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The Fight Against Islamophobia and Anti-Semitism Won’t Be Won by This White House

Posted on Feb 23, 2017

By Sonali Kolhatkar

  A member of the crowd holds up a message for then-candidate Donald Trump at a rally in Oklahoma City in February 2016.(Sue Ogrocki / AP)

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Jewish Americans have generally been able to count on full support from elected officials of their rights as a minority, at least over the past few decades. Given the community’s history of experiencing genocide and given the near-unanimous denunciation of the Holocaust from American leadership, it is a new and frightening development that the person who currently occupies the White House took so long to publicly express what should have been a straightforward statement of revulsion at the rise in anti-Semitism in the U.S.

In a scripted speech, President Trump said at the National Museum of African American History and Culture on Tuesday that “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.”

The statement came within days of at least two embarrassing responses by Trump during press conferences to reporters’ questions about a national uptick in anti-Semitism in which he appeared defensive and avoided answering the questions directly, choosing instead to focus on his electoral college win, which he has wasted no opportunity to brag about on many other occasions. He even pointed to his daughter Ivanka Trump and Jewish son-in-law Jared Kushner, as though the fact of Ivanka converting to Judaism and marrying into a Jewish family were proof of his anti-racist credentials. It is simply another version of the insulting trope “some of my best friends are Jewish.”

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Trump also said, in his characteristically childish and hyperbolic fashion, “I am the least anti-Semitic person that you’ve ever seen in your entire life.” It would be laughable if real people’s lives weren’t at stake. The fact that dozens of Jewish community centers have received bomb threats by phone and a Jewish cemetery in Missouri was vandalized may have finally prompted Trump to speak out, likely at the urging of his advisers. Perhaps he realized that simply boasting about not being anti-Semitic was not the same as unequivocally denouncing violence and racism. Officials at the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect were not just unimpressed by his statement, they bashed the president in shockingly strong terms, saying that his remarks amounted to “a pathetic asterisk of condescension after weeks in which he and his staff have committed grotesque acts and omissions reflecting Antisemitism, yet day after day have refused to apologize and correct the record. ... Make no mistake: The Antisemitism coming out of this Administration is the worst we have ever seen from any Administration.”

It actually doesn’t matter too much whether Trump is personally anti-Semitic or not. What matters is how his statements and official positions are perceived by his supporters, some of whom are members of white supremacist and nationalist hate groups. The Southern Poverty Law Center’s (SPLC) recently released annual census of hate groups in the U.S. found an increase in these organizations around the country for the second year in a row in 2016. It is important to note that Trump has not empowered a previously silent faction as much as he has ridden the wave of existing racial resentment that was building before his ascent to the White House. SPLC’s report explains the surge in hate groups as “stemming from the long-unfolding effects of globalization and the movements of capital and labor that it spawned.” In reflecting the language of white supremacists (such as calling Mexicans “rapists,” and assuming Muslims entering the country will mean “death and destruction”), Trump has given a green light to extremists. In other words, Trump and his racist supporters claim legitimacy by feeding off of one another.

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