WASHINGTON - GOP presidential candidate Tommy Thompson apologized to a Jewish audience Monday after saying that making money is “sort of part of the Jewish tradition.”
At the outset of a speech to the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, the former Wisconsin governor told an audience of a few hundred people that, “I’m in the private sector and for the first time in my life I’m earning money.”
Added Thompson: “You know that’s sort of part of the Jewish tradition, and I do not find anything wrong with that. I enjoy that.”
The remark caused some murmurs and disbelief in the room, according to some who were present.
Thompson, a Roman Catholic, returned to the podium shortly after the speech was over, after someone from the organization spoke to him.
“I just want to clarify something because I didn’t in any means want to infer or imply anything about Jews and finances and things,” said Thompson, according to an article posted by Shmuel Rosner, chief U.S. correspondent of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. Rosner covered the event.
According to Haaretz, Thompson went on to say, “What I was referring to, ladies and gentlemen, is the accomplishments of the Jewish religion and the Jewish people. You have been outstanding businesspeople and I compliment you for that and if anybody took what I said wrong, I apologize. I may have mischaracterized it. You are very successful. I applaud you for that.”
Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center, said Rosner’s account was accurate.
His group released an official statement about Thompson that simply thanked him for making time in his schedule for the organization, which is hearing Tuesday from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton.
“I think there was some unease in the room in trying to figure out what exactly he had said,” Pelavin said after Thompson spoke. “He came back and did his best to clarify what exactly he had said. I think that’s appropriate.”
The Religious Action Center is the Washington public policy arm of the Reform Jewish movement.
One woman from Houston attending the three-day conference, Sandra Bloch, said Thompson’s comment had people talking over lunch afterward.
“The issue was sensitivity or lack thereof. He didn’t do his homework. He didn’t know his audience,” Bloch said.
Rabbi Michael Feshbach of Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase, Md., said, “People held their breath” after the remark.
He called the comment a “temporary distraction.”
“I’m glad he dealt with it. It needed to be dealt with,” Feshbach said.
Thompson spokesman Tony Jewell said afterward that Thompson considers himself a friend of Israel and the Jewish community.
“Governor Thompson recognized he misspoke in his remarks to the Religious Action Center and is very apologetic,” Jewell said. “He intended to compliment the Jewish community for their success in the United States, and he regrets he stepped on his words in doing so.”
Thompson misspoke a few other times at the conference, according to more than one person present.
Blogging about the speech Monday, Rosner wrote that Thompson referred to “Israeli bonds” as “Jewish bonds.” Another member of the audience said Thompson referred to the Jewish Defense League, a controversial militant group, when he appeared to have a more mainstream organization in mind.
On his blog, Rosner critiqued the Thompson speech in the spirit of “Friendly advice to American candidates trying to woo the Jewish vote.”
His advice included not “saying again and again that you have Jewish friends,” not invoking the JDL in a positive context, and preparing yourself adequately before speaking to Jewish audiences.
“He came to woo,” Rosner wrote on his blog, “but left behind a crowd of sophisticated adults giggling like teenagers at his expense.”