What a president says and doesn’t say is significant. So when President Trump was asked once on Wednesday and twice on Thursday to address an upsurge in anti-Semitism in America, his reaction was notable.
It was startling and, unfortunately, it was only the latest episode in a troubling pattern.
Last year, we watched as the Trump campaign repeatedly tweeted and shared anti-Semitic imagery and language, allowing this poison to move from the margins into the mainstream of the public conversation. We saw white supremacists accommodated with press credentials and welcomed at Trump’s political rallies. And when the Anti-Defamation League repeatedly and respectfully raised concerns, we were dismissed by the Trump campaign and its allies.
Immediately after the election, we saw white supremacists celebrating and convening right around the corner from the White House, raising their arms in Hitler salutes. Barely a week after Trump’s victory, the FBI issued an annual report that noted that there were more hate crimes against Jews in 2015 — the report for 2016 will be out this fall — and that we remain the most frequently targeted religious minority, even in a climate where Trump has rallied supporters behind the idea of banning Muslims from entering the country. In the months since then, the Jewish community has been victimized by a surge of hate crimes, including waves of bomb threats against Jewish community centers, a torrent of verbal abuse and physical graffiti directed against Jews and relentless attacks on Jewish journalists and Jewish public figures on social media.
Just Thursday, even as Trump refused to condemn all that, a man in South Carolina was arraigned on charges of plotting to attack a synagogue. He was apprehended by the FBI before he had the chance, in his own alleged words, to emulate his hero Dylann Roof, the convicted murderer who now sits on death row for killing nine people in a black church in Charleston, S.C., in 2015.
So it’s no surprise that the Jewish community is on edge and looking for reassurance from our president. Yet just a few weeks ago, the White House issued a Holocaust Remembrance Day statement that bizarrely omitted any reference to the wholesale slaughter of six million Jews, the very reason that the day was created by the United Nations more than a decade ago. Unlike statements put out by previous Republican and Democratic administrations, the language evoked long-standing efforts by white supremacists and anti-Semitic regimes to trivialize Jewish suffering and downplay the Nazi extermination of the Jewish people. And when asked about this exclusion, senior White House officials said that it was intentional, that “everyone’s suffering in the Holocaust [matters], including obviously all of the Jewish people” and that it was “asinine” to question the issue.
But the anger that deliberate omission generated among American Jews — even among organizations that have supported Trump staunchly up to now — apparently didn’t really break through to the president. On Wednesday, when asked during a joint news conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about this rising tide of anti-Semitism, Trump waxed on about his electoral vote total and referenced his Jewish daughter, Ivanka Trump; son-in-law, Jared Kushner; and grandchildren. At Thursday’s news conference, when an Orthodox Jewish journalist began a question on the same topic by stipulating that he did not believe the president was anti-Semitic but that many Jews wanted hear his response to the climate, the president cut off the reporter, accusing him of lying for asking a “very insulting” question and dismissed the whole issue by declaring himself “the least anti-Semitic person that you’ve ever seen in your entire life.” He went on to insist that some anti-Semitic and racist graffiti and signs were put up by his political opponents to anger the press.
Regardless of how much the president claims to love Israel or how his grandchildren spend the holidays, as John Adams said, facts are stubborn things. Simply put, dismissing this issue as a political distraction or partisan concern does not change the fact that there has been a surge in anti-Semitic rhetoric and actions. Trump’s repeated failure to denounce anti-Semitism has consequences, emboldening bigots.
So it is honestly mind-boggling why Trump prefers to shout down a reporter or deride the concerns of the Jewish community. It is shocking to us that in this day and age, the president will not acknowledge — much less condemn — the rise in anti-Semitic rhetoric and actions.
The issue of anti-Semitism is not a political one. But it is potentially lethal. With the president’s leadership, it can get better. With his neglect or instigation, it can get worse.
In light of the rise of hate, there is a simple question that Trump should answer, not only for American Jews but to assuage Americans of all faiths — what will his administration do about the surge of anti-Semitism? What concrete steps will the White House take?
There are many possible answers — increasing anti-bias education, engaging law enforcement, calling on more states to pass comprehensive hate crimes laws, engaging affected communities in dialogue. Most of all, the president could emphatically and unambiguously speak out against anti-Semitism whenever it happens and shame anti-Semites from the public square.
It is still early in his administration, but we hope that the president will respond to the very simple question posed to him several times this week. Until we get a clear answer, we at the ADL are going to keep asking how Trump plans to tackle anti-Semitism — and we urge others in the press and public to do so as well.