Trump finally condemns Jew-hate — but don’t expect him to tackle the haters
HE SAID it. The President of the United States of America acknowledged that antisemitism is “horrible”. And “painful”.
All it took to pry those words from Donald Trump’s mouth was a few days of negative press, mounting Jewish anger, yet another wave of bomb threats to Jewish institutions — as well as the headquarters of the AntiDefamation League in New York — and nearly 200 toppled headstones at a Jewish cemetery near St Louis.
That it was so difficult to elicit so uncontroversial a statement is shocking but not surprising. In the Trump era, the normal rules of American statecraft no longer apply. In place of protocols and predictability, we have the president’s impulses and mood swings, only occasionally restrained by more sober considerations.
The manner in which Mr Trump delivered his remarks condemning antisemitism was telling. The famously unscripted Mr Trump read from a script.
“The antisemitic threats targeting our Jewish community and community centres 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,” Mr Trump said, repeatedly glancing down at the prepared text on his podium after touring Washington’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, where he also condemned bigotry more broadly.
Mr Trump’s brief statement was a calculated one. The New York Times described it as “a rare concession to the demands of outside forces”.
The previous week, Mr Trump had been unable to muster even a modicum of engagement with the issue.
In the course of a wild White House press conference, Mr Trump was asked by a reporter for a small Charedi magazine about how his administration planned to address recent antisemitic incidents. The Chasidic journalist prefaced his question by noting that members of his community do not regard the president or his staff as antisemitic, adding that Mr Trump is a “zayde” to his Jewish grandchildren. But Mr Trump, for whatever reason, took offence, proclaiming himself “the least antisemitic person that you have ever seen” and berating the reporter for his “very insulting question”.
Mr Trump mistook a policy question for a personal attack. Such thinskinned behaviour has become a hallmark of his administration.
Recall the furore over Mr Trump’s statement last month marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day that neglected to mention Jews. White House officials responded to Jewish anger over the omission by doubling down and lashing out, calling criticisms “pathetic”.
Some saw dark motives behind the omission, reflecting Jewish anxieties over Mr Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon, who has cultivated ties with the American alt-right and the European far-right.
But it’s worth remembering that Canada’s liberal prime minister, Justin Trudeau, drew similar outrage last year with a Holocaust remembrance statement that failed to mention Jews. Mr Trudeau’s office quickly defused the controversy by claiming that the omission was an error.
The difference is that the Trump White House does not admit fault. And that poses larger problems.
Mr Trump has energised and excited America’s antisemites. That a man with a daughter who converted to Judaism and has many close Jewish advisers has gained the affections of Jew-haters is no small feat. They were won over by his rhetoric attacking Muslims, Mexicans and others. People who hate Jews, it turns out, usually hate other groups, too. Indeed, many hard-core antisemites see Muslim and Mexican immigration as a Jewish plot to destroy the white race.
This fringe is now busy phoning in bomb threats to JCCs, spray-painting swastikas, and photoshopping Jewish journalists into pictures of gas chambers. One prays that violence does not follow.
Yet Mr Trump will never truly address the surge of bigotry that has accompanied his rise to power, because it is a problem of his own making, and he is congenitally incapable of confronting his own failings. Instead, he lashes out at those who question him.
No perfunctory presidential statement condemning antisemitism is going to change that reality.
Muslims raised over $50,000 to repair the vandalised St Louis cemetery this week. “Muslim-Americans stand in solidarity with the JewishAmerican community to condemn this horrific act of desecration,” said a message on the campaign website, set up by the controversial Linda Sarsour of MPower Change and Tarek El-Messidi of CelebrateMercy.
Daniel Treiman is a former managing editor of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency
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