Analysis

A Month After Pittsburgh Tragedy, No Sign of Bold Steps by Trump to Fight anti-Semitism

With two White House roles – anti-Semitism envoy and Jewish liaison – still unfilled and bickering among rival law enforcement agencies, little is being done to stem the dangerous tide of far-right extremism

An image posted to social media of a swastika painted over a mural in memory of the Tree of Life synagogue attack in Pittsburgh, November 2018.
Screen shot / Facebook

A month has now passed since a white supremacist gunned down 11 Jewish worshippers at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, transforming the way the United States views the rising tide of anti-Semitism.

The deadly attack on October 27 took the growing phenomenon beyond racist rhetoric and hate crimes such as graffiti on synagogues and overturning cemetery headstones: It was a shocking wake-up call to the fact that hatred of Jews had reached a different, deadly level.

Pittsburgh shooter Robert Bowers – who insisted that “All Jews must die!” and he couldn’t “sit by and watch my people get slaughtered” – was undeniably steeped in a community of hate. His digital footprint included signs he had found encouragement for his extremist views on the alt-right social media platform Gab, where he had blamed the Jewish refugee organization HIAS for providing assistance to immigrants.  

Yet since those traumatic losses, there is little evidence the Trump administration has taken any major steps that might help prevent another tragedy – either through increasing law enforcement or strengthening programs that combat racism and hatred, which it has cut or neglected during the president’s two years in office.  

To be sure, there have been a few encouraging signs. First, there was the revelation two weeks ago that the FBI has officially classified the Proud Boys – a self-styled “Western chauvinist” gang with mainstream appeal – as “an extremist group with ties to white nationalism.” 

The news effectively stripped away any vestiges of respectability from a group that, as its name and ethos reflects, stands against immigrants, Muslims, feminists, transgender people and anyone holding leftist or “non-Western” views.

Shortly afterward, on November 21, the group’s founder, Gavin McInnes, dramatically announced on YouTube he was “officially disassociating” himself from the Proud Boys “in all capacities, forever.” McInnes’ decision came in the aftermath of a violent New York attack by group members on Antifa (or anti-fascist) demonstrators in October, for which they are facing charges of riot and assault

In mid-November, meanwhile, more than 40 members of the Ghost Face Gangsters, a violent white supremacist street gang mainly operated from Georgia prisons, were indicted on 83 charges, including multiple drug trafficking counts, in six counties in southeast Georgia. 

These, however, are only minor achievements that do little to meet the larger challenge of stemming the dangerous tide of white supremacism. The online environment that has triggered the growth of racist ideologies, leading to violence and actively building communities committed to racist attacks, is still thriving. 

Donald Trump and Melania Trump, alongside Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, place stones and flowers on a memorial at the Tree of Life Synagogue following the shooting in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. October 30, 2018
AFP

A recent, chilling report by Vice detailed the growth of a global network of fascist and neo-Nazi paramilitary cells called The Base, which is reportedly actively organizing and planning terrorist actions against minority groups, “especially Jews and black Americans.”   

Since Pittsburgh, the Trump administration has shown no signs of adjusting priorities or reconsidering earlier decisions to cut the budgets of groups that combat right-wing violence

Not long after taking office, President Donald Trump eliminated the funding President Barack Obama had awarded to the interagency Countering Violent Extremism Task Force, which funded local partners to deradicalize neo-Nazis and fought to prevent and confront other manifestations of white supremacy. Trump’s actions were harshly criticized after the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, in August 2017. 

At the same time, the White House has boosted other funding to the Department of Homeland Security, ignoring evidence that far-right groups in the United States have been far more deadly than the Islamic terror threat.

According to the Anti-Defamation League, 71 percent of deaths caused by extremist violence between 2008 and 2017 were attributable to the far right and white supremacists; 26 percent were caused by Muslim terrorists. 

And just three days after the Pittsburgh shooting, the Department of Homeland Security reportedly “flummoxed” participants on a major conference call by not discussing the tragedy once, instead preferring to concentrate on the migrant caravan heading toward the southern border.

John Cohen, a former senior counterterror official in the department, told the Daily Beast it was “disconcerting that in a call with national law enforcement and homeland security experts, the focus would be on the caravan versus the increasing number of mass casualty attacks the country’s experiencing, including by white extremists.”

The Department of Homeland Security frequently defends itself by saying the FBI is responsible for countering far-right extremism. However, a former bureau officer told the Daily Beast that the movement was its “lowest priority.” 

As both domestic and global anti-Semitism has grown, the U.S. State Department position of special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism remains vacant, as it has been since Trump took office nearly two years ago. 

A renewed effort to fill the position after Pittsburgh has seen little success. Hours after the Tree of Life synagogue attack, Rep. Lee Zeldin was one of two Jewish Republican congressmen who urged Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to appoint someone to the job. 

Days after the shooting, another Republican congressman, Rep. Chris Smith, said he believed the job would be filled “soon,” saying he had been told by the State Department a candidate was on the way. “Hopefully yesterday, because the problem is very real,” he said, adding, “I don’t think we can wait any longer for this.”
 
As long ago as April 2017, both Zeldin and Smith were part of a group of 166 House members urging Trump to fill the position. Five months after that, Smith successfully introduced legislation that would raise the anti-Semitism role to the rank of ambassador, reporting directly to the secretary of state.
 
At his confirmation hearings last May, Pompeo assured a congressional committee that he would “move” on filling the special envoy slot. But nothing has changed – and groups like the ADL still find themselves pleading with the administration to appoint someone.  
 
Another important job that remains unfilled is White House Jewish liaison – a role in which a qualified occupant could have been extremely helpful in guiding the administration through the aftermath of Pittsburgh. 

Like the anti-Semitism envoy, multiple entreaties by American-Jewish leaders to name someone to the position have fallen on deaf ears.

A letter from a bipartisan group of 44 U.S. representatives on June 30, 2017, calling for Trump to appoint someone, yielded no results – nor did an open, post-Charlottesville letter by 11 former Jewish liaisons charging that Trump “neither understands his responsibilities nor the nature of the ancient hatred of anti-Semitism and other forms of hate."

The liaisons' prophetic letter in August 2017 described the president's "equivocation and unwillingness to speak clearly, without restraint, against blatant examples of racism, anti-Semitism and related manifestations of hate” in Charlottesville as "exposing not just Jews but all Americans to greater danger."

In Pittsburgh, that danger became all too real.