Twenty-two years later, antisemitism still lives in the legislature

Berry Craig
Berry Craig

The recent flurry of antisemitic remarks from a trio of Republican legislators wasn’t unprecedented.

Twenty-two years ago this month, Rep. Billy Polston (R-Tompkinsville), a Christian, questioned Rep. Kathy Stein (D-Lexington) about her faith on the House floor. She was the General Assembly’s only Jewish member.

Lawmakers were debating a resolution mandating a Ten Commandments monument for the Capitol grounds. Stein opposed the resolution, arguing it violated constitutionally-mandated separation of church and state.

“Do you believe in Jesus Christ as the Lord and Savior?” Polston, a Christian, rose and asked Stein.

According to the Louisville Courier-Journal, she explained that Jews believed Jesus was a “wonderful Rabbi and leader” who made “admirable statements” but that “the Jewish faith does not believe he was the Messiah.”

Polston pressed her, “Do you believe He rose from the dead?”

Silence ensued in the chamber. “No,” Stein ultimately replied, the paper reported.

The resolution passed by a wide margin. Stein voted no.

She was gracious toward Polston despite his grilling. “He doesn’t have a mean bone in his body,” the Courier-Journal quoted her. “I think he asked out of innocent curiosity.”

Even so, the Lexington Herald-Leader took Polston to task in an editorial, which concluded, “We have no reason to doubt the sincerity of Polston’s religious beliefs. But the fact that he would ask a Jewish legislator such questions on the floor of the House illustrates to us that this General Assembly is seriously lacking in understanding of, or appreciation for, any faith other than Christianity.”

Democrats controlled the House, Republicans ran the Senate. Many lawmakers of both parties were conservative evangelical Protestants.

Conservative Christian Republicans dominate the current session of the legislature.

Comments by State Reps. Walker Thomas (R-Hopkinsville) and Danny Bentley (R-Russell) and Sen. Rick Girdler (R-Somerset) suggest that the current session of the legislature is also “seriously lacking in understanding of or appreciation for any faith other than Christianity.”

Thomas and Girdler used the old trope “Jew them down” in a committee hearing. During debate on an anti-abortion bill, Bentley falsely linked RU-486, an abortion pill, to Zyklon B, the lethal gas the Nazis used to murder millions of Jews and others in death camps during World War II.

Thomas, Girdler, and Bentley apologized after Jewish organizations and others denounced their remarks. They said they meant no harm.

“Three antisemitic episodes in eight days is not an anomaly – it’s an appalling pattern,” said Colmon Elridge, Kentucky Democratic party chair.

Murray State University historian Bill Mulligan said that Polson, Thomas, Girdler, and Bentley serve as a reminder that prejudice exists, even if it is below the consciousness of the person using antisemitic phrases or showing ignorance of other religions.

He added, “They would say that they are not an antisemite – but they use the old, tired phrases that diminish the humanity of, in this case, Jews, and give new life to old hatreds. I am still told, here in Kentucky, that as a Catholic, I am really not a Christian. Well, bless your heart. I am.”

While Polson challenged Stein in March of 2000, Thomas, Girdler, and Bentley prove “antisemitism has reappeared on the floor of the Kentucky General Assembly,” Mulligan said. “Who can be surprised when Donald Trump has made hate speech and stereotypes like this acceptable?”

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Berry Craig

Berry Craig is a professor emeritus of history at West KY Community College, and an author of seven books and co-author of two more. (Read the rest on the Contributors page.)


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