President Trump on Antisemitism: Some Talk, No Action

The White House’s struggle to hit the mark on the issue of antisemitism continues, although members of the administration finally seem to have agreed on a consistent message: antisemitism is bad. But mere statements won’t make a pressing question go away: what is the White House going to do about the rash of antisemitic hate crimes in the United States?

The criticism of the White House kicked off several weeks ago, when in its statement on Holocaust Remembrance Day the administration deliberately didn’t mention Jewish victims or antisemitism. Concerns mounted because of White House attempts to justify the decision, including an angry defense by Deputy Assistant to the President Sebastian Gorka, who has worn a medal from a WWII-era Hungarian group that allied with Nazi Germany. Then last week during a joint press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Trump deflected a question about antisemitism by discussing the number of electoral college votes he received. Later that week, during the President’s chaotic press conference, a simple and polite question about his intentions to address antisemitism sparked an angry response.

Following criticism of President Trump’s remarks at that press conference, the White House has apparently changed its approach. Vice President Mike Pence visited the Dachau concentration camp in Germany over the weekend and commented on Twitter that, “We can never forget atrocities against Jews and others in the Holocaust.” Then, following another wave of bomb threats against Jewish Community Centers across the country, Ivanka Trump tweeted, “America is a nation built on the principle of religious tolerance. We must protect our houses of worship and religious centers.” And on Tuesday, President Trump finally addressed the issue. During a visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, he commented that “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.”

Vice President Pence reiterated this sentiment during a visit to a Jewish cemetery in St. Louis, where at least 170 headstones had been knocked over or damaged. Pence said, “there is no place in America for hatred or acts of prejudice or violence or anti-Semitism.”

However, neither he nor President Trump has elaborated on how to prevent such hate crimes. And therein lies the problem. That he is just now, after four weeks of criticism, acknowledges that attacks on Jewish people are “horrible,” is telling. That the bar is so low that such a statement is considered a win is troubling.

A few recommendations: the president should appoint respected White House and State Department envoys to the Jewish and Muslim communities, improve data collection on hate crime, and provide additional resources to protect at-risk communities.

Whether Trump is willing to address antisemitism remains to be seen. Although these recent threats targeted Jews, the rise of antisemitism and the rise of Islamophobia are inseparable. If a nation built on the principle of religious tolerance is our goal as a country, then the oppression of one religion cannot be ignored for the sake of another. Trump’s willingness to violate the rights of Muslims should come as a warning to American Jews, or anyone else seeking religious tolerance.

Many American Jews have been vocal opponents of the Muslim ban, and American Muslims have stepped in to support the Jewish victims of recent threats and vandalism. Such solidarity is essential. Given how much criticism was required to push the president to make a simple statement condemning antisemitism, concrete action will require constant pressure from several fronts. Jews, Muslims, members of Congress, activists, journalists, all Americans concerned with the rise of hate crimes—we must continue to ask the difficult questions and demand not only answers, but action as well.

By Dora Illei

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