WASHINGTON - US President Donald Trump unequivocally condemned the mass shooting of Jews at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on Saturday, characterizing antisemitic violence amounted to an "assault on humanity."
His remarks, at a rally and on Twitter, were the strongest yet on the slaughter at the Tree of Life Synagogue – and more broadly on the scourge of antisemitism, a subject on which he has been accused of being soft from political critics and civil rights organizations.
"All of America is in mourning over the mass murder of Jewish Americans at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. We pray for those who perished and their loved ones, and our hearts go out to the brave police officers who sustained serious injuries," he wrote.
"This evil antisemitic attack is an assault on humanity," he continued. "It will take all of us working together to extract the poison of antisemitic from our world. We must unite to conquer hate."
Trump added that he would visit Pittsburgh, although he did not specify when.
But the president has had trouble earning the trust of the American Jewish community, or of organizations that fight antisemitism and other forms of discrimination, ever since his 2016 presidential campaign. Throughout that race, he embraced terms such as "globalist" and "America First" first adopted by American fascists and neo-Nazis in years past, and referred to Jews as dealmakers and moneymen.
Then, as president, Trump infamously refused to condemn neo-Nazis that rioted in Charlottesville, killing a counterprotester, as exceptionally depraved or responsible for the spread of hatred.
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The Tree of Life shooting, like so many others before it, took on political relevance as both parties head into a contentious and consequential midterm election just eleven days from now. Tom Perez, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said in a statement that Americans should seize the moment to elect leaders in favor of gun control and who would combat – not give cover to – hate groups and their members.
"No community should be shattered by such bigotry," Perez said. "As a nation, we must elect leaders who will fight for common-sense gun laws. And we must speak out against antisemitism and all those who enable it."
Earlier in the day, Trump had proposed armed guards patrol America's synagogues. He has frequently suggested armed guards in schools following successive shootings of children in classrooms.
"This is a case where if they had an armed guard inside, they might have been able to stop him immediately," Trump said. "So this would be a case for, if there was an armed guard inside the temple, they would have been able to stop him. Maybe there would have been nobody killed, except for him, frankly."
Trump also expressed surprise that antisemitic violence still takes place today, despite several organizations measuring a dramatic spike in attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions tracked with his own political rise.
"It looks definitely like it’s an antisemitic crime," he later said. "That is something you wouldn’t believe could still be going on."
But Jewish groups were not surprised. The Anti-Defamation League, which has seen a two-fold increase in antisemitic incidents since 2015, said in a statement that the shooting occurred amid an "historic increase in both antisemitic incidents and antisemitic online harassment." And the American Jewish Committee noted that "incidents targeting Jews constitute the majority of religiously-based hate crimes in the US, according to the FBI, even as Jews constitute no more than two percent of the American population."
"We call on political, religious, and civic leaders of all persuasions to join in issuing a clarion call for moderation and civility in our national discourse, for far more sustained attention to the repeated outbreaks of deadly mass shootings afflicting our country," said David Harris, AJC's CEO.
The Republican Jewish Coalition also expressed dismay at the political environment.
"There is no place in our society for violence against innocent people, especially violence motivated by race, religion, or sex," the RJC said. "The level of hate in this country is out of control."
Trump and his team debated whether to cancel a rally in Illinois scheduled for Saturday evening, but the president instead chose to use the event to address the attack.
Among his first calls after he learned of the shooting were Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, his daughter and son-in-law who are both practicing Orthodox Jews.
"America is stronger than the acts of a depraved bigot and antisemite," she said. "All good Americans stand with the Jewish people to oppose acts of terror and share the horror, disgust and outrage over the massacre in Pittsburgh."
"We must unite against hatred and evil," she added.
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