Let’s be clear at the outset: I do not believe that President Trump is an anti-Semite. When he talks lovingly about his Jewish daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren; when he refers to his many lifelong Jewish associates and friends and to the Jewish individuals he has appointed, there is no reason to question his sincerity. These facts reflect of a genuine comfortableness with Jews.
That is his why his silence on the issue of anti-Semitism is so stunning.
We have seen this again and again. During the campaign, he derided those who questioned his tweets of anti-Semitic memes or his use of language that evoked age-old stereotypes. And yet, during the campaign a tsunami of anti-Semitic tweets and threats surfaced on social media directed at Jewish journalists. Haters who may have long held anti-Semitic beliefs suddenly seemed to be emboldened and empowered to act on those beliefs.
And that disturbing trend has continued since the election and inauguration.
There have been more than 50 bomb threats called in to synagogues and Jewish institutions across the nation. Vandalism of Jewish institutions has significantly increased. Reports of bullying of Jewish students in schools are surging.
And we have far more to worry about. ADL polls on anti-Semitic attitudes in America report over and over again that despite the remarkable diminution of anti-Semitic attitudes in America over the decades, there still are 30 million to 40 million Americans who harbor anti-Semitism.
In the past, we were not overly worried about such numbers, because inhibitions largely deterred those people from acting out their beliefs. In the current environment, however, there is reason to be much more troubled by those numbers, as some haters are feeling freer to commit anti-Semitic acts of one kind or another. Just this week, a South Carolina man sought to attack a synagogue and emulate his hero, Dylann Roof, who murdered nine parishioners in a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015. He was apprehended by the FBI and was arraigned in court on charges.
All of which brings us to the last two days of public appearances by the president: the first in a joint press briefing with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and the second his press conference to announce a new nominee for secretary of labor.
The subject of anti-Semitism was raised in both sessions, first by an Israeli journalist and in the second instance by a reporter for an ultra-Orthodox media outlet. Both questioners were respectful and hardly accusatory. Indeed, the Hasidic reporter began his question by making it clear that no one thought the president was anti-Semitic.
Both opportunities offered the president a perfect opportunity to state clearly: “I am concerned about the rise in anti-Semitism; I think it is abominable and un-American. If, in any way, the language I have used has encouraged such people to act, then I must be clear: Hatred is not what America is about. The anti-Semites and bigots are not good Americans. And I will do everything in my power, by word and action, to fight that hatred and make sure it is unacceptable in the land of the free.”
And he could have spelled out specifically what steps he will take to demonstrate that he takes this threat seriously.
But once again, President Trump failed to meet this basic test of presidential leadership. It is long overdue for him to clearly and cogently put the doubts to rest. And at this point, he needs to shift from rhetoric to real action and explain how his administration will combat hate. As the leader of all Americans, he must speak out but also step forward and present a plan to assuage those Americans who are concerned.
The issue is not whether Trump is anti-Semitic. The issue is whether he will stand up to anti-Semitism, let alone other forms of bigotry. And, as president, he will face far more difficult and daunting challenges in the years ahead, but speaking out against intolerance should be a no-brainer.
We urge the president to find an occasion — sooner rather than later — to use his bully pulpit to reverse the trend and stem the dangerous tide that has seeped into our society over the past year.
Jonathan Greenblatt is CEO and national director of the Anti-Defamation League