What You Say as a Representative Matters: Rep. David Kustoff on Antisemitism in America, Congress

Antisemitism is a problem, not only in the Middle East, but also in the United States. It’s also a problem that some members of Congress are willing to engage in and/or are willing to ignore in their own ranks.

In 2019, Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., made a series of remarks many considered to be antisemitic. Rep. David Kustoff of Tennessee is one of two Jewish Republicans in Congress and was horrified by what she has said.

Among other things, Omar has implied that American Jews hold a dual loyalty to the U.S. and to Israel, and stated that Jews had “hypnotized the world.”

“What a congressman or senator says or does or demonstrates matters, and it gets magnified,” he explained. “The fact of the matter is, when you have members who say some of the things that some of their members say, people pay attention, and it gains some resonance around the world.”

Kustoff joins the show to discuss where Congress has failed to push back against antisemitism in its ranks and what Congress’ role in combating it is.

Also on today’s show:

  • The global leader of ISIS is dead following a counterterrorism raid in Syria by U.S. special forces.
  • Virginia’s new attorney general is getting involved in a lawsuit over mandatory masks in the state’s schools.
  • Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and other officials emphasize the importance of mask-wearing at the Super Bowl after he was spotted not wearing one at an NFL playoff game last weekend.

Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript.

Douglas Blair: My guest today is Congressman David Kustoff, who represents Tennessee’s 8th Congressional District. Congressman, welcome to the show.

Rep. David Kustoff: You’re very kind to have me. I appreciate being here.

Blair: Well, we always appreciate having members of Congress here at The Daily Signal. I’d like to talk with you today specifically about a very important topic that I feel really doesn’t get a lot of press these days, which is this rise in antisemitism in America. So to start off, is antisemitism on the rise in America?

Kustoff: Yeah, it definitely is. I’ve got a unique perspective because I’m a Jewish member of Congress, one of two Republican Jewish members in the House of Representatives, and we see it. You don’t have to be Jewish to see it.

You think about the very start of this year, the situation in Colleyville, Texas, which was clearly antisemitic, was clearly a hate crime. I think it’s symbolic, if you will, of what we’ve seen the last several years.

Unfortunately, I think some of it is driven right here in Washington. When you have leaders primarily on the other side of the aisle that talk about this, whether it’s an aside or what have you, people pay attention. Not only people here, but people around the world. The statistics demonstrate and they definitely show that antisemitism is on the rise. It’s on the rise here, it’s on the rise around the world, and we’ve got to be serious about ways to combat it.

Blair: Absolutely. You mentioned that there are members of the other side of the aisle, specifically, I think we can refer to them as “the squad.” Democrats Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, specifically, have been accused on various occasions of making antisemitic comments. I want to start off with, how do you feel when your colleagues make statements like that?

Kustoff: It’s very difficult. First of all, we’re here. We shouldn’t be attacking anybody based on their race, religion, ethnicity, what have you, especially as leaders.

If I can pull back from them, because one thing that I’ve learned to appreciate—and I’m five years as a United States representative, in my third term—my words matter. What a congressman or senator says or does or demonstrates matters and it gets magnified.

If you take it out of the realm of the United States, the rest of the world, you have a member of Congress that makes antisemitic remarks, makes remarks about the significance of Israel’s right to exist, and they make it in a negative way. Around the world they’re looking at this beacon of democracy that we have in Washington and they see that if a member of Congress can say something like this, then it must be resonating.

It may be isolated—and I’m not throwing a blanket over any political party because there are certainly those leaders in the Democratic Party who condone all of this. But the fact of the matter is, is that when you have members who say some of the things that some of their members say, people pay attention and it gains some resonance around the world.

Blair: I think that’s such a fascinating thing that you just said, where what you say as a representative matters, not just here, but around the world.

What type of message do you think it sends both to Americans at home and to people who are looking to America, possibly in Israel, possibly in Europe, who are thinking, “Well, what is this woman saying? Why are they saying these things that are so antisemitic?”

Kustoff: For the vast majority of people, I think it angers them and aggravates them at the same time that people can make antisemitic remarks, cast it aside as however they want to label it, and essentially get away with it.

For the overwhelming majority of Americans, this is not what they want to see out of Washington, D.C. For the rest of the world, some of whom may or may not understand our system of government—I’m talking about Israel. When you talk about a nation that hasn’t been in existence very long in the grand scheme of things, 1948, and there are legitimately people around the world who question Israel’s right to exist, then that type of talk from members of Congress plays into the very notion of whether Israel has a right to exist and to protect herself and her citizenry.

That to me is what is concerning. Free speech is free speech and people have a right to say what they want to say, especially the 435 elected members of the House of Representatives and the 100 members of the Senate. But words matter.

I think about that every time I’m giving a speech, making remarks, issuing a statement, that words definitely matter. As leaders, and I think everybody here who’s an elected member is certainly a leader, you’ve got a responsibility to lead appropriately and correctly.

Blair: Absolutely. One specific incident that I want to get your view on is, in February and in March of 2019, when Congresswoman Omar made statements that were widely condemned as antisemitic, the response in the House was to draft up a resolution. And that resolution became more and more watered down until it was a sort of generalized statement against hate as a concept. It seems so odd to me that they couldn’t just come out and say antisemitism is a problem. Why do you think that was?

Kustoff: I’m going to give you a little bit of background because this is truly a decision and a vote that I really had to think about. You’re exactly right. At that point in time, in 2019, the Democrats controlled the House of Representatives. They get to decide what comes to the floor and gets voted on by me and the other congressmen and what doesn’t.

When those remarks were made by a member of Congress, we were hearing talk that there was going to be some type of statement, some type of resolution, coming from the entire House of Representatives, that was going to condone antisemitism.

The vote was going to come up, I believe it was on a Thursday. I remember talking to members of my staff, because we had not seen the actual resolution that we were going to be voting on. Literally about 30 minutes before the vote, we got the text. I predicted that it would be watered down to condone a bunch of things, not solely antisemitism, which was the reason that so many Republicans and Democrats were mad about these antisemitic remarks, but it would include everything.

I’m literally walking to the floor and I’m thinking, “Well, surely—”. I mean, everybody abhors statements made about racism, racist remarks, certainly antisemitic remarks, but this vote, this resolution was supposed to be only about antisemitism.

And I made the decision, I voted for the resolution, which talked about all these types of statements against anybody for race, religion, what have you, were completely unwarranted. But it was absolutely watered down by [House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic leadership so that they could make sure to get the votes of those on the far, far left that, unfortunately, I think say things about Jewish people and about the state of Israel that shouldn’t be said by a member of Congress.

Blair: Absolutely. I want to move on to an incident that you alluded to briefly at the beginning of this interview, which was that shooting at the synagogue in Texas, which was just horribly tragic. And our hearts go out to those people who lost lives and lost loved ones in that incident. But, I guess this is something that happens in America. And I guess, what is the American response to it? What does Congress do to make sure these things don’t happen?

Kustoff: Well, a number of things. One is, the type of talk that we’ve been talking about throughout this interview, that cannot happen, neither on the floor of the House of Representatives or from a member of Congress.

Because again, if a member of Congress makes those types of statements, that feeds into that mentality and in a way, this may not be the right term, but, it becomes acceptable. And we’ve got to push back on that.

… And go back to 2019 for a moment. Maybe that member should’ve been disciplined. We’ve been talking about a resolution. Maybe they should have been disciplined.

Maybe the response is—I’m going to play the “what if” game. Let’s say that my party, the Republican Party, takes back the House of Representatives in November of 2022. There’s been a precedent sent by the Democrats this term to remove Republican members from certain committees, where you’ve got one member that you’ve talked about who’s on the Foreign Affairs Committee.

Blair: Right.

Kustoff: Maybe she doesn’t deserve [to be on] or shouldn’t be placed on that committee. So if Republicans take back the House of Representatives, maybe if you made antisemitic remarks in the past, you shouldn’t serve on a committee dealing with foreign affairs. And that sends a signal.

The other thing I think we have to do, for exactly the reasons that you cited, is, we’ve got to give law enforcement, federal, state, and local, the tools and the resources that they need to combat antisemitism. And these crimes, they need to be prosecuted very vigorously, in my opinion, by federal officials.

Blair: Do you think that’s happening at the moment?

Kustoff: I think there’s a lot more that can be done. And I, again, talking about Colleyville, I think it was apparent to anybody that was following the news that day that it was based on antisemitism and it was a hate crime.

The president, when he made his initial remarks, wouldn’t go there, wouldn’t condone it as a hate crime, as antisemitic. And later on, he did. The president has the power of the bully pulpit. And whoever the president is, they’ve got an obligation, especially as it relates to what happened in Colleyville, to call it out for what it is. And he didn’t do it immediately. And I think that’s unfortunate.

Blair: Now, I want to follow up on something you said a little bit earlier. You said that there has been a precedent set by the opposition party, the Democrats, to remove members from committees if they feel like they’ve done something wrong. Are you saying you would be maybe in favor, if the Republicans were to retake the House, of using that strategy on Ilhan Omar or other members of Congress who have made antisemitic statements?

Kustoff: Well, look, the Democrats have set the precedent to do that—rightly or, I think, wrongly. It’s always been in the purview of whatever party you’re in for the leadership, if you will, to assign committee assignments. And the Democrats for the first time in our history have removed Republican members from committees.

You didn’t ask me this. If I were the Democratic leadership, No. 1, I never would’ve put some of the people on the committee in the first place. And secondly, after she made the comments, I would’ve stripped her of the committee assignment. And neither of those things happened.

So I think now that the Democrats have laid down the gauntlet, they’ve given Republicans, if in fact we take back the majority of the House this year, which I think we will, [the ability] to look at the Democrats’ committee assignments.

Blair: Absolutely. One of the things that I’m curious [about], too, as your role as a representative, is that legislation is such a crucial part of what you do. So let’s say you are given the opportunity to draft legislation to say, “Antisemitism is a focus. Here’s how we can legislatively combat it.” What do you write down?

Kustoff: Yes. Well, in fact, I did do that. In my very first term, we worked on a bill that was passed … not quite unanimously in the House and the Senate, but almost, that made it a felony to attack a religious place of worship, whether it’s a church, synagogue, mosque. I’m not talking about the people, I’m talking about the structure. It was not a felony before.

Blair: Interesting.

Kustoff: You call whomever and you say, “I’m going to blow up this church or this synagogue.” Before this law was passed, that I sponsored in 2017, it was not a felony. Today, that’s a felony.

I’m a former United States attorney, was the chief prosecutor for my area in West Tennessee. I used all the tools in my toolbox to go after the bad guys. The bill that I just talked about that became law, that President [Donald] Trump signed, is a tool that prosecutors can use to go after these bad guys, in fact, to make it a felony.

So, I think right now, there are good laws on the books that law enforcement can use and our federal prosecutors to go after these people. And they need to be directed by the Department of Justice to do that.

So right now, as we sit here today with the Biden administration and the House and the Senate in Democrat hands, the attorney general needs to be empowered to use all these tools to do it. If there’s divided government in 2023, a Democrat in the White House, Republicans controlling either the House and/or the Senate, to make sure that the administration does use those tools.

And if the attorney general or the U.S. attorney come to me and say, “Congressman, why don’t we look at doing this to combat antisemitism?”, then I’m going to work on legislation and try to accomplish that.

Blair: Sure. Now, was there bipartisan support when you passed that bill in your first term?

Kustoff: Yeah. And I’m very proud about that because there was bipartisan support. Just like anything else, as you can imagine, when you walk on legislation, it’s not always clean and you go back and forth on language. My point is, it’s not easy. It shouldn’t be easy, but it’s not.

There was bipartisan support, not unanimous support, but bipartisan support to get it done. And we had good bipartisan co-sponsors. I do want to make that absolutely clear because there were Democratic co-sponsors and Republican co-sponsors of that bill.

Blair: Do you feel as if, say, in 2022, you were to reintroduce something similar to that, it would receive the same amount of bipartisan support?

Kustoff: I do. Again, we don’t want to throw a blanket over everybody in the other party and say that they feel the way that some of these members do that you referenced earlier because there are plenty that do not, and my opinion is they’re stifled, some of those Democratic members, by their own leadership. Those few have an outsized voice and unfortunately, their voice is louder than likely the majority in their party.

Blair: Absolutely. One of the things we’ve also discussed a little bit is Israel and how the state of Israel is a frequent target of antisemitic attacks. So my question I always ask about this is, is it acceptable to criticize the state of Israel and not make it antisemitic? Is that a possibility, or is all criticism of Israel antisemitic?

Kustoff: Well, at least the criticism I’ve seen, it lends itself to antisemitism, at least what we’ve heard recently.

And I’ve had the opportunity, if you will, to go to Israel on a bipartisan trip, like a lot of other members of Congress—and this goes a little bit beyond what you just asked me and I think people listening can understand this. It’s one thing to read the news, to see the news, to do your own research about what’s happening in a certain part of the world. It’s another thing to go there and visit and talk to officials and kick the tires, if you will.

And I think that the people in this country who have not had the opportunity to visit Israel might not be able to appreciate from a size perspective how small, if you will, and surrounded Israel is by its neighbors and how close some of the bad actors are to the borders of Israel.

So … the converse of it is that if, God forbid, if Israel ceased to exist, failed to exist, you’ve lost democracy in the Middle East. And then it becomes a conflict, a huge conflict that, ultimately, this country gets further engaged in.

So we’ve got a duty to protect Israel. We’ve got an obligation to protect Israel. And, at least in the last several years that I’ve seen, I don’t think anybody paying attention to the news, the criticism, that there is criticism of Israel, it is either antisemitic or directly leads to antisemitism.

Blair: What are your views on the BDS movement, the boycott, divest, sanctions movement?

Kustoff: Yeah. And that’s something that’s been debated on the floor of the House of Representatives also and that the Democratic leadership has had to push back on. And I think it’s unfortunate that we even have to talk about it in this nation, but it exists. It’s a minority, but the longer the minority gets to talk about it, my concern is that you have other people who begin to latch onto it. And certainly, that’s dangerous to Israel as well.

Blair: Sure. So, Congress’ role with our relationship with Israel, where do you see our congressional government’s relationship with Israel going?

Kustoff: If you go backward to the Trump administration, my opinion, President Trump is the strongest United States president that Israel has known. And certainly, President Trump was very committed.

I go back to about two months before the 2020 election, I was on the White House lawn for the signing of the Abraham Accords. And there were two thoughts that I was thinking about as these documents were being signed [by] Israel, [the United Arab Emirates], Bahrain. No. 1 is, it was truly historic. Two, I’m not sure that any other president other than Donald Trump could have gotten it accomplished, by who he was, the force of his personality, all those things.

Blair: Sure.

Kustoff: And I really applaud President Trump and Jared Kushner and everybody that worked to get that done.

By the same token, again, if you’re in another part of world and you saw that and you saw the United States’ commitment to Israel then and you compare it to now, I think you probably question the United States’ commitment on some level.

There are certainly strong congressional leaders who advocate the strong support of Israel, but you don’t see that level coming from the administration for whatever reason. And that concerns me.

Blair: Let’s follow up on that topic. What is America’s role in fighting antisemitism around the world?

Kustoff: We should lead in fighting antisemitism. We’re the world’s greatest democracy. People around the world look to us to see, as they experiment with democracy in their nations, what works and we’ve got to continue to lead.

And when you talk about leading, you’re talking about from the administration, whoever’s president, and at the congressional level. And at the administrative level, they do not seem to be as fully committed as the Trump administration. At least that’s the perception that other people around the world have. But we’ve got to be the absolute leader in fighting antisemitism.

Blair: And what does that look like?

Kustoff: Well, it looks like words and actions. It looks like making sure that we continue to work with Israel on peace accords like the Abraham Accords. It looks like that we fund Iron Dome to the extent that Israel needs funding. It was just not a year ago that Israel had hundreds and thousands of rockets fired upon it by enemies and the Iron Dome protected Israel. So we’ve got to make sure that we support it.

We had this debate about funding the Iron Dome just several months ago. And the overwhelming majority of Republicans supported it. I think the majority of Democrats supported it, but you had a loud minority that opposed it.

So when you see that debate, and you’re in another country, about whether the United States wants to help Israel fund and be able to employ Iron Dome, what do you think? That’s rhetorical, but what do you think? I think the answer is explanatory,

Blair: Right. Well, I want to follow up on that because those all sound like supporting Israel. Is there other things that America should be doing to fight antisemitism more generally across the globe? Like, I lived in France for quite a long time and there was a lot of antisemitism against Jews in Paris. Does America have a responsibility to address those types of issues, not just in Israel, but around the globe?

Kustoff: Look, we’ve got to be able to defend. We’ve got to be able to talk loudly and condone those types of actions, certainly if they’re in the United States and in other parts of the world.

Wherever you fall on the issue, if you’re listening, can you imagine a world without Israel, as we know it today? And what that does to peace and security in the Middle East and what that does to peace and security in the United States.

We’ve been hearing a lot about, as we just memorialized, if you will, the 75th anniversary of the ending of World War II and the Holocaust. And we cannot forget what happened. We cannot forget what happened.

Then we also need to remember that antisemitism has existed for a long, long time. And it may never completely go away, but unless our leadership, and I’m a leader, unless we work to protect those who have been subjected to antisemitism, it will continue to exist and it will perpetuate, and that’s dangerous. That’s dangerous to everybody.

Blair: Before we wrap-up, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that there was an incident in the nation’s capital very, very recently at Union Station where a twice-deported illegal immigrant spray painted swastikas all over the building. How does it make you feel when you see swastikas in the nation’s capital so brazenly displayed on one of our buildings?

Kustoff: A lot of emotions. Angry, disappointed, sad, bewildered, all wrapped up into one. And I think that’s probably the way a lot of people think and a lot of people feel.

The fact of the matter is that illustrates it. Antisemitism continues to exist. It continues to perpetuate. And we’ve got these battles, whether it’s on social media involving free speech, and what is the right balance? Where do you land? But unless we aggressively talk about and against antisemitism, it’s going to continue to grow in this nation and other places in the world.

I was elected in 2016 to Congress, same year Donald Trump was elected. And the one thing that we know about Donald Trump was he spoke very loudly and you never had to guess where he was on any given issue. He spoke very loudly about antisemitism and about Israel’s right to exist and our relationship with Israel. And this president needs to speak with the same force, the same authenticity in order to combat it, at least in the year 2022.

Blair: Absolutely. That was Congressman David Kustoff, who represents Tennessee’s 8th Congressional District. Congressman, it was a pleasure having you on.

Kustoff: Thank you, I really appreciate the opportunity to be with you today.

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