President Donald Trump has broken with precedent often during his short time in the White House. But particularly troubling to religious communities has been his puzzling violation of a convention established by George Washington: speaking out against hate.
On August 7, 1790, President George Washington was greeted by religious communities when he arrived in Newport, Rhode Island. Among them were members of Yeshuat Israel, the first Jewish congregation in the town. The president’s visit there came two months after Rhode Island voted to ratify the Bill of Rights, which included the First Amendment guaranteeing a right to the freedom of religion.
After his visit, Washington wrote to its Jewish community — which had long been subject to persecution — thanking them for their hospitality. He also reassured them that the U.S. was a country in which they could openly practice their faith without fear of government intervention.
“The government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens,” Washington wrote.
Washington’s rejection of anti-Semitism set the expectation that future presidents would speak out against discrimination based on religion, a practice that has expanded over the course of history to see his successors publicly rejecting hate crimes and providing comforting words following national tragedy.
“George Washington was not only the first president, but he was the first president to speak clearly to a religious minority and speak with them as a religious minority,” said Rabbi Jonah Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. “The president has the opportunity not only [to] affect policy and to act, but also to be the moral voice of our country. We need a clear moral voice speaking out against bigotry in all forms, particularly in this moment when the American Jewish community is feeling vulnerable.”
A troubling rise in anti-Semitic incidents began Jan. 4 when a bomb threat was called in to a Jewish preschool in New Jersey. Three waves of threats at more than 50 institutions followed.
Six weeks later, Trump — who had not publicly commented on the issue — was asked to directly respond to the troubling trend. Twice reporters questioning Trump at press conferences asked what the president was going to do to stop such expressions of anti-Semitism. Instead of unequivocally condemning the incidents as unacceptable, Trump answered by denying that he personally was anti-Semitic or biased. Even when reporters clarified that they weren’t accusing the president of harboring such views, Trump failed to condemn the acts.
His first public statement condemning the bomb threats came the next week on Feb. 21, during a visit to the African American History Museum — after a fourth wave of threats occurred. His office issued no press statements during that time regarding the approximately 100 bomb threats or vandalism at three Jewish cemeteries, and it was also silent after the shooting of two Indian men in Kansas City, Mo.,which the FBI is investigating as a hate crime.
A fifth wave of threats took place Feb. 27. And on Tuesday, four Anti-Defamation League offices received bomb threats, as did at least two JCCs in New York City.
“We denounce these latest anti-Semitic and evil threats in the strongest terms,” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said at the daily press briefing Tuesday.
Typically, the White House press secretary issues such a statement or a release on such incidents. Even boilerplate press releases — often only a few sentences — send a message.
“Ironically,” Pesner said, “there’s not such a difference between a letter that George Washington wrote than a press release the current administration puts out. It delivers a very clear and unequivocal message to the reader.”
Presidents since Washington have spoken out against hate crimes in different ways, according to Barbara Perry, presidential studies director at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. For example, she said, multiple presidents condemned lynchings that took place across the South starting in the 1890s.
“The president, whoever that person is, is the highest elected official in the country and when they make a statement it’s about who we are as a nation and about our values,” said Heidi Beirich, director of the intelligence project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups in the U.S. “It also bolsters the victims when they don’t feel isolated and afraid, when the most powerful person in the country says ‘this is a terrible tragedy.’”
Former President George W. Bush made it clear in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks that violence against Muslims would not be tolerated. Six days after the attack, Bush visited the Islamic Center of Washington, D.C., and delivered a forceful statement insisting that intimidation and fear-mongering against Muslims “will not stand in America.”
“Those who feel like they can intimidate our fellow citizens to take out their anger don't represent the best of America, they represent the worst of humankind, and they should be ashamed of that kind of behavior,” Bush said.
Former President Barack Obama gave one of his most memorable speeches in 2015 at the funeral of the Rev. Clementa Pickney, who had been gunned down along with eight other African-Americans while attending a bible study at a church in Charleston, S.C.. The white shooter was convicted on 33 counts of federal hate crimes.
“For too long, we’ve been blind to the way past injustices continue to shape the present. Perhaps we see that now,” Obama said during the eulogy. “Perhaps it causes us to examine what we’re doing to cause some of our children to hate.”
Technology has made it easier and faster for presidents to reach citizens directly. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had radio fireside chats and President John F. Kennedy was the first television president. President Trump uses Twitter continuously, offering a potential venue to speak out against hate more quickly.
“Now there’s absolutely no filter so at any moment, at 3 a.m., he can reach however many people want to follow him on Twitter,” Perry said, adding that Trump’s social media habits make his silence on the incidents more confusing. “Why doesn’t this president immediately take to the most direct means of reaching the people, as he is wont to do about everything from the trivial to the important?”
As technology has magnified ease of communication from a president, Perry said people have even higher expectations a president will speak out against an incident of hate or a national tragedy.
Trump addressed both the anti-Semitic incidents and the Kansas City shooting in the opening lines of his joint address to Congress a week ago, his highest profile statement on the issues to date. But for a Jewish community not only jarred and confused by Trump’s reluctance to denounce the incidents head-on but concerned over their personal safety, some say words — while critical — are just the beginning.
“Words have consequences. They’re important because they’re important symbols. But a lack of words has consequences, too,” Anti-Defamation League Director Jonathan Greenblat said. “It really was welcome to hear these words from the president. Now he needs to pivot from words to action.”