The president decried the wave of anti-Semitic threats sweeping the country. He needs to go one step further.
By Jared Keller
Donald Trump speaks at the National Museum of African American History and Culture on February 21st, 2017, in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Kevin Dietsch — Pool/Getty Images)
On Monday, NBC News reported that a wave of bomb threats had resulted in the evacuations of Jewish Community Centers in 10 cities across the country, from Milwaukee and Cleveland to Nashville and Birmingham. The new outbreak of threats makes 69 incidents at 54 centers in 27 states this year, according to the JCC Association of America. The Federal Bureau of Investigation told CNN that, together with the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, it is “investigating possible civil rights violations in connections with threats to Jewish Community Centers across the country.”
Though Monday’s wave of threats were proven to be hoaxes, the anxiety felt by Jewish Americans is still very real. These bomb threats weren’t an isolated incident, coming amid the vandalizing of the grave sites of more than 170 Jews at a St. Louis cemetery. More significantly, these events came in the wake of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, which became a magnet for white nationalists and neo-Nazis—the sort of people who would gather in Washington, D.C., with so-called alt-right leader Richard Spencer to throw up Nazi salutes in the Ronald Reagan Building and proclaim “Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory!” That Trump forgot to remember the Jews in his official White House statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day certainly hasn’t helped quell those anxieties.
Under growing pressure from Jewish community and civil rights leaders, Trump on Tuesday morning denounced “age-old” anti-Semitism for the first time since he announced his candidacy in 2015. “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,” he told the New York Times. At the same time, the president quietly distanced himself from allegations that his campaign is somehow responsible for the uptick in anti-Semitic hate crimes. “Anti-Semitism is just terrible. You don’t know where it’s coming from, and I hope they catch the people responsible,” he said in an interview with NBC News on Tuesday. “I think you maybe have had it for longer than people think, and it gets brought up a little bit more. Anti-Semitism is horrible and it has to stop.”
But given the fears of anti-Semitism that have dogged Trump’s campaign, these attacks raise the question as to whether it’s appropriate to saddle the president with responsibility for the rise in anti-Semitic hate crimes. Trump claims he denounces anti-Semitism at every turn, but until today, that hasn’t been the case. Consider Thursday’s presser, where Trump was questioned by Jake Turx of the ultra-Orthodox Ami magazine regarding the strains of anti-Semitism that permeated Trump’s unusual campaign. Trump’s answer was a simple but forceful dismissal: “Here’s the story, folks. number one: I am the least anti-Semitic person that you’ve ever seen in your entire life.”
The truth is that the connection between Trump and the sudden uptick and anti-Semitic hate crimes is more complicated than most realize. Blaming Trump for anti-Semitism also ignores the fact that anti-Semitism has been here all along. Despite the fact that Jews are the most positively received of all religious groups according to a recent Pew Research Center report (and also benefit from increasingly warm feelings among Americans toward religion in general), they’re also a major target of religiously motivated hate crimes. Per FBI data, 56.8 percent of the 1,140 anti-religious hate crimes committed in 2014 targeted Jews; while anti-religious hate crimes saw a 22 percent increase in 2015 mainly due to an uptick in anti-Muslim bias, Jews still remained the victims of the majority of religiously motivated hate and harassment.
It’s also not as if there’s definitive proof of the election itself serving as a direct catalyst for a spike in anti-Semitic hate crimes. Indeed, despite the vivid examples detailed by local media reports, there’s very little coherent statistical evidence that Trump’s election unleashed a rising tide of anti-Semitism versus a temporal wave of far-right enthusiasm. Part of this is a methodological problem: As Quartz points out, the federal government doesn’t collect hate-crime data on a weekly basis (although cities do), and informal counts by places like the Southern Poverty Law Center rely on anecdotal evidence that, while powerful and persuasive, “do not comprise long-term, normalized data that can be used to track granular trends.” Even the anecdotal data is lacking: An SPLC survey of almost 867 reports of harassment and intimidation in the 10 days following Trump’s electoral victory found 100 instances of anti-Semitic violence, a tally eclipsed by racist or anti-immigrant acts. One month after the election, anti-Semitic hate crimes had dropped off, replaced instead by anti-LGBT and anti-Muslim crimes.
Going by the SPLC survey, it’s white nationalists with an axe to grind against Muslims and immigrants who have disproportionately flocked to the Trump campaign. And the reality is that, despite the ongoing rise of extremist groups across the country, neo-Nazis never became an organized, coherent force outside of relentlessly harassing journalists on Twitter and calling in phony bomb threats to local temples. According to the SPLC, organized and dangerous white nationalism during the 2016 campaign tended to coalesce around anti-immigrant xenophobia, while attempts to build coherent neo-Nazi coalitions failed miserably:
Aside from the rise of Andrew Anglin’s Daily Stormer site and its real-world “clubs” — new chapters that profited directly from the Trump phenomenon — the year on the neo-Nazi scene was marked by a number of attempts to build new coalitions among groups. Several of them, like the Coalition of Aryan Organizations and the United Aryan Front, collapsed almost as quickly as they appeared.
That left what was first called the Aryan Nationalist Alliance and then was rebranded as simply the Nationalist Front. The unity effort was spearheaded by Jeff Schoep, leader of the National Socialist Movement, Josh Steever of the Aryan Strikeforce, and Matthew Heimbach of the Traditionalist Worker Party.
The coalition peaked at 26 mostly tiny groups, but that had fallen by year’s end to 16, reflecting the perennial infighting that characterizes the neo-Nazi scene.
This doesn’t make the anxiety spreading through American Jewish communities any less real. This fear of anti-Semitism is best articulated by Rabbi Francine Roston, whose town of Whitefish, Montana, was menaced for months by neo-Nazis who threatened to parade through town to flaunt their newfound power. “It has been very depressing to accept the reality that Nazism and Nazi imagery and ideas are alive and well and raging in our country.” The virulent enclaves of vile trolling that comprise the nodes of the alt-right are just the latest manifestation of a sad truth Jews around the world have always known: They’re not always as welcome as they might feel.
Trump may be only somewhat responsible for emboldening America’s neo-Nazi elements, but he is fully responsible, as president, for doing something to bring an end to the fear sweeping through American Jewish communities. That’s why many assert it’s important for Trump to take the symbolic yet powerful step of actually attending services at a synagogue—as a show of solidarity with Jews navigating uncertain times. As Anne Frank Center for Mutual respect executive director Steven Goldstein put it, the president’s remarks on Tuesday on anti-Semitism is “a Band-Aid on the cancer of anti-Semitism that has infected his own Administration…. When President Trump responds to anti-Semitism proactively and in real time, and without pleas and pressure, that’s when we’ll be able to say this President has turned a corner. This is not that moment.”