In a case of ‘better late than never’ President Donald Trump used the occasion of his first major speech to the US Congress to address the wave of anti-Semitism currently afflicting the United States.
“Recent threats targeting Jewish community centres and vandalism of Jewish cemeteries…remind us that while we may be a nation divided on policies, we are a country that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all its forms.”
Some might judge that to be somewhat weak, if at all a personal condemnation, but Mr Trump’s words were the strongest yet he has offered since assuming office on the surge in threats to the Jewish community and acts of vandalism against properties associated with that faith. The president has previously ducked the issue when pressed by journalists, in one case – during that now infamous presidential press conference of February 15 – barracking an Orthodox Jewish reporter for daring to ask him to condemn anti-Semitic attacks outright.
Putting this lacklustre response from the American leader into the context of threats throws into stark relief what some are interpreting as a massive disregard of an issue that could all too easily shift from sinister phone-calls to outright violence against American Jews.
Just 24 hours before President Trump assailed the reporter seeking a clear denunciation of anti-Semitic incidents, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) moved to detain one Benjamin McDowell at Myrtle Beach in South Carolina.
The 29-year-old white supremacist was arrested after he met with an undercover agent and purchased a firearm with the intention, according to FBI testimony, of emulating Dylann Roof – the church shooter who murdered nine worshippers at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015. The target of McDowell’s fatal aspiration was Temple Emanu-El Conservative Synagogue in Myrtle Beach.
McDowell’s arrest is, however, but one of a growing number of Jewish-connected incidents since the start of 2017.
In the first two months of the year, law enforcement officials have recorded 102 bomb threats against Jewish community centres, schools and the headquarters of the community watchdog, the Anti-Defamation League.
No less disturbing, there have also been two incidents of mass vandalism against Jewish cemeteries, in St Louis Missouri on February 20, and in Pennsylvania on February 26.
And while newswires and television networks have made much use of images of headstone after toppled headstone, these were accompanied by a wave of telephone bomb threats; on the day of the Pennsylvania vandalism, there were threats and mass evacuations of Jewish sites in Alabama, Delaware, Florida, Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Virginia.
Reacting to a February 27 threat to the ADL offices in San Francisco, the organisation’s CEO, Jonathan A. Greenblatt said: “One threat or evacuation is one too many, and yet we’ve now seen more than 20 incidents in a single day not just to ADL, but to children’s schools and community centres – and more than 90 incidents since the start of this year. The level of threats and incidents is astounding, and must not stand. We will do everything in our power to combat this wave of anti-Semitism.”
The ADL subsequently used this quote on its own website in calling on President Trump to launch a “plan of action to address the scourge of threats aimed at Jewish institutions”.
What action there has been to date is the laudable coming together of Americans of all traditions to restore the damaged cemeteries and in other simple acts of solidarity that have been shown; The Muslim Student Associations of the Universities of Florida State and Florida A&M gave bouquets of flowers to Jewish organisations on their campuses and local synagogues after the cemetery attacks.
Conversely, the measure of Jewish disappointment at the president’s lacklustre words to Congress on February 28 is best captured by Steven Goldstein, executive director of the Anne Frank Centre for Mutual Respect, an anti-discrimination network.
In a statement after the address, Mr Goldstein said, “After weeks of our organisation having to plead, cajole and criticise this president to speak out against anti-Semitism, we give him credit for doing the right thing tonight by beginning his speech to address anti-Semitism and other hate. But his suddenly dulcet tones weren’t matched by substantive kindness. The president didn’t say exactly what he would do to fight anti-Semitism – how he could have stayed so vague? We’ve endured weeks of anti-Semitic attacks across America and we didn’t hear a single proposal from the president tonight to stop them.”
Looking back on the campaign that brought him to the White House, one has to ask when ‘substantive’ was ever a part of Mr Trump’s armoury. It appears what was true then is true now, and just as vague.
But today the stakes are much, much higher, and the consequences of talk over action could well prove horrendous.