On two successive days this week, President Donald Trump had the opportunity to denounce the reported increase in anti-Semitism in the United States that has been linked to his political rise.
Not only did Trump not condemn the attacks, he also largely ignored the issue and at least once responded as if the accusations were directed at him, which they weren’t.
The reaction has left Jewish groups confused and frustrated, especially following the visit this week of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the White House.
“Our community is puzzled and concerned,” said Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, which calls itself the largest and most diverse Jewish movement in North America. “We must hear from President Trump: Why has he not forthrightly condemned this anti-Semitic activity? Will he do so? What plans does the Trump administration have for responding to the wave of hatred?”
In recent months, synagogues and other Jewish institutions have been vandalized with swastikas and other anti-Semitic symbols. Jewish community centers have been threatened with a series of unsolved bomb threats. On Thursday afternoon, during Trump’s news conference, the Israeli consulate in Miami received a bomb threat.
Michael Rubin, a Middle East expert at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative research center, said Trump was frustrated that people weren’t allowing him to start his presidency clean.
“He thinks he deserves a blank slate, while the rest of humanity wants to hold him accountable for campaign rhetoric,” he said. “He’s sensitive. These accusations have gotten under his skin.”
I am the least anti-Semitic person that you’ve ever seen in your entire life.
President Donald Trump
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
During the presidential campaign, Trump counted anti-Semites among his supporters, and his aides occasionally employed veiled anti-Semitic messages and images associated with white supremacists in their social media posts.
Since his inauguration, in which he delivered a speech about “America first” – also the name of an anti-Semitic movement that had urged the country to appease Adolf Hitler decades ago – his aides omitted a reference to Jews in the White House’s Holocaust Remembrance Day statement. This week, top aide Kellyanne Conway was accused of retweeting a post from a white nationalist Trump supporter.
“This marks just the latest in a long history of Trump advisers and staff echoing and bolstering white supremacist views,” said Stosh Cotler, CEO of Bend the Arc Jewish Action. “We urge all political leaders to condemn anti-Semitism, white supremacy, and oppose the radical agenda that Trump is advancing.”
President Trump, you are president of the United States. It’s not enough to just not be an anti-Semite. We expect you to do something about it. Get past being offended and take action to protect the Jewish community.
Rabbi Jack Moline, president of Interfaith Alliance
Netanyahu, who held his first meeting with Trump this week, welcomed Trump’s win after a strained relationship with former President Barack Obama following the agreement with six world powers to limit Iran’s ability to build nuclear weapons in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions and Obama’s decision not to block a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements. Trump, on the other hand, promised something that Israel has long wanted, moving the United States Embassy to Jerusalem.
But on Wednesday, in a news conference with Netanyahu, he essentially ducked a question that asked him directly about the “sharp rise in anti-Semitic incidents.”
“What do you say to those among the Jewish community in the states and in Israel and maybe around the world who believe and feel that your administration is playing with xenophobia and maybe racist tones?” the reporter asked.
Trump responded by speaking of his Jewish daughter, son-in-law and three grandchildren and his Electoral College win.
“I think one of the reasons I won the election is we have a very, very divided nation, very divided,” he said. “And hopefully, I'll be able to do something about that. And I, you know, it was something that was very important to me.”
You’re going to see a lot of love. You're going to see a lot of love.
President Donald Trump
“I haven't seen anybody in my community accuse either yourself or anyone on your staff of being anti-Semitic,” the reporter said. “What we are concerned about and what we haven’t . . . heard addressed is how the government is planning to take care of it.”
Trump didn’t address the question. Instead, he attacked the reporter. “He lied about what was going to be a very straight, simple question,” Trump interrupted. “I hate the charge. I find it repulsive. I hate even the question.”
Later, when a second reporter tried to follow up, Trump accused his opponents of anti-Semitic behavior. “It won’t be my people. It will be the people on the other side to anger people like you,” he said.
The answer left Jewish leaders baffled.
“It is mind-boggling why President Trump prefers to shout down a reporter or brush this off as a political distraction,” said a pair of officials with the Anti-Defamation League, national Chair Marvin D. Nathan and CEO Jonathan A. Greenblatt. “This is not a partisan issue. It’s a potentially lethal problem, and it’s growing.”