In two press conferences last week, US President Donald Trump avoided answering reporters’ questions about the undeniable spike in antisemitic incidents in America during his campaign for the presidency, an alarming trend that continues to concern the world Jewish community.
On Wednesday, a reporter asked about the rise of antisemitic incidents amid growing concern that the new administration might in fact be encouraging xenophobia and racism. If Trump were a politician, the softball question presented a golden opportunity to hit a home run – while standing next to the leader of the Jewish state – by condemning what the Anti-Defamation League has called the highest level of antisemitism in the US since the 1930s.
Instead of commenting on the recent spate of bomb threats to Jewish community centers throughout the US, Trump ignored the issue and unfathomably responded by speaking about how many Electoral College votes he received.
“Well, I just want to say that we are, you know, very honored by the victory that we had – 316 Electoral College votes,” Mr. Trump said. “We were not supposed to crack 220. You know that, right? There was no way to 221, but then they said there’s no way to 270. And there’s tremendous enthusiasm out there.”
No comment as to how his campaign was perceived as a dog whistle for the so-called alt-right and its fellow traveling, dyed-in-the-wool antisemites. Neither did Trump take the opportunity to explain why his White House statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day made no mention of the six million Jews who were murdered by the Nazis.
Trump doubled down on this lapse the following day, when he ordered a Jewish haredi reporter to sit down, rather than answer his respectful question about the spike in antisemitic incidents – a question that was preceded by a polite reassurance from reporter Jake Turx that no one in his community feels that Trump himself is an antisemite.
Instead, the president cut him off and ordered him to sit down, apparently mistaking the question as a personal insult and responding with the well-worn mantra of his campaign: “Number one, I am the least antisemitic person you have ever seen in your entire life. Number two, racism. I am the least racist person.”
He proceeded to call Trux’s question “repulsive” and told him to be quiet.
Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt was one of many who were appalled by the president’s response. He told the “Never Is Now” Summit on Anti-Semitism on Friday that “over the past few years, we have seen the growth of ugly campaigns on our college campuses, efforts that seek to delegitimize Israel and to reduce the Jewish state into some kind of taboo. This virus has spread and made some of greatest universities hostile to Jewish students and those who support them.”
Instead of giving a thoughtful response to some of the most serious concerns of word Jewry, the so-called leader of the free world belittled them by saying “bad things” have happened “over a long period of time.” He gave no hint of understanding how his xenophobic, ultra-nationalistic policies and fear-mongering have alarmed all Jews.
Adding insult to injury, he instead once again exploited the Jewish members of his family in his variation of the “some of my best friends are Jewish” appeal for credibility.
“As far as people, Jewish people, so many friends; a daughter who happens to be here right now; a son-in-law; and three beautiful grandchildren.” His promise sounded hollow: “You’re going to see a lot of love.”
It is time Trump understands the damage he is causing.
His failure and inability to publicly and unequivocally denounce antisemitism and to say something as simple as: I have ordered the Justice Department to crack down on hate crimes, is concerning. The failure to be clear on the issue will give antisemites the impression that the president actually supports them, and their attacks might even escalate as a result.
At a time when JCCs are regularly threatened, when swastikas are spray-painted on synagogues and hate speech is circulating in an unprecedented way on social media, the president is meant to serve as his country’s – and to some extent even the world’s – moral compass.
Trump’s continued failure to do so is a stain on his presidency.