The 130 bomb threats called in to Jewish organizations across the US in the first months of 2017 have Jewish leaders warning of an unprecedented spike in anti-Semitic violence — and arguing that President Trump is not helping the problem.
Now some are trying to deflect a bit of the blame away from Trump by pointing out that 7,000 anti-Semitic attacks took place during the Obama years and didn’t get the same level of public attention. They argue the current press coverage is overhyped — and unfairly tarring Trump.
The argument is most clearly articulated in a pair of articles, one from a Jewish publication called the Algemeiner and one from the Washington Post.
In the Algemeiner, a 45-year-old publication, the headline presents the issue baldly: “Why Were the 7,000 Antisemitic Incidents Under Obama Largely Ignored?”
Author Seth Frantzman writes that there was an apparent average of 95 anti-Semitic threats in January and February 2017.
Using data from the Anti-Defamation League, he lists the numbers of anti-Semitic acts under Obama, year by year, and arrives at the 7,000 figure cited in the headline. (Neither the FBI nor the ADL has yet compiled the full number of crimes for 2016.)
Overall, there was an average of 84 incidents a month under the Obama administration. Let’s step back for a moment and compare that to the 95 incidents between January and February 2017. That’s a 10% increase. It could be more once all the data comes in. But the media haven’t been telling us there is a slight increase; the narrative has been that there is an anti-Semitic wave sweeping the US.
In other words, the current moment is overhyped. At the same time, he says that the media wasn’t paying close enough attention to assaults, vandalism, and anti-Semitism taking place under Obama:
Was it because of an agenda to protect the Obama administration from criticism, or due to complacency and people becoming inured to the phenomenon? The cesspool and swamp from which today’s hate crimes on Jewish cemeteries emerge is not in a vacuum and it may not be due to the toxic divisions of 2016; it may have deeper roots. That’s the elephant in the room: 7,000 incidents that were recorded — and reported by the ADL — which almost no one wants to talk about.
Let’s take the last sentence of this paragraph first.
One hundred and thirty bomb threats across the United States over three months isn’t a single act of vandalism, or even an egregious, but still isolated, act of assault. A bomb threat, instead, ripples through whole towns, affecting entire schools — children, namely — community centers, and hundreds of people, not individuals. Dozens upon dozens of bomb threats serve to destabilize communities across the country.
Second, the amplification effect of social media has changed the impact of a single incident. We know more now about a swastika on a subway train, say, than we would have in 2010. We now also see it in a new context — one influenced by those bomb threats.
It’s also not entirely true that anti-Semitic incidents that took place in the Obama years were ignored by the media, let alone the ADL.
Last August, for example, the New York Times ran a long feature that discussed Jewish college students being exposed to anti-Semitism on campus because of anti-Israel sentiments there. Similarly, there have been several stories about anti-Semitism in the University of California system. Could there have been more stories done on these issues? Of course. Was it underplayed? That’s harder to prove.
The real issue is that unless there had been a coordinated wave of threats and attacks that took places at dozens of campuses or communities at roughly the same time, the individual stories were bound to get less coverage. For better or worse, the news is often reactive that way.
And as Allison Kaplan Sommer points out in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, “Frantzman’s math failed to factor in the unusual scale and nature of the 2017 bomb threat waves that caused some experts to sit up and take notice.”
She notes that Paul Goldenberg, the national director of a Jewish organization called the Secure Community Network, told CNN he’d never seen anything like the current wave of threats in more than 20 years of work protecting Jewish facilities across the US.
Yet Frantzman sees this hype coming not just from the press but also from the ADL. He quotes national director Jonathan Greenblatt, who told the organization’s national conference last November that “[a]nti-Jewish public and political discourse in America is worse than at any point since the 1930s,” citing the far right — and the far left.
That, in Frantzman’s assessment, is an exaggerated description of the current level of anti-Semitism during the campaign and in the first months of the Trump administration.
“Every six days, a Jewish person in America was being attacked in 2015 and it went largely ignored,” he writes. “On average, there were threats every day against Jews and Jewish institutions over the last eight years and most of them did not receive headlines. There were also incidents of vandalism every day on average. Why did 7,034 incidents of antisemitism not get major headlines for so long?”
But that question obscures Greenblatt’s message: Greenblatt was not referring to the number of incidents, and, given that the comment was made in November, he was obviously not referring to the bomb threats of 2017 at all. In conversation with me, Greenblatt has been very quick to note that the actual number of avowed anti-Semites is and remains low. What the ADL chief was referring to here was both a new type of amplification — Twitter, most notably — and the fact that the discourse of the 2016 election was unlike anything anyone had seen before.
Something ugly came to the surface during the campaign
There is a reason stories on the threats to the Jewish community are usually accompanied by an exegesis on the rise of anti-Semitism during the 2016 election. Typically a story will reference the dog whistles used by Trump campaign surrogates, and the retweeting of anti-Semitic memes such as the use — which Trump said was inadvertent — of a photo of Hillary Clinton next to a Jewish star of David emblazoned with the words “Most corrupt candidate ever!” atop a pile of money. The image seemed to speak to a series of ancient anti-Jewish canards about money and power.
But Frantzman is not the only person arguing that the current rhetoric about anti-Semitism, and the concern about actual threats to the community, may be overheated. He quotes from Mark Oppenheimer, who wrote at the Washington Post on February 17 that it wasn’t clear “if Nov. 9, 2016, was the start of something new or just a continuation of a regrettable but enduring legacy.”
Oppenheimer goes on:
Some assume that since Nov. 9, the Trump administration has ushered in a new, shocking rise in anti-Semitism. It’s an assumption that shows up not just at presidential news conferences but in numerous articles in the mainstream media. They rely on reports from the Anti-Defamation League, the Southern Poverty Law Center and numerous liberal commentators, Jewish and not. Similar narratives have taken hold about anti-Muslim violence, anti-immigrant violence and misogyny....
But it is not clear that we can accuse the president of ushering in a new era of heightened anti-Semitism. While there is real anti-Semitism, we have no reliable statistics available to show there’s been a rise in anti-Semitism since Trump’s election.
Oppenheimer wants readers to take a high-altitude look at the longer history of anti-Semitism and recognize that threats did not begin (and will not end) with Trump. He too looks at the attacks that took place in previous years. “As bad as 2017 has been for anti-Semitic incidents, 2016 wasn’t great, either,” he writes. “Nor was 2015, when the Anti-Defamation League reported 90 anti-Semitic incidents on campuses, twice as many as the year before — a slow drip that has continued into this school year.”
There is something else at play in the Frantzman piece. And that’s the implied swipe at Obama.
As Sommer notes at Ha’aretz: “[N]umbers are only one half of the charge that recent anti-Semitism has been artificially inflated with fake news hypes. The other is the accusation of a double standard: the charge that anti-Semitism under Obama got a pass, while incidents on Trump’s watch are being blamed on him.”
But there’s no mystery about why so many Jews are quick to blame Trump. Barack Obama condemned anti-Semitism regularly and passionately and kicked off his presidency by visiting the Nazi death camp at Buchenwald. Donald Trump has not.
Trump has been alarmingly quiet about anti-Jewish threats
On this year’s International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the Trump White House issued a statement that didn’t mention Jews.
Through two February press conferences — one held alongside the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu — the president could barely utter the phrase “anti-Semitism,” let alone condemn it, and dodged pointed questions about the increasing anxiety in the Jewish community.
It took Trump until February 22 to actually call the threats to the Jewish community “horrible.” In his February 28 address to Congress, Trump proclaimed that “we are a country united in condemning hate.” But he appeared to undermine that message by having wondering aloud, the day before, if the attacks were faked to harm him politically.
That’s preposterous. An ADL/ProPublica study published March 8 noted that “[a]fter years of decline, anti-Semitic crimes began trending upward in 2015, according to FBI data.” The increase, the study noted, seemed to have “accelerated” over the course of the second half of the election, “as Trump’s unique brand of nativist populism has helped to pull more extreme right-wing groups, some of them avowedly racist, closer to the political mainstream”:
On Twitter, openly anti-Semitic figures have built vast networks of supporters and cultivated large audiences, while the Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website geared towards millennials, has seen its traffic grow to roughly 500,000 unique visitors per month. In New York City, the police department said anti-Semitic hate crimes nearly doubled in the first two months of 2017 as compared to the same period last year.
Throughout the campaign, some Trump supporters trafficked in openly anti-Semitic imagery and language. And any sense of anti-Jewish sentiment, of course, was nestled within a greater atmosphere of intolerance toward minorities.
“[T]he first to be targeted are Muslims or Mexicans — after which they will probably come for Jews, gays, blacks and all the other apparent undesirables who irk Trump’s angriest followers,” Oppenheimer writes. “The real question a reporter who cares about Jewish safety should ask Trump is about the health and safety of other minority groups.”
All of that is fair, of course. But what’s new is the idea that all these groups are at greater risk now than before.
When a security guard was fatally shot by a white supremacist at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in 2009, the Obama White House quickly, and strongly, condemned the attack.
That week, op-ed columnist Bob Herbert wrote at the New York Times, “The white supremacist crowd is up in arms, literally, in large part because the tide has turned against them. In addition to the presence of Mr. Obama in the White House, racism and anti-Semitism are no longer tolerated as overt factors in American life.”
This is no longer how we write about racism and anti-Semitism. We are now forced to talk about how hate has been mainstreamed. We are now forced to talk about how ideas that were once fringe have become an acceptable part of public discourse. That, even more than the number of anti-Semitic threats and implied violence, may be the most frightening part of the atmosphere of Trump’s first months in office.