WASHINGTON -- US President Donald Trump began his first address to a joint session of Congress by condemning antisemitism as a form of hate and evil and by offering an homage to civil rights amid a spate of attacks on Jewish institutions nationwide.
“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.
“Each American generation passes the torch of truth, liberty and justice – in an unbroken chain all the way down to the present,” the president added. “That torch is now in our hands. And we will use it to light up the world.”
Trump delivered his first address to the legislature on Tuesday night amid a spike in antisemitic incidents across the country, including more than 100 reported bomb threats to Jewish institutions, Nazi-themed vandalism in Jewish neighborhoods and the desecration of two Jewish cemeteries, in Missouri and Pennsylvania.
The president last week condemned antisemitism at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, but earlier on Tuesday suggested to state attorneys- general that bomb threats to JCCs might have been orchestrated “to make others look bad.”
In the speech, Trump said his administration would continue to put Iran “on notice” and underscore American support for Israel.
His White House already has imposed “new sanctions on entities and individuals who support Iran’s ballistic missile program, and reaffirmed our unbreakable alliance with the State of Israel,” Trump said.
The president spent significant time on the national security threat posed by Islamic State, a terrorist network holding ground in Iraq and Syria.
“As promised, I directed the Department of Defense to develop a plan to demolish and destroy ISIS – a network of lawless savages that have slaughtered Muslims and Christians, and men, women, and children of all faiths and beliefs,” Trump said. “We will work with our allies, including our friends and allies in the Muslim world, to extinguish this vile enemy from our planet.”
And he defended his plan to ban nationals from seven Muslim-majority nations from entering the US, claiming that “data” show terrorism- related offenses have been disproportionately perpetrated by foreign nationals.
“According to data provided by the Department of Justice, the vast majority of individuals convicted for terrorism-related offenses since 9/11 came here from outside of our country,” the president said. “We have seen the attacks in France, in Belgium, in Germany and all over the world. It is not compassion but reckless to allow uncontrolled entry from places where proper vetting cannot occur.”
Trump’s speech to Congress was not technically a State of the Union address – an annual address historically given after a president has held office for over a year.
Senior officials of the Simon Wiesenthal Center commended Trump for opening his speech by denouncing the ongoing threats to JCCs and recent attacks on Jewish cemeteries.
“We are grateful that the president condemned antisemitism during this pivotal speech to the American people before both Houses of Congress. American Jewry now looks forward to robust action to combat history’s oldest scourge at home and abroad,” said rabbis Marvin Hier and Abraham Cooper, dean and associate dean, respectively, of the leading Jewish human rights NGO, in a statement.
Other Jewish leaders, who had previously criticized the president for his fumbled responses to questions about antisemitism, also praised the inclusion of the reference in his speech.
“Powerful for @POTUS to note antisemitism at top of speech,” Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said on Twitter. “Key now is to investigate and end terror campaign.”
Jonathan Greenblatt, the Anti-Defamation League CEO, sounded a similar note.
“Thanks @POTUS for condemning #hate against Jews & immigrants,” Greenblatt said on Twitter.
“Now let’s fight it. See our plan. Let’s do it together.”Tamara Zieve and JTA contributed to this report.
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