Perhaps President Donald Trump will feel the urgency to speak out fully and act more aggressively against the dramatic increase in anti-Semitic incidents if he realizes the threat affects his own family — namely, his daughter, Ivanka, a convert to Judaism; her Jewish husband, Jared Kushner; and his Jewish grandchildren attending the kinds of schools that are receiving bomb threats.
That was the message from Jewish Women’s International, one of many groups calling on the administration to intensify its efforts in dealing with the disturbing spike that included a fifth wave of bomb-threatening phone calls to Jewish Community Centers, synagogues, and Jewish day schools around the country this week — including two in Cherry Hill —and cemetery desecrations in Philadelphia and St. Louis. And just before press time there were unconfirmed reports of swastikas on a footbridge over South Orange Avenue.
The women’s group asked the president to “put into place real action that will keep our families…your family…safe,” adding: “We know that when one minority is unsafe, no minority is safe.”
Some of the problem is quantifiable: as of Tuesday, 90 bomb threats had been called in to JCCs and schools in 30 states, according to officials of the JCC Association, who urged federal officials to “speak out — and speak out forcefully — against this scourge of anti-Semitism impacting communities around the country.” And several hundred headstones were vandalized at the two Jewish cemeteries.
Other aspects are more difficult to measure. As federal, state, and local authorities seek to identify those who are instilling fear in our communities, one lingering question is how much, if any, of the responsibility for this alarming trend is attributable to President Trump. Critics note that his campaign slogan, “America First,” was used to urge the U.S. to resist going to war against Nazi Germany, and that his campaign, managed by Stephen Bannon, an alt-right supporter, was slow to condemn racist supporters like David Duke. A number of Jewish journalists received death threats online, by phone, and in the mail. The Southern Poverty Law Center concluded that the “radical right was energized by the candidacy of Donald Trump,” and many Jewish groups expressed disappointment that the president seemed to resist denouncing anti-Semitism until his statement last week.
The ADL noted, “anti-Semites are increasingly emboldened by the current political climate in which anti-Semitism seems to be normalized.”
Defenders of the president assert that there is no correlation between him and the wave of anti-Semitic incidents, indicative of a trend around the world in recent years. They note that officials are aggressively seeking the perpetrators, and they insist critics are never satisfied with Trump’s denunciations of anti-Semitism and racism. They point out that Vice President Mike Pence took part in cleanup efforts at the Jewish cemetery in St. Louis, an act for which he was widely praised.
But it’s not just Confederate flag-waving Trump fans who are the problem. Some of our local elected leaders — former leaders, now — were so tone deaf to the rising crescendo of intolerance that they felt no shame in adding their voices to it. Last week Roseland councilmen Tom Tsilionis and David Jacobs were forced to resign after their racially inflammatory text messages to four other council members and Mayor John Duthie became public. Among the offensive language, some of which is not fit for print, was this statement by Tsilionis, who wrote, “David how do I become Jewish? I want to be half Jewish (cheap) and half African American (endowed).”
In truth, anti-Semitism isn’t so much a Jewish problem as a societal one. It’s the perpetrators, not the victims, who should be the focus of attention at a time of national debate.
On the plus side, it has been heartening to see how many people have expressed solidarity with our community in recent days, including American Muslims and other minority members who know well the chill of discrimination.
We may never succeed in eradicating anti-Semitism, with its long history of hate, but it is our duty to identify it, condemn it, and, as the AJC reminded us this week, recall the words of Hillel, the ancient sage, who told the man who wanted to learn the Torah while standing on one foot: “What is hateful to you, do not do unto your neighbor.”