damage control

Under fire from several Democrats, former Rep. Mondaire Jones deletes ‘regrettable’ tweet 

Jones initially declined to apologize, but faced growing criticism from Jewish leaders and lawmakers

Eugene Gologursky/Getty Images for Just Majority

WHITE PLAINS, NEW YORK - APRIL 30:  Mondaire Jones speaks at the "Just Majority" Supreme Court Reform Press Conference With Gun Violence Prevention Advocates on April 30, 2023 in White Plains, New York.

Former Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-NY) found himself on the defensive Wednesday as he removed a controversial social media comment that had drawn unusually hostile backlash from two prominent House Democrats who accused him of insulting Jewish people and invoking antisemitic rhetoric.

“Yesterday, I posted a tweet that was too open to misinterpretation,” Jones, who is mounting a comeback campaign to reclaim his old House seat in the Lower Hudson Valley, wrote in a statement on Wednesday afternoon. He was referring to a comment he had shared a day earlier on X, formerly Twitter, knocking recently ousted House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) for meeting with Orthodox Jewish leaders in Rockland County during his brief speakership.

In the ambiguously worded tweet issued on Tuesday afternoon, Jones had called McCarthy’s efforts “a waste of everyone’s time,” posting a photo of the former speaker courting support from an influential Hasidic leader in New Square last March alongside Rep. Mike Lawler (R-NY), a vulnerable freshman whom Jones is seeking to challenge in next year’s general election.

While the comment drew immediate backlash from critics who viewed his remarks as disrespectful to the Jewish community, the former congressman initially refused to remove the tweet and insisted in a statement to Jewish Insider on Tuesday evening that his message had been misunderstood. As the tweet continued to stir controversy on Wednesday, however, he ultimately capitulated amid mounting scrutiny from Jewish Democrats including Reps. Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ) and Jared Moskowitz (D-FL), who rebuked his comment in dual social media statements they later deleted after Jones had apologized.

“My point was to communicate that Kevin McCarthy, and by extension Mike Lawler, cannot possibly deliver for communities in Rockland because he’s no longer Speaker,” Jones clarified in his follow-up tweet. “Regrettably, I did not make this point clear enough, and so I have deleted the tweet. I am proud of my record of combating antisemitism in Congress and after Congress. In a time of rising antisemitism, we must be crystal clear where we stand: I continue to be a strong ally of our diverse Jewish communities.”

The intra-party uproar over Jones’ comment underscored how he bungled a chance to take advantage of the chaos surrounding House Republican leadership. Lawler, a swing-district Republican, has been trying to distance himself from his far-right colleagues who have made it more challenging to win a second term in a district that President Joe Biden won by 10 points in 2020.

Instead, the tweet gave an opening to Lawler, whose campaign has frequently sought to cast Jones as a radical Democrat with ties to the far left — accusations the former congressman has firmly rejected. “Mondaire Jones tweeted the quiet part out loud,” Lawler said in a statement to JI on Wednesday. “His comments are shocking but not surprising for a guy who pals around with antisemites like Pramila Jayapal, Jamaal Bowman, and the rest of the Squad.”

Jones’ message also drew fire from a top Democratic primary rival, Liz Whitmer Gereghty, who has struggled to gain significant traction since launching her campaign last May. “If Mondaire Jones didn’t realize that his tweet could be viewed as antisemitic and elicit vile comments in response, I would question his judgment,” Gereghty said in a statement to JI shortly before the tweet was deleted. “If he did and did it anyway, that’s far, far worse.”

“As someone with a large social media platform running for Congress, he has a responsibility to hold himself to the highest possible standards and I would hope he is more thoughtful in the future, because the rise in hate in this nation is currently one of the greatest threats to our safety and stability,” Gereghty added. “I will never take any community for granted or exploit them for political gain.”

Soon after Jones had removed the offending tweet and posted his apology, meanwhile, Moskowitz and Gottheimer deleted their own sharply worded statements as a handful of House colleagues rushed to defend the former lawmaker. Jones is one of the most prominent Democratic challengers seeking office in a race that will help determine which party wins the majority.

“As a member of the House Judiciary Committee, Mondaire Jones fought alongside me to combat antisemitism and domestic terrorism,” Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY), a veteran Jewish Democrat from New York City, said in a statement to JI on Wednesday. “During his time in Congress Mondaire was a forceful advocate and friend on issues of concern to the Jewish community. Though I understood the intent, I appreciate that he clarified and removed the original tweet to ensure there was no misinterpretation.”

Another House Democrat, who requested anonymity to discuss a sensitive issue, expressed skepticism of the heated response to Jones’ tweet. “When people see politicians shouting antisemitism at literally everything,” the lawmaker told JI, “they are led to discredit other instances where it’s very real and very dangerous.”

For his part, Moskowitz said on X that he had spoken with Jones and did “not believe” he had meant to target the Jewish community. “I appreciate his record in Congress of standing with the Jewish community in his district,” Moskowitz said of Jones. Gottheimer, who explicitly accused Jones of espousing “antisemitic rhetoric” on Wednesday, has not weighed in on the matter since he removed his critique from X, and his office did not respond to a request for comment from JI.

Even as Jones appears to have quelled the criticism from within his own party, he may have caused lasting damage to his reputation among the sizable population of Orthodox Jewish community members in Rockland County, who represent a crucial voting bloc that has been credited with propelling Lawler to an upset victory last cycle.

“This has spread within the Orthodox community,” said an Orthodox leader in Rockland who was granted anonymity to speak candidly, noting that the tweet had circulated widely on WhatsApp groups as it began to gain traction on Tuesday evening. “Folks were offended by it and didn’t understand it. The perception was that it was an attack on their community.”

Rivkie Feiner, an Orthodox Jewish activist who lives in the district and supports Lawler — who has built strong relationships in Rockland since he assumed office — said that Jones had “not made any friends in the Jewish community, and certainly not in the Orthodox community,” with his recent tweet. “I don’t believe he’s antisemitic,” she clarified in an interview, echoing a sentiment expressed by multiple community members who spoke with JI on Wednesday. “I do believe it was very poor judgment in putting out this statement in these times.”

Feiner said she believed that Jones’ apology had come “a little too late,” adding, “We’re really upset. Why should we be in the middle of this? It’s ridiculous.”

Esther Schulman, the director of community and donor relations at the Jewish Federation of Rockland County, said the organization had “communicated” its “concerns to the relevant campaigns and will continue to be vigilant.”

“It is more than unfortunate when any element of the Jewish community is used in words or images as a means to score political points, as happened recently,” she said in a statement to JI on Wednesday. “We call upon every candidate and incumbent at all levels of government to recognize and reflect on the very real climate of extremism in our country which informs the sensitivity of the Jewish community to the use of such imagery.”

It remains to be seen, if Jones wins the nomination, whether he will gain support from Hasidic leaders in Rockland, who have long typically issued their endorsements near the end of the general election. The former congressman is a familiar face to community members thanks to his previous tenure in the redrawn district, which he vacated last cycle to mount a failed reelection campaign in New York City. 

During his first House bid in 2020, Jones won a major endorsement from Rabbi David Twersky, the Hasidic leader from New Square pictured in the photo he shared on social media on Tuesday. Last cycle, Twersky backed former Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-NY) over Lawler after he had received a call from Biden, who urged the rabbi to throw his support behind the long-standing Democratic incumbent. (A political adviser to Twersky did not respond to a request for comment from JI on Wednesday.)

Now that Lawler is in office, however, Jewish political observers who spoke with JI speculated that he is likely to be favored among Hasidic powerbrokers in Rockland County, even as Jones is now actively reaching out to the community and has “many existing relationships,” according to an Orthodox leader who spoke anonymously to share an assessment of the campaign.

“So far Lawler has done all the right things in his district to shore up support among the Orthodox Jewish community,” said David Greenfield, a former New York City councilman who leads the Met Council, a Jewish anti-poverty group. “Of course, it’s a long time to November, the district lines may change and a lot can happen in a presidential election year.”

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