Was this, at last, a good week for the Jews and President Donald Trump?
Compared to the Trump administration’s initial few weeks, maybe. The president’s first month saw the White House omit Jews from a statement commemorating the Holocaust, then rebuke Jewish groups that criticized the statement and stay silent as waves of bomb threats hit Jewish community centers. Last week, Trump shut down a Jewish reporter asking a polite question on anti-Semitism. The day before, he began responding to a question on anti-Semitism by boasting about his election victory.
But starting with a specific if belated condemnation of Jew hatred on Tuesday, a number of statements and actions by Trump and his associates served to calm Jews who fear a growing specter of anti-Semitism on the right.
Days after angrily shutting down a Jewish journalist who asked about the administration’s plans to counter a spike in anti-Semitism, the president gave his critics what they had been seeking: a specific condemnation of anti-Semitism.
“Anti-Semitism is horrible and it’s going to stop, and it has to stop,” he said Tuesday, the day after the fourth wave of JCC bomb threats in five weeks.
In prepared remarks he delivered that day at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Trump said “The anti-Semitic threats targeting our Jewish community and our Jewish community centers are horrible, are painful and they are a reminder of the work that still must be done to root out hate and prejudice and evil.”
The next day, Vice President Mike Pence gave succor to Jews looking for more than words from the administration. Visiting a vandalized Jewish graveyard outside St. Louis, Pence rolled up his sleeves and spent a few minutes clearing away branches and raking the cemetery.
“There is no place in America for hatred, prejudice or anti-Semitism,” Pence said, literally speaking through a megaphone.
But most concerns from Jews about anti-Semitism have been more about Trump’s supporters than the man himself — from tweeters spewing deluges of white supremacist hate to the (as of now) anonymous criminals phoning in bomb threats and knocking over headstones. Right after Election Day, the Anti-Defamation League blamed “the contentious tone from the 2016 election” and said “extremists and their online supporters” have been “emboldened by the notion that their anti-Semitic and racists views are becoming mainstream.”
But there were signs this week that Trump’s anti-Semitic supporters haven’t infected the Republican Party mainstream. At CPAC, the premier annual confab for political conservatives, attendees raucously cheered Trump — a man they once distrusted — and also made moves to exclude anti-Semitism from their movement.
A Thursday session was dedicated to bashing the “alt-right,” a loose far-right movement that includes anti-Semites and white supremacists, and affirming that it wasn’t part of conservative ideology.
“There is a sinister organization that is trying to worm its way into our ranks,” said Dan Schneider, executive director of the American Conservative Union, which runs CPAC. “They are anti-Semites. They are racists.”
Richard Spencer, a leading white supremacist who showed up at the conference uninvited, was kicked out of CPAC after holding court with reporters.
Jewish concerns haven’t been completely assuaged. At CPAC, Trump adviser Stephen Bannon, who used to run Breitbart, a news website favored by the alt-right, denounced the “corporatist, globalist media,” using a phrase that evokes anti-Semitic tropes of Jews as an internationalist fifth column.
Jewish groups mostly praised the Trump condemnation of anti-Semitism, and especially Pence’s words and actions at the St. Louis cemetery. But nearly all urged the president to follow up with concrete plans for monitoring and combating anti-Semitism. The ADL is circulating a petition imploring Attorney General Jeff Sessions to take “immediate actions that will curb anti-Semitic threats and all hate crimes in our schools and communities.”
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo suggested how that might be done, announcing on Thursday that the state is committing $25 million for safety and security upgrades at Jewish schools and other institutions at risk of hate crimes or attacks. In thanking Cuomo in a tweet, the ADL’s regional director, Evan Bernstein, called it an “ideal example of what an elected official can do: Speak out, have a plan & commit resources to problem.”
Now that the administration seems to have found its voice, the Jewish mainstream is looking for action.