President Donald Trump spoke out against a recent rise in anti-Semitic incidents, following a so far weak reaponse that has troubled Jewish communities who want a louder response to a rise of bomb threats and vandalism across the country.
During a joint address to Congress on Tuesday evening, Trump started the speech by decrying the threats and cemetery vandalism.
“Tonight, as we mark the conclusion of our celebration of Black History Month, we are reminded of our nation's path toward civil rights and the work that still remains,” Trump said. “Recent threats targeting Jewish Community Centers and vandalism of Jewish cemeteries, as well as last week's shooting in Kansas City, remind us that while we may be a nation divided on policies, we are a country that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all its forms.”
Just this week, the most recent wave of bomb threats caused evacuations at Jewish facilities across the country. According to the Anti-Defamation League, at least 20 calls were made in 12 states. Since the beginning of the year, around 90 threats have been made to Jewish Community Centers and Jewish schools on five different days.
None of the threats have been found to be credible, and the FBI is investigating some of the incidents.
On Sunday, a Jewish cemetery in Philadelphia was vandalized, with around 100 headstones toppled. Last Monday, there was a similar incident when around 150 headstones at a Jewish cemetery in Missouri were knocked over.
Earlier Tuesday, according to an account from Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, the president suggested the incidents weren’t being perpetrated by anti-Semites but someone “doing it to make others look bad.”
After a divisive campaign, there has been a rise in hate crimes across the country. Jews have been unsettled by what some say is the Trump administration’s tepid response to bomb threats and vandalism, and some fear the influence chief strategist Stephen Bannon has on the president. Bannon is the former head of Breitbart, a news site he called the “platform of the alt-right” and is host to anti-Semitic comments.
Condemnation of the anti-Semitic incidents from the White House has been slow: Not until Feb. 21, on a visit to the African American History Museum, did Trump speak out publicly against the wave of incidents.
“The anti-Semitic threats targeting our Jewish community and community centers are horrible and are a painful and a very sad reminder of the work that still must be done to root out hate and prejudice and evil,” Trump said.
But that statement was too little, too late for some. In response, the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect said “the anti-Semitism coming out of this administration is the worst we have ever seen.”
"When President Trump responds to anti-Semitism proactively and in real time, and without pleas and pressure, that's when we'll be able to say this president has turned a corner,” the center’s director Steven Goldstein said. “This is not that moment."
Trump and his supporters have frequently used his family — his daughter Ivanka converted to Judaism and has a Jewish husband and children — as proof that the president himself is not anti-Semitic.
The president has repeatedly balked at questions from reporters about the rise in anti-Semitic incidents, taking the inquiries instead as a personal attack. At a press conference on Feb. 16, Trump called on Jake Turx, reporter for Orthodox Jewish weekly Ami Magazine. Turx — who Trump had determined looked like a “friendly reporter” — prefaced his question by saying no one in his community was accusing the president of being anti-Semitic.
“However,” Mr. Turx continued, “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——”
Before Turx could finish his question, Trump interrupted, calling it not “fair” and told the reporter to “sit down.”
“So here’s the story, folks,” Trump said. “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.”
The administration also faced controversy when it released a statement honoring Holocaust Remembrance Day that failed to mention Jewish people. The White House said the omission was not a mistake and was made because non-Jews were also victims of the Holocaust.