Jeffrey Slavin, the mayor of Somerset, Maryland, stirred up controversy in recent days after announcing he’d resign from the established Woodmont Country Club because other members did not want President Obama considered for membership. Some have speculated that the golf-loving outgoing president could set his sights on Woodmont after leaving the White House, but members of the predominantly Jewish club voiced opposition to the idea after Obama’s recent decision not to veto a U.N. resolution condemning Israel’s settlements.
Though the club began as an antidote to exclusion, the idea that Woodmont would exclude the first black president has not sat well with critics. The club has said that Obama has not applied for membership, but Slavin and others took issue with the fact that they would not explicitly state that he would be welcome were he to apply. TIME spoke with Mayor Slavin about his decision to quit the club and the politics of criticizing Israel in America.
TIME: What prompted you to make this decision?
Slavin: What prompted me to make this decision ultimately was that I was concerned that my country club that I’ve been a member of for my lifetime was being portrayed incorrectly in the international media, and I was really disappointed in the leadership of the club not responding to that. After a lot of thought and being inspired that it was Martin Luther King’s birthday, and what that means, that I needed to speak up and be bold in the hopes that they would do something.
When you say that you were concerned that it was being misrepresented, how so?
I’m not privy to all the facts because I’m not an insider, but what the public perception was, what the story was to the average Joe or Jill on the street, is that my country club was blackballing President Obama for what the country did in that recent U.N. vote. My experience with Woodmont, starting with how it was formed in the first place, [is] that it was not a political place, there’s nothing about your political viewpoints that is a criteria for admission, and it’s a welcoming club for everybody. I think that the vast majority of the members would welcome President Obama with open arms whether they agreed with him or not. I’ve talked to friends, Republican friends who don’t like President Obama, don’t like what he’s done for Israel—I don’t agree with them at all—but they’re appalled that he was not welcomed, because they have so much respect for the office and for him.
What has been the response from your friends in the club?
Quite naturally I’m getting quite a bit of praise, but now my motivation is being questioned, [like] I have a personal agenda or something. Well, that is just so far-fetched. My only interest is that I [don’t] want the club that I was associated with for 61 years to have that image in the international court of public opinion.
What have you heard from the leadership at the club?
All the leadership has said is that President Obama hasn’t submitted an application. By not responding and saying, ‘He hasn’t submitted an application but we’re being unfairly portrayed in the media—we are not that kind of place, we welcome everyone, based on our history that’s not what we’re all about’… I want them to do that, but by not responding, the other viewpoint wins.
Would you consider rejoining if they were to say that?
Perhaps, but it’s not about me, it’s about justice.
Do you see this issue as one among many involving diversity at the club? Or is it an isolated incident?
I’m not sure. I’m not aware that there was an issue of diversity at the club.
What is it about this club that you think has made it a flashpoint in the media?
I think it became a story because it’s a club that was founded by Jewish people, even though you don’t have to be Jewish to be a member, but a group of Jewish people over a hundred years ago weren’t welcome at all the other country clubs in the area and started their own club. Also because the the national debate on how good a president has President Obama been for Israel, for the Jewish people, is being discussed, since it’s the end of his presidency and it’s a height of media coverage.
How do you think he’s been for the community?
I think President Obama has been the best president for the Jewish people and for Israel. But I respect opposing viewpoints, and like I’ve been saying from the beginning, that’s all irrelevant to whether he should be admitted or not. People are saying, ‘Would you feel the same way if it was Vice President Pence, or Ivanka Trump?’ And yes, I would feel exactly the same way if it was an attempt to blackball them. Because that’s not what it’s all about.
Will you be looking into joining a different club?
I haven’t even thought about that. As I’ve said, I don’t play golf, I’m a legacy member, so I feel like being with a group of people, with friends that I’ve known and a community of people that have been a big part of my life, I don’t know that I would join another club. But again, there’s nothing personal about this.
Are you concerned that incidents like this will become more common under the new administration? That we’ll see more concerns about inclusion and exclusion?
That’s a whole different conversation, that had nothing to do with my motivation in this case. But one thing that I am concerned about in general is I’m all about welcoming all viewpoints, and I certainly think that I respect different views on what should be the policy on the settlements in Israel and that kind of thing. But I think that if you oppose whatever the policies are of the current Israeli government, you shouldn’t be branded as anti-Israel. I love Israel. I don’t agree with what the current administration is doing. I’m not particularly fond of President Netanyahu, but just because I might disagree with [him] doesn’t mean that I’m anti-Israel in anyway. I have a problem when if people oppose Israel, they’re immediately branded as being anti-Semitic. They have nothing to do with each other. I’m getting a lot of hate mail, believe it or not, from a lot of Jewish people who are saying that Barack Obama’s anti-Semitic. That’s horrible. And I think that’s something that we need to have a lot of conversation about.
Anything else you’d like to note?
I’m really concerned about the backlash that has erupted over all this, and I’m sorry that the story has become so big. That [is a] wonderful club of well-meaning people [and] I’m sure the vast majority of them would be in favor of President Obama being a member, and I just hope the image of the club changes. But right now it’s out there, and right now I’m just deeply concerned about the negative reputation, the stain on the club’s reputation, and I want that to be erased, because I don’t want people to remember Woodmont as the club that blackballed, rejected, whatever, Barack Obama from being a member.