Why Trump's Response To Anti-Semitism Matter

by Jon Hecht
Ethan Miller/Getty Images News/Getty Images

There has been a worrying spate of bomb threats at Jewish Community Centers (JCCs) throughout the country. After seeing a video on Twitter of children being led out of a Jewish preschool, holding hands as they filed out single file, I wondered what would have happened to the Jewish day school I attended for nine years if it were still open today. After all, it faced threats even when I was a student.

I remembered the time when someone had called in a bomb threat to the school. I guess I’d been in third grade, or something close, too young to understand it fully. We walked out single-file and stood in the parking lot, just like those kids. It felt like a fire drill, something routine, not frightening. But unlike those kids, the bomb threat in central Jersey, which turned out to be nothing, probably didn’t become national news. I would assume that no reporters asked President Clinton about it.

What would he have said if he’d been asked? Probably nothing interesting. He’d most likely say how he condemned it, how anti-semitism is antithetical to American values, how he hoped anyone trafficking in hatred or bigotry would soon be brought to justice. He’s most likely have said the basic statement, an affirmation of support for Jewish Americans, as I’m fairly certain that presidents Bush or Obama would have, as well. A year ago, Obama did make a speech condemning global anti-Semitism. If I’d been scared, it would have meant little. Boilerplate language.

But it’s not until that kind of boilerplate, non-confrontational language is missing that its importance is felt.

President Trump has been asked multiple times about the bomb threats against Jewish Community Centers. While he did address the anti-Semitic bomb threats the very start of his speech before the joint session of Congress Tuesday night, and commendably so, at this point it keeps feeling like too little too late.

His denunciation feels lackluster because this should be so easy! I'm not asking for much. I just expect the kind of thing any other president would have given us in a similar situation — an assurance that the president cares about threats to the Jewish community, and wants American Jews to feel safe in America. The bare minimum.

What makes it harder to take comfort when Trump does criticize anti-Semitism is that he is two steps forward, one step back on the topic. Hours before his speech, the president reportedly seemed to blame the Jewish community for the threats against it, according to an account shared by Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro.

I don't think Trump is anti-Semitic. As a reporter for a Jewish publication mentioned before the president insulted him for asking about anti-Semitism, Trump has Jewish grandkids. I assume that Trump, as he's shown many times before, lacks the self-awareness to realize that people can ask him about a problem in the country, hoping he as president will offer solutions or at least support, without blaming hm personally.

However, to not only not address the problem but then to allegedly imply that Jews are behind the threats, to say "sometimes, it’s the reverse, to make people—or to make others—look bad," according to Shapiro, is chilling.

This is so easy, Mr. President. I don't expect you to magically solve the problem of anti-Semitism. But by refusing to even acknowledge that it's a problem, that you care about the people who feel scared, I suddenly feel more worried about this than I ever have, even when teachers led my classmates and I outside our school.