The silence is deafening: Donald Trump and anti-Semitism

There have been 122 bomb threats since the beginning of January.  There have been against 96 Jewish institutions, 12 Jewish day schools and 2 Anti-Defamation League offices, in 36 states, all since January 1st. Graves have been desecrated in two Jewish cemeteries in Missouri and Philadelphia. Vandalism has occurred at a synagogue in Chicago. Nazi swastikas with statements saying “Jews belong in the oven” were sprawled over a New York City subway car. Swastikas have appeared in parks and outside of Jewish Community Centers. The New York Police Department reports 17 anti-Semitic hate crimes in the city since the beginning of 2017. The continuing threats have generated a great deal of fear, anxiety, and tension.

Almost all of this has happened since Donald Trump became president. What exactly has the new president, whose daughter is a practicing Orthodox Jew, done in response? Until very recently, virtually nothing. His silence has been deafening.

Twice Donald Trump was asked in press conferences about how he would respond to the uptick in anti-Semitism. In a joint press conference with Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, the president’s response was surreal. He literally began to talk about how great his electoral college victory was. It was a typical Trump response when faced with a question he does not want to address—shift the conversation back to himself.

The very next day, in his first solo press conference, he was asked basically the same thing by an Orthodox Jewish journalist. This time, the president got angry, somehow misinterpreting the question as if it was calling him an anti-Semite, even though the reporter had specifically phrased his query not to accuse him, but to merely ask how the government was responding to these increasing threats. The president’s response was to declare that he “is the least anti-Semitic person you’ve ever seen in your entire life.” Trump got angry and never answered the question.

The president’s responses fit in with other things that have happened since the new administration began. When the White House issued its statement on international Holocaust Memorial Day, it somehow failed to mention the six million Jews who were murdered by the Nazi’s. Was this an oversight? Some wanted to give the president the benefit of the doubt, but the very next day the White House press office eliminated any doubt. The words used were intentional. “Despite what the media reports, we are an incredibly inclusive group and we took into account all of those who suffered.” Apparently the White House did not want to focus on the Jews who were the primary targets of the Nazis, and risk leaving out others who were killed by them. Well, bless their hearts.

The White House statement might be baffling were it not for the fact that it fits the narrative of those the president has surrounded himself with. Think back to the campaign meme Trump tweeted last year with Hillary Clinton’s face, amidst a background of U.S. currency, with a a Star of David, emblazoned with the words “most corrupt candidate ever” in it. Trump’s close affiliation with Steve Bannon and the “alt-right” does not generate confidence that he will be a strong voice condemning anti-Semitism. It is as if there is someone in the White House who does not even want the president to mention “the Jews.”

The president’s failure to address the question of anti-Semitism continued until February 21, when after yet another wave of bomb threats, and the desecration of a Jewish cemetery, he finally spoke out, saying that “the rise of anti-Semitism was horrible and painful” and that we need to “combat hatred in all of its ugly forms.” When a fifth wave of threats occurred earlier this week, the president issued a second statement, this time at the beginning of his address to Congress. He condemned the most recent bomb threats against JCCs, and described them as acts of hatred that must be stopped.  He never mentioned anti-Semitism. Nor did not offer any plan of what action he would take and only offered vague promises that isuch would not be tolerated.

The president’s comments again seemed like a band-aid. He would condemn acts of hatred, and then move on. But was it enough?  I’d argue no, particularly given the reports that emerged earlier in the day that the president may have suggested the bomb threats were not authentic. When speaking with a group of state attorney generals, the president apparently said that “sometimes it’s the reverse, to make people — or to make others — look bad.” Was the president implying that the threats were not authentic, and that it was actually Jews who were making the threats?

Given everything that has happened, it is hard to take Donald Trump’s statements about anti-Semitism seriously. Even when he speaks out, it is unclear whether he is being genuine. And for most of his short presidency, he has largely been silent on the issue, which is ironic given everything else that he says on twitter, at all hours of the day. His failure to speak out, and to act, has empowered the very people promoting the hatred the president claims to despise. His silence has been deafening.

The presidency is a bully-pulpit. It is the world’s greatest stage, and Donald Trump could have made the threats against Jewish Community Centers a priority from day one. He could have instructed the Department of Justice to launch a full-scale investigation. He could have created a task force to tackle anti-Semitism, islamophobia, and hate crimes. But he hasn’t done any of that. He hasn’t done anything except to respond with brief statements when the political pressure was so great that he felt he had no other choice. His silence has been deafening.

I can’t help but think about the silence that came from another White House, beginning in 1954, when after the Supreme Court issued its landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education, striking down segregated schools. After the Brown decision, President Eisenhower was largely silent on the issue of desegregation. In the face of mounting resistance to the Court’s decision in the American South the president refused to take any public position. Nor did Eisenhower push the federal government to take any action to speed up desegregation. The president’s silence was just as deafening, and as a result, it empowered the South’s segregationists. It gave the message to those who would form White Citizens Councils that the White House was not going to force them to desegregate. Indeed, it wasn’t until 1957 when the president’s hand was finally forced, that he sent in the 101st Airborne to desegregate Little Rock’s Central High School. But by then, it was too late. The resistance to Brown was fully-formed, and it would take more than a decade for Southern schools to desegregate.

Donald Trump’s silence on the issues of anti-Semitism is not only deafening, it is unacceptable. His presidency is empowering acts of anti-Semitism against Jews, and is telling those on the fringe of society that their racism and hatred is acceptable behavior.

And let’s not forget, while he has at least nominally responded to the ongoing threats of anti-Semitism, he has said said absolutely nothing about acts of hatred against American Muslims.  There his silence has truly been deafening.

About the Author
Michael Gizzi is an active member of Presbyterians for Middle East Peace, and an elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA). A political scientist and professor of criminal justice at Illinois State University, Gizzi is actively involved in research on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. His opinions are his own, and not those of Illinois State University.
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