As anti-Semitic threats increase, Trump (finally) speaks out

In the face of an attack on a Jewish cemetery and a wave of bomb threats, some have questioned how the White House has addressed anti-Semitism.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
US President Donald Trump talks with the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution David Skorton (2ndL) and historian Lonnie Bunch (R), director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, while visiting the Smithsonian's African American History Museum in Washington on February 21, 2017.

For his first time as president, Donald Trump has condemned waves of anti-Semitic incidents that have targeted a Jewish cemetery, community centers, and other religious institutions since he took office on Jan. 20.

During a visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington on Tuesday, President Trump said the anti-Semitic threats are “horrible,” “painful,” and a “very sad reminder of the work that still must be done.”

These remarks come after a holiday weekend in which Jewish graves were defaced in a St. Louis suburb and bomb threats that appear to be hoaxes were separately called in to 11 Jewish Community Centers across the country. Mr. Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, and a White House spokesman had already denounced the incidents on Twitter, but neither used the terms anti-Semitism or Jewish in their tweets.

The president’s words on Tuesday mark a shift in how he and his administration have responded to a rise in anti-Semitic incidents since his inauguration. Trump previously abstained from denouncing these attacks, with Jewish leaders and others characterizing his unusual answers to questions about anti-Semitism as “mind-boggling.” But the language Trump used on Tuesday was very clear.

“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,” he said, according to The New York Times.

He added his visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture was “a meaningful reminder of why we have to fight bigotry, intolerance and hatred in all of its very ugly forms.”

Sometime this weekend, perpetrators vandalized the gravesites of at least 170 Jews in a cemetery in University City, Mo., an inner-ring suburb of St. Louis, according to The Washington Post. The cemetery, founded in 1888 by the Russian Jewish community in St. Louis, is managed by the nonprofit Chesed Shel Emeth Society.

Anita Feigenbaum, director of the nonprofit, told the Post that the vandalism, which a groundskeeper discovered upon arriving at the cemetery on Monday, was a “horrific act of cowardice,” and called on anyone with information to come forward.

In a series of separate incidents on Monday, bomb threats were called in to 11 Jewish Community Centers in cities including Chicago, Houston, Nashville, and Birmingham, Ala., according to a statement from the Jewish Community Centers Association (JCCA) of North America. Since no devices or bombs were found in connection with the threats, the organization and law enforcement determined all of Monday’s incidents were “hoaxes.”

“While we are relieved that all such threats have proven to be hoaxes and that not a single person was harmed, we are concerned about the anti-Semitism behind these threats, and the repetition of threats intended to interfere with day-to-day life,” David Posner, who advises all JCCs on security policies and practices, said in a statement. “Our JCCs are strongly rooted in communities across the country, and we will not be cowed by threats intended to disrupt people’s lives or the vital role Jewish community centers play as gathering places, schools, camps, and fitness and recreation centers.”

The threats are the fourth wave of such incidents since President Trump took office. In total, 69 of these incidents have been called into 54 community centers in 27 states and one Canadian province, according to JCCA.

Responding to a question from NBC News about the threats, a White House spokesman denounced the incidents. But there was no mention of anti-Semitism or reference to Jews in the response.

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

Ivanka Trump, a convert to Judaism, also condemned the attacks. 

"Glad to see this," Anti-Defamation League (ADL) chief executive Jonathan Greenblatt tweeted in response to Ivanka Trump’s comment. "All Jews need to urge [the president] to step forward and share a plan. His words carry weight. His actions will speak even louder." 

The ADL and others previously criticized President Trump and the White House’s unusual response to these anti-Semitic incidents. The controversy heated up last week when the president was asked how he planned to respond to this rising tide of anti-Semitism. In a news conference with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday, Trump responded to a question about anti-Semitism by recalling the size of his Electoral College victory and reminding reporters that his daughter, son-in-law and three of his grandchildren are all Jewish, according to the Times.

Then, on Thursday, Trump cut off an Orthodox Jewish reporter for Ami Magazine who asked if and how the Trump administration planned to respond to anti-Semitism.

"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," asked Jake Turx, a penname for the reporter.

Trump cut him off mid-sentence, saying "sit down” and "I understand the rest of your question."

"So here’s the story, folks," continued the president. "No. 1, I am the least anti-Semitic person that you’ve ever seen in your entire life. No. 2, racism, the least racist person." He also noted that Mr. Netanyahu said on Wednesday that Trump is a friend of Israel and the Jewish people and no anti-Semite.

Jewish leaders were baffled by Trump’s responses. The ADL issued a statement on Feb. 16, characterizing Mr. Trump’s news conference reactions as "mind-boggling," while Hillary Clinton urged Trump to speak out.

Now that he has, the ADL says it wants a plan, not just to condemn these attacks, but to prevent them. 

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