WASHINGTON – For the first time since his inauguration as president, Donald Trump has broadly condemned antisemitism and those stoking it across the United States in prepared remarks on Tuesday.
Responding to a series of threats to Jewish communities nationwide, as well as specific acts of vandalism, Trump said he is committed to combating the scourge as well as all other forms of bigotry.
“The antisemitic threats targeting our Jewish community and community centers are horrible, and are painful, and are a very sad reminder of the work that still must be done to root out hate and prejudice and evil,” Trump said.
Sixteen Jewish community centers in nine states were terrorized by bomb threats on January 9, forcing the FBI to open an investigation. A second wave followed one week later, when threats were phoned in to an additional 28 centers across 17 states. Jewish leaders have been expressing concern for weeks, but US politicians remained largely silent until Monday, when at least one culprit followed through with an antisemitic attack on an Orthodox cemetery in St. Louis. Up to 200 headstones were toppled, some of which date back to the 1800s.
The Missouri attack appears technically untethered to yet another wave of bomb threats the same day that were phoned in to 12 Jewish community centers, totaling 70 threats since the year began. Even if Monday’s events were not coordinated, they are certainly related in the eyes of those worried about an historic rise in antisemitism across the US.
Responses began with Ivanka Trump, the president’s Orthodox Jewish daughter, who chose to tweet a message of support. “America is a nation built on the principle of religious tolerance. We must protect our houses of worship and religious centers,” she wrote, with a hashtag for Jewish community centers.
But that was not enough for her father’s former rival, Hillary Clinton, who targeted Trump during their presidential contest over his ability to attract antisemitic, neo-Nazi and white supremacist supporters.
“JCC threats, cemetery desecration and online attacks are so troubling & they need to be stopped,” Clinton said on Twitter, in her first direct appeal to Trump since losing the election. “Everyone must speak out, starting w/ @POTUS,” she added.
Her daughter, Chelsea – who is married to a Jewish man – offered a more pointed response, questioning on Twitter why there has been such an uptick in antisemitic incidents across the country amid Trump’s unlikely political rise.
Two months into 2017, she wrote, have witnessed “JCC bomb threats, a synagogue defamed, subway swastikas, a Jewish cemetery desecrated. NOW will Trump condemn antisemitism?” Indeed he did, hours later, in prepared remarks at the newly minted National Museum of African American History and Culture. After shouting down a Jewish reporter at a press conference last week for asking about the spate of attacks, Trump – or his staff – apparently decided to formally address the rising threat head-on.
Trump’s use of the words “horrible” and “painful” was prepared in advance. When he answered questions on camera without a script, he said he would continue to condemn antisemitism at every given opportunity.
His comments opened the floodgates: Several senior members of Congress, including Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, issued statements warning of the “abhorrent” and “serious” threats facing America’s Jewish community.
Trump’s comments come after consistent criticism from some in the organized Jewish community that he has thus far failed to adequately address what has, by all measures, been a fast-rising tide of vitriol, tracked over the last year by the Anti-Defamation League and local authorities.
For weeks the Trump administration has been defending its decision not to reference antisemitism or Jews in its statement commemorating Holocaust Remembrance Day – a choice considered particularly odd given the president’s attraction of antisemitic groups and individuals throughout the course of his campaign.
As a partial remedy, Vice President Mike Pence visited the Dachau concentration camp during a visit to Germany last week, and Trump now says he plans to visit the US Holocaust Museum in the coming weeks.
“I will be doing it soon,” Trump said on Tuesday. “Very important. Very important for me.”
The president’s measured, prepared remarks stand in contrast to his original response to the Jewish reporter’s question last week, when he called questions over a rise in antisemitism tied to his political career “insulting” and declined to address the phenomenon itself.
“I am the least antisemitic person that you’ve ever seen in your entire life,” he said then.