Partisans may debate just how much U.S. President Donald Trump has accomplished in his first weeks in office, but there is one thing on which there is no debate: Trump has raised awareness about anti-Semitism. It is a little ironic, considering the president’s initial reluctance to address the issue, but after his strong denunciation of anti-Semitism and attacks on Jewish institutions in his address to a joint session of Congress earlier this month, as well as subsequent equally forceful statements, there is no doubt where he stands now. Yet that hasn’t stopped his liberal critics from continuing to blame the increase in anti-Semitic incidents on the president. That may tell us more about the partisan divide in the United States than anything else.
For all of the lip service given to the need to combat hatred, getting Americans to pay attention to anti-Semitism isn’t always easy. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, discussion of rampant Islamophobia in the U.S. became a staple of media commentary. But while the evidence for the much-ballyhooed anti-Muslim backlash has been largely anecdotal, FBI statistics have consistently shown that hate crimes targeting Jews and Jewish institutions have always far outnumbered those targeting other faiths, including Islam. But outside of the precincts of the organized Jewish world, few have paid much attention.
However, with more than 103 Jewish community centers and schools receiving over 140 bomb threats this year alongside shocking cemetery desecrations in St. Louis, Philadelphia, and Rochester, anti-Semitism suddenly became front-page news. So far, the threats have all been hoaxes. But the evacuations and concern that the next phone call will be about a real bomb spread fear throughout the community.
The assumption of many Jews as well as much of the media is that this is a result of Trump’s willingness to speak disparagingly of certain groups, such as Muslims and Mexicans, while displaying a reluctance at times to condemn hate groups. Trump’s critics also point to the White House’s failure to mention Jews in its International Holocaust Remembrance Day statement. That is why, at least at first, the White House approached the issue as being purely a function of anti-Trump media bias rather than a problem that demanded his attention.
But the main reason why liberals — especially liberal Jews — blame Trump for the surge in incidents is his embrace of an “America First” economic and foreign policy. To them, the policy echoes white nationalism, if not the pre-World War II isolationist movement that was openly anti-Semitic. They view this label, as well as Trump’s hostility toward opening the country to refugees, as racist, xenophobic and a not-so-subtle signal to anti-Semites and alt-right trolls who often targeted Jewish journalists who criticized Trump that he’s on their side.
But after Trump’s repeated condemnations of anti-Semitism in the most public of forums and with the only person arrested in connection to the threats being Juan Thompson, a left-wing writer rather than someone connected with the alt-right or white nationalists, let alone Trump, it is now incumbent on those who have been sounding the alarms about these attacks to separate their instinctive dislike of the president from the problem of Jew-hatred.
The sudden interest in the topic and the focus on the JCC threats and cemetery outrages ignores the fact that the main forces pushing anti-Semitic rhetoric and delegitimization of Jews are not those that have supposedly taken their cues from Trump’s dog whistles and who are presumably now ignoring the president’s overt condemnation of their behavior. Rather the engine driving what even the previous administration described as a “rising tide of anti-Semitism” has been a strange alliance of Islamist hate and far-left anti-Zionist elites who use the boycott, divest, and sanctions movement against Israel as a thin cover for their own variant of anti-Semitism.
The fact that some of those who support BDS and attacks on Israel — such as Linda Sarsour, a Muslim woman who is the current darling of the anti-Trump “resistance” — condemn the JCC threats and the cemetery desecration should make their liberal Jewish allies wonder whether they would care if speaking up now was not also considered a way to take a shot at the president. Nor should it be ignored that similar crimes to the cemetery desecrations that took place under then-President Barack Obama not only couldn’t be blamed on Trump but also got very little attention from the same media outlets that are now up in arms about the issue.
Many of those damning Trump for being insufficiently concerned about the topic were themselves suspiciously silent when his predecessor went quiet about Jews being singled out for murder. Obama’s liberal Jewish supporters looked away when he labeled the deadly terror attack on the Hyper Cacher kosher market in Paris as “random” violence rather than anti-Semitism. Nor did they hold him responsible for being insufficiently outraged about the daily torrent of hate against Jews and Israel that emanates from the Palestinian Authority or for saying little about the BDS movement.
The anger about Trump’s alleged indirect responsibility for the JCC threats also should not obscure the fact that Jews are accepted in every sector of American society in a way that was unimaginable to past generations. That is a fact that the president’s own very personal Jewish connections in the form of family members, illustrates. As former Anti-Defamation League head Abe Foxman — who is not one to downplay anti-Semitism — noted, what is happening is a problem, not the crisis about which partisans are seeking to incite panic.
None of this excuses Trump’s shortcomings nor ought it to blind Jews to the anti-Semitism that continues to simmer on the far Right. But it ought to put the issue into perspective for liberals who are genuinely concerned about anti-Semitism. Some of those raising hell about Trump have been missing in action in the fight against anti-Semitic BDS campaigns and had little to say about threats against Jews until these could be blamed on Trump. It will be up to the president to continue to speak responsibly about hate. But it is just as important for his critics to stop pretending that the problem of anti-Semitism begins and ends with their bete noire in the White House.