Days after he declined to denounce anti-Semitism, President Donald Trump finally condemned the reported increase in anti-Semitism in the United States that has been linked to his political rise.
But it wasn’t enough.
Trump was immediately pressed to speak more forcefully about the issue and to take specific steps to tackle hate crime in the United States, including improving data collection and providing additional resources to protect threatened communities.
“The president’s sudden acknowledgment of anti-Semitism is a band-aid on the cancer of anti-Semitism that has infected his own administration,” said Steven Goldstein, executive director of the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect. “His statement . . . is a pathetic asterisk of condescension after weeks in which he and his staff have committed grotesque acts and omissions reflecting anti-Semitism, yet day after day have refused to apologize and correct the record.”
Trump’s comments – his first public comments since drawing criticism for failing to denounce recent attacks targeting Jewish people and institutions – came Tuesday after a series of bomb threats against Jewish Community Centers and the desecration of a Jewish cemetery in Missouri. His remarks also followed a tweet by his daughter, Ivanka.
“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,” Trump said during a visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
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.
“If leaders in the United States continue to halfheartedly condemn hate crime, we will continue to see these horrific instances of anti-Semitism and intolerance,” Human Rights First’s Susan Corke said.
Twice last week, Trump largely ignored the issue when asked for his reaction to the attacks at back-to-back news conferences. At least once, he responded as if the accusations were directed at him, which they weren’t.
Trump’s failure to take advantage of the opportunities to denounce what was taking place left Jewish groups confused and frustrated, especially following the recent visit of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the White House.
“President Trump has been inexcusably silent as this trend of anti-Semitism has continued and arguably accelerated,” said Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. “The President of the United States must always be a voice against hate and for the values of religious freedom and inclusion that are the nation’s highest ideals. We urge President Trump to continue to speak out against anti-Semitism as he did today and to apply the full weight of the executive branch’s powers behind the effort to hold accountable the perpetrators of such hatred.”
At the White House, Press Secretary Sean Spicer took a moment during his daily press briefing to reiterate Trump’s condemnation of anti-semitic threats targeting Jewish centers. He called them “horrible and painful,” and a reminder of the work that must be done to “root out hate and prejudice and evil.”
Spicer then defended the president as several questioners wondered why he hadn’t spoken sooner. Spicer didn’t announce any specific initiatives, but said the president’s been clear since his campaign that he would speak out against hate, anti-feminism and racism.
“Today I think was an unbelievably forceful comment by the president as far as his denunciation of the actions that are currently targeted toward Jewish community centers,” he said. “But I think that he's been very clear previous to this, that he wants to be someone that brings this country together and not divide people, especially in those areas.”
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.
Trump’s slogan “America first” also recalls the movement that urged the country to appease Adolf Hitler decades ago, and his aides omitted a reference to Jews in the White House’s Holocaust Remembrance Day statement.
Jonathan Boyarin, director of Jewish Studies at Cornell University, said that if Trump were serious about fighting anti-Semitism, he would fire his top aide, Stephen Bannon, and stop targeting Muslims and Arabs.
“President Trump’s acknowledgment Tuesday that anti-Semitism is ‘horrible’ rings hollow,” he said. “If he really were offended by both anti-Semitism and racism, he wouldn’t have anything to do with advisers like Stephen Bannon. If what he really wants for this country is ‘love,’ then he would promote policies that serve everyone who lives in, works in, and visits the United States, rather than choosing to target Muslims and Arabs.”
Franco Ordoñez contributed.