Anti-Semitism is on the rise, and the president needs to speak and act more boldly.
Presidents are busy people. They cannot be expected to comment on every disturbing trend in society. But the presidency is a “bully pulpit” that magnifies presidents’ comments on social problems and other issues that may only be tangentially related to the job.
So normally, I might not expect a president to specifically condemn some vandalism and ominous, harassing phone calls to Jewish community centers.
But we are not living in normal times. Trump’s slowness to speak out against these acts speaks volumes. Threats can be a form of terrorism. Vandalizing synagogues and graveyards is desecration of sacred space. Pressure from within and beyond Jewish communities was building for the president to address these crimes. Monday night, Trump’s daughter (a Jewish convert) tweeted about anti-Semitism and the JCC threats. Hillary Clinton also called on the president to speak out.
After the president dodged queries from reporters last week, the White House issued a statement Monday night.
On Tuesday morning, after touring the National Museum of African American History and Culture, President Trump made a statement:
This tour was a meaningful reminder of why we have to fight bigotry, intolerance and hatred in all of its very ugly forms. The anti-Semitic threats targeting our Jewish community and community centers are horrible and are painful and a very sad reminder of the work that still must be done to root out hate and prejudice and evil.
About damn time.
At the end of Trump’s first week in office, the White House put out a bizarrely incomplete statement for Holocaust Remembrance Day that did not even mention Jews.
For one thing, Trump has a long history of (to put it kindly) speaking in glib and cavalier ways about Jews.
Additionally, Trump’s campaign and election undeniably emboldened people who are bigoted against religious minority groups. Jewish reporters experienced hate, threats, and insults from Trump’s supporters during the campaign. Trump declined opportunities just last week to speak out on the issue.
Beyond that, Trump’s White House staff, including his inner circle, has aides with well-known ties to the alt-right, a movement known for nurturing anti-Semitism.
If not for these facts, a tweet from one of Trump’s children or a White House statement might be sufficient.
But given Trump’s many defects in this area, he had to speak out personally. And even when he did, it wasn’t enough.
While some Jewish leaders offered conditional praise for Trump’s words, Steven Goldstein, Executive Director of the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect, had this statement:
The President’s sudden acknowledgement is a Band-Aid on the cancer of Antisemitism that has infected his own Administration. His statement today is a pathetic asterisk of condescension after weeks in which he and his staff have committed grotesque acts and omissions reflecting Antisemitism, yet day after day have refused to apologize and correct the record. Make no mistake: The Antisemitism coming out of this Administration is the worst we have ever seen from any Administration. The White House repeatedly refused to mention Jews in its Holocaust remembrance, and had the audacity to take offense when the world pointed out the ramifications of Holocaust denial. And it was only yesterday, President’s Day, that Jewish Community Centers across the nation received bomb threats, and the President said absolutely nothing. When President Trump responds to Antisemitism proactively and in real time, and without pleas and pressure, that’s when we’ll be able to say this President has turned a corner. This is not that moment.”
Trump’s comments paled in comparison to President George W. Bush’s empathetic, bold, and patriotic condemnation of threats and violence against Muslims targeted a week after the 9/11 attacks.
— Jacob Lupfer (@jlupf) February 13, 2017
Bush’s words were remarkable because everyone knew that he drew considerable electoral support from two groups with relatively hostile attitudes toward Muslims, conservatives and evangelicals. At a critical time, President Bush risked alienating his political base by doing what the moment demanded. Trump’s brief comments seemed very weak compared to what President Bush would have said.
President Trump needs to do two things about the JCC threats, vandalism, and desecration. First, he should say “This is not who we are.” And second, he must say to his supporters that these anti-Semites represent the worst of humankind, just as President Bush said about people who would intimidate Muslims.