By Lee Chottiner
Kentucky lawmakers should have swiftly rebuked one of their colleagues for making bizarre (and false) antisemitic statements during a House floor debate on an anti-abortion bill Wednesday.
Instead, about two hours passed before anyone spoke up about the rant of Rep. Danny Bentley, R-Russell, according to news reports.
That should never have happened, said Melanie Maron Pell, Louisville’s chief field operations officer for the American Jewish Committee (AJC).
“Whenever they hear something like this, they should speak up and reject it; don’t just sit there and squirm,” Pell said. “In the Jewish community, we need that; we need our leaders to be unequivocal and swift.”
Speaking for a bill that would restrict the use of the anti-abortion drugs, including RU-484, Bentley digressed into the sex lives of Jewish women, and made false or questionable statements about the drug.
A pharmacist, Bentley falsely claimed that RU-484 was cyanide developed from by Germans for use during World War II. In fact, it is a steroidal progesterone blocker, developed in France in the 1980s.
He also said the developer of the drug is a Jew, prompting observers to wonder why that was relevant.
Bentley also contemplated the sexuality of Jewish women in trying to explain why certain Jews oppose abortion.
“Did you know that a Jewish woman has less cancer of the cervix than any other race in this country?” he asked. “And why is that? Because the Jewish women have only one sex partner. That’s the reason. They don’t have multiple sex partners. To say that Jewish people approve of this drug now is wrong.”
The Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Louisville, Jewish Federation of the Bluegrass, the National Council of Jewish Women-Louisville Section and the AJC called Bentley’s speech a “bizarre antisemitic rant” and though the lawmaker later apologized, the Jewish Community of Louisville (JCL) notably “acknowledged” the apology in a statement.
It was the second controversial incident from the Kentucky legislature in two weeks. Last week, two Kentucky lawmakers used the term “Jew them down” to describe bargaining.
Pell and Sara Klein Wagner coauthored a letter to Senate President Robert Stivers and House Speaker David W. Osborne Wednesday offering virtual 80-minute training sessions on the tropes and terms that manifest antisemitism. The training has been given to national organizations for mayors, attorneys general and secretaries of state, and to state lawmakers and city council members. Republicans told the Courier-Journal that the leadership will add training on antisemitism to the annual training senators receive, and Wagner said she is communicating with the leaders.
“We hope that we will be meeting with members of the legislature,” Wagner said.”
The Anti-Defamation League also will offer training, said its regional director, James Pasch.
“We expect our leaders to lead, and they can’t do that if they’re making antisemitic remarks on the floor of the state legislature,” Pasch said.
Wagner professed astonishment that a state representative could make so many unchallenged false statements about the Jews, and so soon after another high-profile antisemitic incident.
“No one stands up and says ‘whoa what’s going on here,’” she said. “If you hear something and you know it doesn’t sound right, raise your hand and say that it doesn’t sound right. Why is that so difficult?”
Bentley’s remarks followed a proposed floor amendment to the bill by Rep. Mary Lou Marzian, which would have carved out an exemption for Jewish women.
“It exempted people of the Jewish faith since their religious teachings say life does not begin at conception, the Louisville Democrat said. (Actually, Jewish law is more nuanced than that, though the needs of the mother are respected.)
The amendment was defeated, which irked Marzian, noting that the legislature made exemptions for vaccines, mask-wearing, essential services and religious gatherings during the pandemic.
“They exempt people all the time,” she said, but they refused to exempt people this time on this bill.”
(JTA contributed to this story.)