(JTA) — In his first meeting with Jewish leaders in his district, Rep. Madison Cawthorn expressed regret over a tweet that appropriated a poem about the Holocaust, and pledged to push for more security funding for local Jewish institutions.
Cawthorn, 25, is a freshman Republican congressman from North Carolina who has established an outspoken presence on social media and presented himself as an avatar of a new generation of conservatives. But some of Cawthorn’s statements and actions during his campaign and since his election in November have caused concern among his Jewish constituents and others.
Last August, Cawthorn drew criticism for posting photos from a past trip to Hitler’s vacation home. He later told Jewish Insider that he has attempted to convert Jews to Christianity. And on Jan. 6, he gave a speech to pro-Donald Trump protesters shortly before a mob attacked the U.S. Capitol.
But the Jews who attended the meeting chose not to raise the trip to Hitler’s home or the conversion remark because they didn’t want to spend the entire hour attacking Cawthorn. Instead, they brought up a more recent statement of his that troubled them: On Jan. 28, Cawthorn tweeted an adaptation of a well-known poem about the Holocaust, apparently to advertise his online campaign store.
“First they came for our Free Speech, then they came for our Free Markets, next they’ll come for our Free Shipping on orders $50 or more with promo code: FREEDOM50.” he tweeted. His next tweet linked to the online store.
The hour-long meeting, held Monday morning in Cawthorn’s North Carolina office, was an effort to begin a dialogue with local Jewish leaders and address some of those issues.
“We wanted to help him understand how words, and sometimes his words, have affected our communal perceptions of him, and why, even though his own intentions may have been innocent, his words can sometimes be seen as feeding into the white nationalist agenda,” said Rochelle Reich, executive director of Congregation Beth Israel, an egalitarian synagogue in Asheville.
A spokesperson for Cawthorn said in a statement that he “discussed how his office can effectively liaison with the Jewish community, and how he can work to serve his Jewish constituents on both a district and national level.” The spokesperson said the meeting was “productive” and that Cawthorn hopes to continue working with Jewish leaders.
Cawthorn attended the meeting with his wife and a staff member, and met with four Jews from the district in addition to Reich: a pulpit rabbi, a Jewish educator, the executive director of a Jewish community center and a Jewish conservative activist.
Multiple participants said the meeting was positive, and noted that Cawthorn wore a mask the whole time, in accordance with public health rules designed to slow the spread of COVID-19.
“I thought it was very good, it was not combative, it was very respectful in every regard,” said Justin Goldstein, the educator. “He responded directly to every statement or comment that was made. I feel like he learned that he does not fully understand his Jewish constituents.”
But participants also said that they did not feel completely reassured that Cawthorn understood how his public statements may encourage unsavory elements of his base, even if he says that isn’t his intent.
“We were very clear that his words have power and he needs to know that,” said said Rabbi Rachael Jackson of Agudas Israel Congregation, a Reform synagogue in Hendersonville. “I am now anxious to see what comes of that when we’re not in a private room. I’m waiting to see what actually happens, and that will be more telling than the meeting itself.”
Reich and Jackson said that the Jewish participants agreed not to ask Cawthorn to defend all of his controversial statements.
“We chose to not attack him in the meeting because we thought that was counterproductive,” Reich said. “If the ultimate goal was to open up a dialogue and create opportunities for future conversations with the congressman, we felt it was important not to put him on the defensive completely.”
The Jewish leaders did try to give Cawthorn a sense of their lived experience in the district, and expressed concern both about his Jan. 6 speech and about the poem he tweeted. Participants said that Cawthorn denounced the insurrection — as he did shortly after the event — and told them he had not intended to encourage it.
Regarding the tweet, participants related that Cawthorn said a staff member wrote it but that he had approved it — though he said he didn’t know it was related to the Holocaust. He reportedly said he would try to avoid inflammatory social media comments in the future.
“He didn’t actually know the history of the poem, so that was a little unnerving,” Jackson said. “He was honest and said he didn’t write it, but he took ownership of it.”
Participants tried to explain their community’s worries about anti-Semitism, as well as how the experience of the Holocaust has shaped Jewish life. They said he had not known that Jewish institutions in the area operated under armed guard, and that he pledged to help Jewish institutions receive federal funding for security protections. He also offered to attend synagogue services in the future.
“It was interesting to him that this wasn’t just a history book idea, this was our family story,” Goldstein said. “It felt like he hadn’t made the connection that he has constituents who are themselves Holocaust survivors and who are the descendents of survivors and victims.”
Cawthorn also made a point of mentioning his support for Israel, according to people who attended. Jackson said she told him he also needed to focus on the more immediate concerns of his Jewish constituents.
“Our goal is not Israel today, our goal is western North Carolina,” she said. “More than saying you’re going to vote for Israel in the Congress, vote for us.”
Adrienne Skolnik, a local Jewish conservative, told JTA in a statement that she felt the meeting was positive and was not worried about Cawthorn’s record.
“We had a successful meeting with Madison Cawthorn confirming his help in fighting antisemitism,” Skolnik, chair of the local chapter of the Conference of Jewish Affairs, told JTA. “I have confidence Madison will work on behalf of the Jewish community to help us in any way he can. I do not share the same concern that other Jewish leaders have regarding Madison’s previous statements.”
Other attendees said they left the meeting feeling ambivalent. Goldstein said he pushed Cawthorn to disavow white supremacists, and while Cawthorn did do so in the meeting, Goldstein said, “I’m not holding my breath” for a public statement.
“He’s a very good politician, he’s a charismatic man, and politicians are in the business of making the people sitting in front of them feel heard,” Goldstein said. Regarding denouncing white supremacists, he added, “I can’t imagine he called a press conference when we left his office.”
Goldstein added, “I do not trust what he says but I do not believe he is sympathetic in any way, directly or indirectly, to white supremacists or Nazis.”
Reich, like other participants, said she was going to wait and see how he acts in office now that he is elected and settling into the job. She said she got a good impression from him, but she’s also bracing herself for disappointment.
“I believe now that there’s a definite chance that he didn’t understand the context of what he was saying,” she said. “If I’m having this conversation with you in another month because of something else that was said, you can remind me I was naively optimistic.”