Rep. David Kustoff Assails Antisemitism in America—and in Congress

Antisemitism is a serious problem in the United States, as well as in the Middle East. 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.

Ilhan Omar, D-Minn. made a series obscene remarks in 2019. Rep. David Kustoff from Tennessee is one of two Jewish Republicans and was shocked by what she 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:

  • A counterterrorism raid by U.S. special troops in Syria killed the global leader ISIS.
  • Virginia’s new attorney general is getting involved in a lawsuit over mandatory masks in the state’s schools.
  • Eric Garcetti, the Los Angeles Mayor, and other officials stress the importance of wearing a mask at the Super Bowl. He was seen not wearing one last weekend at an NFL playoff match.

Listen to the podcast or read the lightly edited transcript.

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

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

Blair: We always appreciate having members from 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. Let’s start by asking if antisemitism is on the rise in America.

Kustoff: It 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.

Think back to the beginning this year and Colleyville, Texas. This was clearly antisemitic. It was clearly a hate-crime. I think it’s symbolic, if you will, of what we’ve seen the last several years.

Unfortunately, some of this is driven by 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 just here, but around the globe. These statistics show that antisemitism has been 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 would like to ask you, first of all, how do your colleagues feel when they make statements like this?

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. It doesn’t matter what a senator or congressman says or does, it matters.

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. The fact is, when members say certain things, people pay attention, and it gains some resonance around 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: I believe it angers and aggravates most people. People can also make antisemitic remarks and label it as they wish, and then 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.

This to me is the most concerning thing. Free speech is free speech. People have the right to speak their mind, especially the 435 elected members of Congress and the 100 senatorial members. 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. Blair: Absolutely. The resolution was gradually diluted until it became a general statement against hate as an idea. It seems so odd to me that they couldn’t just come out and say antisemitism is a problem. What do you think the problem 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. In 2019, the Democrats controlled Congress at that point. They get to decide what comes to the floor and gets voted on by me and the other congressmen and what doesn’t.

When that member of Congress made those remarks, we heard talk about a House resolution that would condone antisemitism.

I believe the vote was scheduled to take place on Thursday. Because we hadn’t seen the resolution we were voting on, I recall talking to my staff. We received the text literally 30 minutes before the vote. It would be watered down to condone many things, not just antisemitism. This was my prediction.

I’m literally walking to the floor and I’m thinking, “Well, surely—”. I mean, everyone abhors statements about racism, racist comments, certain antisemitic remarks. But this vote, that resolution, was supposed to be about antisemitism.

I made the decision and voted for the resolution. It talked about how all these statements against anyone for race, religion, etc. were completely unwarranted. It was diluted to a tee. [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. Blair: Absolutely. Our hearts go out for those who lost loved ones and lives in that tragedy. This is what happens in America, but I guess it is. And, I suppose, what is America’s response? What does Congress do to make sure these things don’t happen?

Kustoff:There are many. 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.

It is because, again, if a member makes these types of statements, it feeds into that mentality. 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. They might have needed to be 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. This 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. Federal officials should prosecute these crimes very vigorously.

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

Kustoff: I think there’s a lot more that can be done. And, again, Colleyville. It was obvious to anyone who watched the news that day that it was antisemitic and 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 he did. The president has the power of a 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: I’m going to try and follow up on something that you said 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 suggesting that you might be in favor of the Republicans using the same strategy on Ilhanomar or other members who have made antisemitic comments if they were to retake Congress?

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. For the first time in history, Democrats have removed Republican members form committees.

You didn’t ask me this. If I was the Democratic leadership, I would have voted 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. Both of those things didn’t happen.

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]As a representative, your role is to ensure that legislation is a key 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. Actually, I did 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 wasn’t 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 of the tools in my toolbox for the pursuit of the bad guys. The President signed the bill I just mentioned. [Donald]Trump signed, is an instrument that prosecutors can use for going after these bad guys and making it a felony.

I believe that there are good laws in place that law enforcement can use, and federal prosecutors can go after these people. And they must be directed to do so by the Department of Justice.

Right now, as we are sitting here with the Biden government and the House, and the Senate in Democrat hand, the attorney General needs to be empowered and able to use all these tools. 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. Blair: Sure.

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.

Bipartisan support was present, but not unanimous support. But there was bipartisan support to get the job done. We had good bipartisan sponsors. This bill had both Republican and Democratic co-sponsors.

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

Kustoff: Yes, 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 people have a larger voice than most, unfortunately.

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 I have a question about this: Is it okay to criticize Israel’s state but not make it antisemitic. Is this possible? Or is all criticism of Israel antisemitic in general?

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.

I believe that people living in this country may not be able see Israel from a larger perspective. They might not appreciate how small Israel is surrounded by its neighbors and how close some bad actors are to Israel’s borders.

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. It becomes a conflict, a huge one, that this country eventually gets more involved 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 is your opinion on the BDS movement, boycott, divest and 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 we look back at the Trump administration, I believe that Donald Trump is the strongest American president Israel has ever known. President Trump was certainly very committed.

I can recall back to two months ago, when I was on the White House lawn to witness the signing of Abraham Accords. As these documents were being signed, I had two thoughts. [by] Israel, [the United Arab Emirates], Bahrain. No. 1. 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 appreciate President Trump and Jared Kushner as well as everyone else who worked hard to achieve that.

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. 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 be the ones leading the fight against 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. They also seem less committed than the Trump administration at the administrative levels. 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: What does that look and feel like?

KustoffIt looks like words and actions. It looks like we want to continue working with Israel on peace agreements like the Abraham Accords. It seems that we only fund Iron Dome in the way that Israel needs. It was not that long ago, Israel was the target of hundreds of thousands upon rockets from enemies. Iron Dome saved Israel. So we’ve got to make sure that we support it.

We had this debate about funding Iron Dome a few months back. It was supported by the overwhelming majority (over 90%) of Republicans. It was supported by the majority of Democrats, but it was opposed by a large minority.

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 clear.

Blair: Right. I’m sorry, but those all sound like they support Israel. Are there other things America should do to combat antisemitism in general around the world? I remember living in France for a while and seeing a lot of antisemitism towards Jews in Paris. Does America have a responsibility for these kinds of issues, not only in Israel, but across 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 it does for peace and security across the Middle East, and what it does for 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. We can’t forget what happened. We can’t forget what happened.

Also, we must remember that antisemitism exists for a 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: Many emotions. All emotions, including anger, sadness, bewilderment, disappointment, and sadness, are all wrapped up in one. And I think that’s probably the way a lot of people think and a lot of people feel.

It is a fact. Antisemitism still exists. It will continue to thrive. And we’ve got these battles, whether it’s on social media involving free speech, and what is the right balance? Where are you going? 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 to Congress in 2016, the same year Donald Trump won. We know one thing about Donald Trump: he spoke loudly, and you could never guess where he was on any given topic. He spoke very loudly about antisemitism and about Israel’s right to exist and our relationship with Israel. To combat it, the president must speak with the exact same force and authenticity, at minimum, in 2022.

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

Kustoff: Thank You, It was a pleasure to be with you today.

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