NEW YORK – The day a fourth wave of bomb-threatening phone calls was placed to Jewish community centers across the U.S., experts on extremism said that the lack of specific condemnation directly from President Donald Trump is encouraging the anti-Semitism.
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The only response to the attack, after several questions, came from the White House press secretary. And his statement “decried hate-motivated violence of any kind,” but like the White House’s International Holocaust Remembrance Day statement, again failed to mention that the target of the threats have been Jews.
“A lack of attention to this from the president creates an environment in which the bigots feel empowered,” Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, told Haaretz. “They feel like their intolerance is being tolerated.”
The threats, placed Monday to at least 10 JCCs across the country, were the fourth such incident in two months and led to the evacuation of many of the community centers, which typically house gyms, preschools and programs for youth and senior citizens. JCCs also serve the entire local community, not just Jews. In addition, more than 100 headstones were vandalized at a St. Louis Jewish cemetery on Monday.
Trump was asked directly about anti-Semitism and bomb threats against JCCs twice at recent press conferences – first by an Israeli reporter and then by an ultra-Orthodox American reporter – and both times declined to address the issue. At the February 16 White House press conference at which reporter Jake Turx of the Haredi Ami magazine tried to ask the president about the JCC threats, the president cut him off while calling the question “insulting.”
Parents were reportedly pulling their children out of some of the JCC preschools in reaction to the bomb threats.
“It is a glaring omission that there isn’t a vigorous response to all of the bomb threats” from the president, says Marc Gopin, an Orthodox-ordained rabbi and professor of conflict analysis at George Mason University in Virginia.
Even Mort Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America and a leading Trump defender, said the president should issue a statement.
“President Trump should come out as soon as possible against these phone threats and make it clear that we in America will not tolerate this kind of disgraceful hatred toward Jews,” said Klein in an interview from Israel, where he is participating in a trip organized by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
The president “isn’t anti-Semitic at all,” said the ADL’s Greenblatt. “It’s fair to say there are a lot of issues on the president’s plate. But this is a moment when he can seize the moment and demonstrate a kind of moral leadership that the community would appreciate.”
At a time of continuous obfuscation by America’s 45th president over things important – like Russian interference in the American political process – and not, like the margin of his electoral college victory – those who pay close attention to anti-Semitism say that his lack of attention to the spike in anti-Semitism is cause for serious worry.
“This is not just a Jewish problem,” said Greenblatt. “It’s a public concern. Anti-Semitism doesn’t happen in a vacuum and we’ve seen the horror that hate crimes can inflict on a community we need more than rhetoric. We need real action before this problem gets worse.”
“It hasn’t gotten to the point yet of actual attacks on Jewish people, but many of us feel that there is a testing going on by the radical right as to what they can get away with,” Gopin told Haaretz. That and “his attack on the visibly Jewish reporter” who asked Trump about the attacks on JCCs “are making the Nazis in the country jump for joy. This is all adding up to fueling anti-Semitism and threats on a physical level and also in the virtual area of Twitter.”
Greenblatt noted that law enforcement “is all over” anti-Semitic threats, and that the FBI foiled a white supremacist’s effort to slaughter Jews in a South Carolina synagogue. Benjamin McDowell, 29, a convicted felon, was arrested last week for buying a 109-dollar gun from an undercover agent who posed as an Aryan Nations hit man. McDowell allegedly wrote Facebook posts over the preceding month saying he wanted to carry out a “Dylann Roof-style attack” on a Myrtle Beach Conservative synagogue. Roof was convicted in 2016 of murdering nine people in a South Carolina church.
The ZOA’s Klein said that anti-Semites are active precisely because Trump so appreciates Jews and Israel.
“It is possibly a response by Jew haters to a president who has been extremely supportive of Israel, who has Orthodox Jewish children and grandchildren, and this is making people with hatred toward Jews miserable. And they’re acting out of frustration and misery,” he said.
“I find it horrifying that people are blaming these incidents on him and [Steve] Bannon,” he said, referring to the president’s senior adviser, who before going to run the Trump presidential campaign was chairman Breitbart News, which he had crowed was “the platform for the alt-right,” the currently fashionable term for anti-Semites and white supremacists.
Rather, Klein blamed the recent rise in anti-Semitism on earlier trends – and on President Barack Obama’s administration.
“Anti-Semitic acts have been going on for years, increasing on college campuses and all over Europe, and that has encouraged a-Semites in America,” said Klein. He also attributed it to “the viciously anti-Semitic UN resolution.” Klein was referring to Resolution 2334, which declared that Israeli settlement building in the West Bank is a “flagrant violation” of international law. It passed at the UN Security Council last December, when the U.S. abstained from vetoing it.