheville, told JI.