On Tuesday, February 21, 2017, more than 150 Jewish graves were knocked over and desecrated at the Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery in University City, Missouri, just west of St. Louis. This act of anti-Semitic crime happened amidst a growing number of bomb threats directed at Jewish centers across the country. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has declared these threats a “national crisis” due to their frequency. When asked to address anti-Semitism in America, President Trump and the White House issued a lackluster and reluctant response.
This increasing anti-Semitic sentiment begs the question: What place does anti-Semitism and hate now have in our society, and are Americans feeling more emboldened to express such sentiments? And what will the president do in response?
President Trump’s election campaign is partially to blame for the growing audacity of anti-Semitic vandals, like those who scrawled anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi graffiti on New York City subways on February 6. Trump’s virulently nationalistic, us-versus-them rhetoric could only have encouraged such people to publicly express their hate. Trump has relied on Steve Bannon as a leading campaign advisor and now White House chief strategist. In 2007 Bannon’s ex-wife said in a court declaration that he did not want his daughters attending a specific Los Angeles girls’ school, because it had too many Jews in it. Bannon’s former home, Breitbart News Network, has also featured such headlines as “Hoist it High and Proud: The Confederate Flag Proclaims a Glorious Heritage.” Hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan support Trump, although he later disavowed them, and seem to use his presidency as a license for expressing prejudices.
And what has Trump said of these crimes or of anti-Semitism in general? The simple answer is: not enough.
On International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27, the White House issued an official statement from the president that did not once mention Jews. At a press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, an Israeli journalist asked President Trump about the rise in anti-Semitic incidents in the United States and what he would say to the American Jewish community. Trump used that question as an excellent opportunity to brag about his electoral victory, state that he has Jewish grandchildren, and reassure the Jewish community that “[t]here’s a lot of bad things that have been happening over a long period of time … [but] you’re going to see a lot of love.”
Trump’s avoidance of addressing the question of anti-Semitism continued the next day at another press conference. A Jewish reporter asked Trump about how the government planned to address anti-Semitism and the rising number of bomb threats against Jews. President Trump interrupted the man, demanded he sit down, and simply stated that: “I am the least anti-Semitic person that you’ve ever seen in your life.” This was an especially weak response because the reporter explicitly said that he was not accusing Trump of anti-Semitism.
After the February 21 vandalism at the Jewish cemetery in Missouri, the White House issued its official 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.”
The president has not, however, made it abundantly clear that these actions are unacceptable. It is striking that in this official statement, once again, the White House never states the words “Jewish,” “anti-Semitism,” or even “Jewish cemetery.”
This message that “hate is bad” is elementary at best. What prevents President Trump from simply stating that anti-Semitism is incongruent with American values, that perpetrators will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law? Why is he incapable of outright condemning anti-Semitic acts and violence?
Jewish leaders themselves, like the Jewish president of the Interfaith Alliance, are worried about President Trump’s disappointing response to anti-Semitism. Steven Goldstein of the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect called Trump’s statement “a pathetic asterisk of condescension after weeks [of] grotesque acts and omissions reflecting anti-Semitism.” These “grotesque acts” presumably include, but are not limited to: the desecration of the Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery on February 21, the anti-Semitic graffiti on New York subways on February 6, the desecration of 100 or more Jewish gravestones in a Philadelphia Jewish cemetery February 25 or 26, and the fifth wave of bomb threats directed at Jewish community centers this past Monday, which brought the total to more than 100 incidents at a comparable number of locations in 30 or more states since Donald Trump was sworn into office.
When Trump mentioned these occurrences in his address to Congress on February 28, he once again refused to use the term “anti-Semitism.” Though he stated that the country “stands united in condemning hate and evil” he not taken any action to encourage such behavior. In fact, in a conversation with state attorney generals, Trump vaguely implied that the threats and vandalism might not be anti-Semitic acts at all, but rather attempts to “make others look bad”, that sometimes “it’s the reverse.”
President Trump’s refusal to address the problem of anti-Semitism in America will only continue to encourage anti-Semitic acts of vandalism and violence. His general statements about hate and prejudice will do nothing to prevent further minority groups from enduring similar hate crimes. Violent bigots may use his policies, like the travel ban and his revocation of the White House’s support of transgender rights in public schools, as an excuse or as encouragement to expand their list of targets for hate. It seems the president will not defend vulnerable populations like refugees or transgender teenagers from discrimination or attack, but only time will tell.
At the moment, however, anti-Semitic acts are becoming more frequent. In light of the bomb threats to Jewish community centers and vandalism of Jewish cemeteries across the country, the president, in his role as leader of the American people, must serve as an example and straightforwardly and substantively condemn and address anti-Semitism in America.