On Monday, for the fourth time since the beginning of the year, bomb threats shut down multiple Jewish Community Centers across the country. The calls are the latest in a series: Sixty-nine threats have been called into 54 Jewish Community Centers in 27 states and a Canadian province since January 1, according to the JCC Association of North America. Meanwhile, also on Monday, vandals toppled nearly 200 tombstones at a Jewish cemetery in St. Louis.
Anti-Semitism has been on the rise in Europe for several years. In April 2015, Jeffrey Goldberg penned a long essay for The Atlantic entitled “Is It Time for the Jews to Leave Europe?” In the final paragraph, he wrote: “I am predisposed to believe that there is no great future for the Jews in Europe, because evidence to support this belief is accumulating so quickly.” But the prospect of rising anti-Semitism in the United States, which does not share Europe’s tragic history, seems different — and perhaps, for that reason, even more troubling.
Taking that increase for granted, commentators have been quick to pin the blame on Donald Trump. After a visit to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture on Tuesday, Trump said in prepared remarks: “The anti-Semitic threats targeting our Jewish community and community centers are horrible and are painful, and a very sad reminder of the work that still must be done to root out hate and prejudice and evil.” This, according to Vox’s Dara Lind, is not nearly enough. “It was a fairly rote condemnation of an attack on a minority group, the sort of thing that presidents do all the time,” Lind wrote. “But despite his claim that he denounces anti-Semitism ‘whenever I get a chance,’ until this point, Trump simply hasn’t.” Lind points to Trump’s dalliance with the alt-right, his initial refusal to disavow former KKK leader David Duke, and his White House’s Holocaust Remembrance Day statement (which made no mention of Jews) to suggest a pattern of silence that has encouraged anti-Semitic violence.
But the extent of the increase — let alone Donald Trump’s role in it — remains unclear. The most reliable data on hate crimes comes from the FBI, which shows that the number of people victimized for their religion declined dramatically from 2010 to 2014: from 1,552 victims to 1,140 victims, or by 36 percent. The number of victims of anti-Jewish bias declined similarly: from 1,039 to 648 victims, or by 38 percent. The FBI then records an uptick in 2015, to 1,402 total victims and 730 victims of anti-Jewish bias.
The FBI has not released statistics for 2016, without which it is difficult to determine whether we are seeing a trend or a temporary blip, and other indicators further complicate the picture. The Anti-Defamation League, which keeps its own statistics (on “anti-Jewish incidents,” a metric broader than the FBI’s) reported 941 incidents in 2015, a 3 percent increase over 2014. But 2014’s 912 incidents represented a 21 percent increase over 2013. The Gaza war was responsible for much of that surge; the two months of the 2014 military engagement saw 255 separate incidents, compared with 110 during July and August 2013.
The sharp spike in anti-Semitic incidents during the Gaza war is noteworthy. It both supports and cuts against the charges being leveled against Trump. The episode reinforces the notion that that short-term news events can occasion violence. But the majority of perpetrators of anti-Semitism during the Gaza war were not the Trump-supporting white supremacists upon whom the recent violence is being blamed.
One final set of data is worth considering. In New York City, 28 anti-Semitic hate crimes were reported by the NYPD Hate Crime Task Force between January 1 and February 12, 2017 — more than double the number reported over the same period last year (13). Last year, the city saw a 31 percent increase in hate crimes between January 1 and the beginning of December, including a 115 percent increase in the three weeks following Election Day (43, compared with 20 during the same period the previous year). Mayor Bill de Blasio has not hesitated to blame the president: “You can’t have a candidate for president single out groups of Americans, negatively, and not have some ramifications for that,” de Blasio said in December. “It’s obviously connected to the election.” The number of total hate crimes is likely to hover around 400, which would be the largest total since at least 2008. However, the numbers have fluctuated wildly before this. From 2011 to 2012, hate crimes increased by 54.5 percent (from 242 to 375). Obviously, Donald Trump had nothing to do with this.
The sharp spike in anti-Semitic incidents during the Gaza war is noteworthy. It both supports and cuts against the charges being leveled against Trump.
The parallel ascent of Donald Trump and vile elements of right-wing politics has, indeed, been alarming. Long before the mainstream media became interested, conservative opponents of Trump found themselves targets of a repulsive fringe. A recent report by the Anti-Defamation League, released in October, identified 2.6 million tweets “containing language frequently found in anti-Semitic speech” between August 2015 and July 2016. The top ten most-targeted journalists — among whom were Ben Shapiro, Jonah Goldberg, and Bethany Mandel — accounted for 83 percent of those tweets. I have written on multiple occasions about the moral rot of the alt-right, and lamented the way Trump indulged it. That he chose as his closest adviser Steve Bannon, whose Breitbart trafficked in racial divisiveness, is deeply worrying.
However, the hard evidence is not yet in, and responsible commentators would do well to be patient. Regrettably, many on the left have leapt on the news for partisan purposes. Taking a cue from de Blasio and Vox, Keith Ellison, the Minnesota congressman and prospective Democratic National Committee chairman, recently tweeted: “Why has it taken [Donald Trump] so long to even say the word ‘anti-Semitism?’ Perhaps it has something to do with placating his base?” Likewise, some have thrilled to the pronouncement of the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect that “the Antisemitism coming out of this Administration is the worst we have ever seen from any Administration.” Its director, Steven Goldstein, called Trump’s statement “pathetic” during a CNN interview on Tuesday evening.
Few have bothered to note that the Anne Frank Center describes itself as “a progressive voice for social justice”; that Goldstein has spent the bulk of his career heading Garden State Equality, New Jersey’s statewide organization promoting same-sex marriage; or that the Center has never played any significant part in Holocaust-remembrance activities in the U.S. Likewise, the denunciations of Keith Ellison — who was a longtime member of Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam, from which he did not distance himself until he ran for Congress in 2006 — ring hollow, as do those from progressives who cheer Linda Sarsour (an organizer of January’s Women’s March who has championed anti-Israel terrorism) or the grotesqueries of the Boycott, Divest, Sanctions (BDS) movement.
None of this is to let the president off the hook. If it becomes undeniably clear that American Jews face a rising tide of violence to which the president has contributed, every side should call him to account. There is no place for anti-Semitism in the United States. But accusations warrant evidence, and that should be the case no matter who is in the White House.