Kentucky Rep. Danny Bentley made comments about Jewish women and the Holocaust during a debate Wednesday over anti-abortion legislation, quickly drawing condemnations.
Bentley, a Republican and pharmacist from Russell, later apologized for his comments Wednesday night, saying he “meant absolutely no harm.”
As state representatives debated an omnibus anti-abortion bill Wednesday afternoon, Bentley spoke about the medication abortions the legislation would restrict and invoked Jews and the Holocaust as he made claims about the origins of one such medication, which members of the Jewish community quickly denounced as both false and antisemitic.
Bentley falsely said RU-486, or Mifepristone, one of two pills taken to induce abortion, was developed during World War II and was called Zyklon B, the gas that killed millions of Jews in the Holocaust.
He added that “the person who developed (it) was a Jew.”
Referring to an earlier floor amendment that attempted to allow Jewish women to be exempt from the abortion restrictions in the bill — with the Democrat who filed it, Rep. Mary Lou Marzian of Louisville, saying the faith does not believe life begins at conception — Bentley then opined on his perception of the sexual habits of Jewish women, “since we brought up the Hebrew family today.”
“Did you know that a Jewish woman has less cancer of the cervix than any other race in this country or this world?” Bentley asked. “And why is that? Because the Jewish women only have one sex partner… They don’t have multiple sex partners. To say that the Jewish people approve of this drug now is wrong.”
Referring to the company that made RU-486 and again referring to the Holocaust, Bentley further asked: “Why would they do it? Because they’re making money on it.”
No one responded to Bentley’s comments during the abortion debate that lasted about two hours.
Sen. Karen Berg, D-Louisville, a physician and the only Jewish member of the legislature, listened to Bentley’s speech and was outraged by both the falsehoods and the fact that people of her religion were even a subject.
While the person who developed RU-486 was Jewish, she noted that this occurred in the 1980s.
“The first clinical trials on this drug has nothing to do with World War II (and) has nothing to do with the Holocaust,” Berg said. “That the developer was indeed of Jewish descent… what difference does that make? And why is that being brought up on the floor?”
Bentley apologized for his comments in a statement provided Wednesday night to The Courier Journal.
“I meant absolutely no harm in my comments today and sincerely apologize for any they caused. Last week we received a heartbreakingly sad reminder that anti-Semitism still exists in our society and I apologize if my comments today caused similar pain or any doubt that I stand with the Jewish Community against hatred,” he said. “My intention was to speak as a pharmacist to the history of RU-486 and respond to a proposed amendment. I clearly should have been more sensitive with my comments.”
The American Jewish Committee — along with the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Louisville and the National Council of Jewish Women’s Louisville Section — condemned Bentley’s comments in a statement Wednesday night.
“On Wednesday, during a hearing on women’s reproductive choice, Rep. Danny Bentley went on a bizarre, anti-Semitic rant that included outlandish claims about the sex lives of Jewish women and the outrageous assertion that Jews created the “abortion pill” during the Holocaust to profit financially,” they said. “We call on all elected officials and community partners to forcefully denounce anti-Semitism and all forms of bigotry, especially when they emanate from officials elected to serve the people of the Commonwealth.”
“We urge the leadership of the Kentucky House and Senate to accept our offer to provide anti-Semitism training to all members of the Kentucky General Assembly and their staff,” they continued. “We acknowledge Rep. Bentley’s apology however, words matter and leadership matters.”
Soon after Bentley made his controversial comments on the House floor Wednesday afternoon, the Jewish Federation of Louisville’s president and CEO, Sara Klein Wagner, said Bentley’s comments once again show “words matter.”
She expressed concern about Bentley’s speech and said it sounds like he was trying to give a historical lesson — but that lesson was false. She also said it’s concerning he was able to continue making these comments, unabated, without pushback on the House floor from other legislators.
“I think it goes back to the fact that words matter. Speaking up when you hear words and comments that make no sense, that can lead to bigger problems and be hurtful,” she said.
Bentley’s controversial comments during Wednesday’s legislative debate came the week after two other GOP lawmakers, Rep. Walker Thomas and Sen. Rick Girdler, said the antisemitic phrase “Jew them down” during a legislative committee meeting, for which they later apologized. The Lexington Herald-Leader reported both men apologized.
His speech also came mere days after various lawmakers in the Kentucky House of Representatives received an anonymously sent, antisemitic email the chamber’s top Republican and Democratic leaders said was “as false as it was disgusting.”
Wagner said the Jewish Federation of Louisville and the American Jewish Committee reached out to House Speaker David Osborne, R-Prospect, and Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, last week and offered to provide training to legislators about understanding and combating antisemitism.
She said the training is designed to expose people of varied backgrounds to what constitutes antisemitic language and tropes and how those things put Jewish people at risk.
Angela Billings, spokeswoman for the Kentucky Senate Republicans, told The Courier Journal Wednesday night that the Senate leadership will add cultural sensitivity training on antisemitism alongside of other training state senators receive annually.
Wagner noted that the anonymously sent, antisemitic email House lawmakers received last week was deeply concerning.
The Jewish Federation of Louisville and American Jewish Committee jointly denounced it in a statement Friday, saying it was filled with antisemitic claims about American Jews dominating the Atlantic slave trade and promoted the antisemitic views of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who has a well-documented history of such rhetoric.
Berg noted she personally received the email in question and has still received no personal apology from the lawmakers who used the antisemitic “Jew them down” slur in committee. She said the last week has been “very disheartening.”
“Houston, we have a problem,” she added.
Osborne and House Minority Floor Leader Joni Jenkins, D-Shively, sent out a statement Monday condemning the antisemitic email lawmakers received and said they’re working with legislative staff to ensure lawmakers and employees are “much less likely to see this type of bigotry.”