Under pressure, Trenton officials apologize for anti-Semitic remarks

Trenton City Hall. (Alan Tu/WHYY)

Trenton City Hall. (Alan Tu/WHYY)

Updated: 10:30 p.m.

The entire New Jersey congressional delegation to the U.S. House on Wednesday called for two Trenton council members to apologize or resign for defending a colleague’s use of the anti-Semitic phrase “Jew her down.”

The woman who made the remark, Council President Kathy McBride, apologized at a council meeting Tuesday night.

“Anti-Semitism is on the rise around the world and right here in New Jersey,” the delegation, consisting of 11 Democrats and one Republican, said in a rare joint statement. “We must never accept bigotry or hatred in any form.”

By the end of the day Wednesday, both council members — Robin Vaughn and George Muschal — opted for apologies.

“First and foremost, I am sincerely sorry,” Vaughn said in a statement. She said she was wrong to describe the phrase as “a verb” and did not intend to demean anyone. Rather, she said she was trying to defend the council president.

“I do not believe her to hate Jews, nor harbor anti-Semitic feelings,” Vaughn said. “Nonetheless, my defense of her behavior was an error of my judgment. My sincere intention is to be the best elected and public official possible. In the risks and requirements of the job, mistakes will be made. This is my request for forgiveness to all of those I may have offended. I respectfully ask that you allow me to continue doing the work to build our capital city.”

Muschal, for his part, emailed a more terse apology to a reporter: “If I did offend anyone in the Jewish community I sincerely apologize,” he said.

Muschal also asserted that a Jewish city attorney at the center of the controversy told Muschal he was not offended by the original remark and, in fact, said he uses the phrase “all the time.”

The attorney, Peter Cohen, laughed at the notion when reached by phone.

“I did not at any time in any way assert that I use the phrase,” he said.

Wednesday’s back and forth was the latest twist in a controversy that has consumed Trenton politics and subjected the city’s officials to statewide scorn.

It started at a closed-door meeting on Sept. 5, when Council President Kathy McBride said city lawyers negotiating a woman’s personal injury lawsuit were “able to wait her out and Jew her down” for a lower settlement amount. Cohen oversaw the case.

Upon learning of the comments last week, Trenton Mayor Reed Gusciora demanded an apology. But rather than issuing one immediately, McBride stayed silent for several days while Vaughn and Muschal sprung to her defense.

The phrase is “just a statement of speech,” Muschal said in an interview with the website New Jersey Globe.

“You know, it’s like a car dealer, they wanted $5,000, you Jew ‘em down to $4,000,” he said. “It’s nothing vicious. The expression has been said millions of times.”

Vaughn, meanwhile, wrote on Facebook that the phrase is “inappropriate in today’s PC culture absolutely, but to Jew someone down is a verb and is not anti-anything or indicative of hating Jewish people,” according to a screenshot published by The Trentonian.

The pair later said they believe the phrase is inappropriate and that their comments were meant to defend McBride from charges she used it maliciously.

McBride, the council president, eventually apologized publicly at a council meeting Tuesday night.

“In my position, you cannot make anyone feel insulted or you cannot be insensitive to any ethnic backgrounds, so I am apologizing to the community at large,” she said, according to The Trentonian.

It’s unclear whether Muschal’s emailed apology will be enough to appease the New Jersey members of Congress. Vaughn said in an interview Monday she did not feel she needed to apologize.

Cohen, who has worked for Trenton for nearly 18 years, said he had private conversations on Monday with both McBride and Muschal, which he described as an attempt by the council members to connect with him on a personal level and assure him they did not intend to cause hurt to him or the Jewish community.

In an interview Wednesday, Cohen praised McBride for making sure Jewish community members were included in a multicultural holiday event several years ago. He said McBride had “manifested a generosity of spirit and ecumenical understanding of the Jewish community.”

Ultimately, Cohen said, he’d like the flare-up over an anti-Semitic slur to be transformed into a “teachable moment to increase awareness and enhance sensitivity.”

“I’m hoping to be able to work with the council and with the mayor’s office and administration to promote this understanding and common purpose,” he said.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include the response from Robin Vaughn.

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