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Amid rising anti-Semitism, Trump’s lackluster response has Jewish groups concerned

Donald Trump Holds Joint Press Conference With Israeli PM Netanyahu Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

On Monday, 11 Jewish community centers across the country were targeted with bomb threats. Outside St. Louis, a Jewish cemetery was desecrated: More than 100 tombstones were overturned and damaged.

“Enough already,” Karen Aroesty, an Anti-Defamation League local leader, told a Fox news affiliate. “This is where your loved ones come to be safe in perpetuity, and the level of tension in the Jewish community is pretty high.”

NBC News asked the White House for a statement on the uptick in anti-Semitic activities and the terrorizing of JCCs nationally, as the newest round of threatening calls brings the total number of bomb scares to 67 since the beginning of January. The White House press office issued a statement:

Hatred and hate-motivated violence of any kind have no place in a country founded on the promise of individual freedom. The President has made it abundantly clear that these actions are unacceptable.

Separately, first daughter Ivanka Trump tweeted:

Both comments were among the most specific statements the White House, or its surrogates, has made to address the rise in anti-Semitic acts, statements, and sentiment that has percolated since the middle of the election.

The silence was so profound, ADL’s CEO Jonathan Greenblatt put out a statement, earlier Monday, underscoring the notable absence of leadership. “We look to our political leaders at all levels to speak out against such threats directed against Jewish institutions, to make it clear that such actions are unacceptable, and to pledge that they will work with law enforcement officials to ensure that those responsible will be apprehended and punished to the full extent of the law,” he said.

The White House press office comment may miss that test, even now, in failing to use the words “Jewish,” “Jewish Community Center,” or “anti-Semitism.”

Indeed, President Donald Trump has been minimally vocal about his positions on the matter. Just last week, he had the chance to use his bully pulpit to reassure Jews who are fearful of rising anti-Semitism in America. He took two chances for targeted messaging to talk, instead, about himself.

At two press conferences last week, reporters raised sober questions about Jewish safety in America and the rise of anti-Semitism over the course of the election and beyond. Both were opportunities for a statement of firm condemnation against acts of violence and a moment of empathy: a presidential reassuring hand and an outstretched arm. Both times the questions were deflected, and rerouted, leaving the Jewish community reeling.

Last Wednesday morning, at a press conference held with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli journalist Moav Vardi stood up and asked, “Since your election campaign, and even since your victory, we have seen a sharp rise in anti-Semitic incidents across the United States and I wonder what you have say to the Jewish community of the United States and Israel, and maybe around the world, and ... to those who feel your administration is maybe playing with xenophobia and maybe racist tones?”

Trump’s response was surreal. First, he crowed about his electoral victory — “Well, I just want to say that we are, you know, very honored by the victory that we had I just want to say that we are very honored by the victory we had — 316 Electoral College votes. We were not supposed to crack 220. You know that, right?” (It was so incongruous that a New York Times editorial noted: “It was as if his brain had short-circuited or someone had hit some internal replay button in his brain.”)

He continued:

I will say that we are going to have peace in this country. We are going to stop crime in this country. We are going to do everything within our power to stop long-simmering racism and every other thing that's going on. There's a lot of bad things that have been taking place over a long period of time. ...

As far as people, Jewish people, so many friends; a daughter who happens to be here right now; a son-in-law, and three beautiful grandchildren. I think that you're going to see a lot different United States of America over the next three, four, or eight years. I think a lot of good things are happening.

And you're going to see a lot of love. You're going to see a lot of love.

He did not say, On behalf of my Jewish grandchildren, this White House will stand against anti-Semitism. He did not say, even more simply, No children should live in fear. He merely noted the existence of his Jewish relatives, as though their very presence spoke sufficiently to both of those points.

The following day, Trump had a second chance to address the issue.

During a 77-minute meandering press conference on Thursday, Jake Turx, a journalist from the ultra-Orthodox Jewish publication Ami Magazine, stood up and asked a question. After first promising that he wasn’t accusing Trump himself of being anti-Semitic (knowing he was a zayde, a grandfather, to Jewish kids) he then asked:

What we are concerned about and what we haven’t really heard being addressed is an uptick in anti-Semitism and how the government is planning to take care of it. There’s been a report out that 48 bomb threats have been made against Jewish centers all across the country in the last couple of weeks. There are people committing anti-Semitic acts or threatening to —

But Turx never got to finish his question. Trump cut him off, and told him to sit down. “See, he said he was going to ask a very simple, easy question, and it's not," the president said, brusquely.

Not a simple question. Not a fair question. Okay, sit down. I understand the rest of your question. ... So here's the story, folks. number one: I am the least anti-Semitic person that you've ever seen in your entire life.

The reporter immediately tried to elaborate. The president stopped him again saying:

Quiet, quiet, quiet. See he lied about — he was going to get up and ask a very straight, simple question. So, you know, welcome to the world of the media.

Turx’s actual worries remained unaddressed.

This is startling. Instead of taking an easy opportunity to reassure concerned American Jews that their president has their back, Trump roughly pushed back at an Orthodox Jewish reporter whose questions weren’t about what the administration, or the president, was doing negatively, but what it might be doing proactively to address those who are attacking the community.

This request was a long time coming

For many Jews, the moment brought home a concern that has rankled for many months. By halfway through 2016, there was a persistent, palpable, even terrifying, sense within the community that we had suddenly entered into a new era of popular anti-Semitic permissiveness, one where what was once fringe thought and speech had been mainstreamed and magnified by social media.

There were tweets that brought in anti-Semitic imagery during the campaign (a six-pointed Jewish star, superimposed upon a pile of money that was later sworn to be a “sheriff’s star”; surrogates who tweeted images of Pepe the frog, a favorite of the self-described alt-right).

There was, as well, worrisome messaging from the campaign itself, including a final advertisement that used anti-Semitic dog whistles about money, power, and “global special interests.” And there was deep concern about the stories published by Breitbart news, former news home of Steve Bannon, a leading campaign adviser turned White House right-hand man, which didn’t shy away from speaking negatively about Jews.

Midway through the campaign, those who disliked journalists’ work on Trump and his campaign began to target Jewish journalists on Twitter. Direct requests to the Republican candidate to condemn the demonization of Jewish journalists yielded nothing.

Once in office, it was hardly reassuring that the president’s message on Holocaust Remembrance Day failed to mention Jewish victims. To many, it felt premeditated.

Added together with an uptick in physical threats to Jewish institutions around the country, these two press conference moments were a chance to let Jewish citizens know support from the White House would be robust, and that hate would not be tolerated.

The choice to ignore that moment, or miss it, sent a different message entirely.

Jewish leaders are horrified at Trump’s lack of response

“What will it take for Donald Trump to condemn Anti-Semitism,” began an op-ed in the Jewish daily Forward by Kenneth Stern, executive director of the Justus and Karin Rosenberg Foundation, an organization that fights anti-Semitism and hate crimes. He called the president a “serial enabler” of anti-Semitism and white supremacists, and noted the incredible lack of empathy conveyed over the past 48 hours.

“If the President can’t empathize with, or even imagine, what it feels like to be a Jewish child rushing out of a [Jewish community center] in fear of a bomb, or the Jewish child from Montana whose picture neo-Nazis posted online, maybe he should think about the increasingly hostile environment confronting his beautiful Jewish grandchildren,” wrote Stern. “History teaches that hatred of all types — perhaps anti-Semitism especially — grows in a culture where it is tolerated, and not reflexively condemned, by leaders.”

In a statement posted to Twitter, American Jewish Committee CEO David Harris plaintively said, “Mr. President, anti-Semitism around the world is on the rise. ... We need the help of the government to combat this cancer. That’s why questions are being asked at press conferences. ... But if every such question elicits either no substantive response or, mistakenly, is taken personally, then what are people of good will supposed to conclude?”

Writing for the Jewish parenting site Kveller, Jordana Horn noted all the president needed to say was, “‘I deplore and condemn anti-Semitism in all forms. Perpetrators of anti-Semitic acts will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.’” She then offered several reasons for why the statements he did make were “woefully inadequate — and why their inadequacy should profoundly trouble Americans — Jewish and otherwise.”

“The presence of Jews in one’s administration does not give one carte blanche to ignore anti-Semitism,” she said. The rest of her statement is worth reading in full:

We are here, President Trump. We are Jewish Americans. We are not going anywhere. Some of us agree with your policies, others do not. But surely all of us, regardless of our politics, agree that our children should not be targeted for violence because they are Jewish. That our synagogues should not be vandalized with swastikas and broken windows. That Jewish homeowners should not receive threatening letters. That people who say, “Jews should burn in ovens,” are disgusting and should be loudly acknowledged as such. That bomb threats to JCCs are crimes and should be investigated and prosecuted, with the perpetrators brought to justice.

Do you agree, Mr. President? If you do, you need to explicitly say so. You feel free to express your opinions on Twitter about everything from Saturday Night Live to Nordstrom to Meryl Streep. So why, sir, do you stubbornly refuse to say anything condemning anti-Semitic attacks in our country? Because if you say nothing, I would argue that your silence speaks volumes.

In a private Facebook message to me (reprinted with permission), Horn wrote, “I couldn’t not write. I am the Jewish-American mother of six children: I have an investment in our future as well as our present.”

Statements ranging from bewildered to angry came as well from Rabbi Jack Moline, president of the Interfaith Alliance, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, of the Union for Reform Judaism, Rabbi Jill Jacobs, of the rabbinical association T’ruah, and Stosh Cotler, CEO of Bend the Arc.

“Presidents are supposed to show empathy for their anxious constituents. But when it comes to anti-Semitism, the only person Trump shows empathy for is himself,” wrote columnist Peter Beinart at the Atlantic.

In conversation with me, Jonathan Greenblatt of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) said, simply, “Words have consequences.”

“Even a simple statement would speak volumes to calm the anxiety. This has become a test,” Greenblatt said. “It’s not political ... to say prejudice should be stamped out of public square. It is not left and right, only right and wrong.”

American Jews are legitimately scared for their safety

The reason so many Jews are asking questions about anti-Semitism is that, following the increasingly worrisome rhetoric, associations, and bedfellows of the campaign, there has been a rise in terrifying anti-Semitic incidents since the year began.

In January, 60 bomb threats were called in to some 48 Jewish community centers (JCCs) across North America. "I've been in the business for 20-plus years, and this is unprecedented," Paul Goldenberg, national director of the Secure Community Network, told CNN. "It's more methodical than meets the eye."

JCCs, it should be noted, are not simply places of gathering or gyms for Zumba classes — though, of course, none of those should be targeted either. They are also often preschools during the day. That means children under 5 are the ones being evacuated each time a bomb threat is called in.

And the bomb threats are only one piece of the problem.

An entire community in Montana has been threatened by actual neo-Nazis, terrifying the Jewish population and putting its rabbi under a microscope. A neo-Nazi march was originally planned for the town of Whitefish, Montana, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, home to a handful of Jews — and to the leader of the so-called alt-right Richard Spencer. It was later scuttled.

And during the presidential election, there was a dramatic rise in online harassment of Jewish journalists and Jewish public figures. Says Greenblatt of the ADL, “You had a white supremacist trope winding itself into public dialogue that the campaign did not tamp down when it could have.” He notes that the ADL was dismissed as being “political” for complaining. But what he was seeing was “a tsunami of slander on social media — photoshopped images and grotesque threats — all these things were metastasizing.”

Indeed, the problem grew so large that the ADL issued a report on the matter in October. “At least 800 journalists received anti-Semitic tweets with an estimated reach of 45 million impressions,” the report explained. “There was a significant uptick in anti-Semitic tweets in the second half (January-July 2016) of [the report’s] study period. This correlates to intensifying coverage of the presidential campaign, the candidates and their positions on a range of issues.”

Vandalism, too, has increased, both on public property, and private, Greenblatt notes. And this week a man in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, was arrested for trying to buy a gun. According to the FBI, he had hoped to carry out a “Dylann Roof” style attack on a synagogue to kill Jews. Roof murdered nine worshipers at the historically black Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2016.

“I think, empirically — not opinion, not anecdote, not politics — something is going on,” says Greenblatt. “There is an uptick in incidents. That is why people are concerned.”

Trump, though, seems far more concerned with bragging about his electoral victory.

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