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What can the Trump administration do to quell anti-Semitism?

February 21, 2017 at 6:40 PM EDT
A wave of anti-Semitic incidents has swept across the U.S. in the past few months, including dozens of bomb threats at Jewish Community Centers around the country. Although President Trump formally denounced the threats on Tuesday, some believe he has not responded forcefully or quickly enough. John Yang speaks with Jonathan Greenblatt of the Anti-Defamation League.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The past couple of months have seen a wave of anti-Semitic incidents in the United States, including a dozen bomb threats at Jewish community centers in the past two days, and the destruction of gravestones in a Jewish cemetery in Missouri.

The president today made a statement of condemnation, but it comes amid growing concerns in this country about anti-Semitism and other incidents involving hate, and some criticism that President Trump hasn’t responded forcefully and quickly enough.

Our John Yang has the story.

JOHN YANG: Over the past two days, authorities have evacuated Jewish community centers in a dozen cities across the country, the latest this morning in La Jolla, California.

MAN: It’s just bigotry raising its head again in this country.

JOHN YANG: No explosive devices were found, but it’s part of an unsettling series of events. On Monday, more than 200 headstones were toppled and damaged at a Jewish cemetery in Saint Louis.

Since January 1, 54 Jewish centers in 27 states have been the target of 70 threats. In all of 2016, there was just one such incident.

This morning, at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, President Trump condemned the threats.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: 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.

JOHN YANG: Mr. Trump’s comments followed Monday’s tweet from his daughter Ivanka, who converted to Orthodox Judaism before her 2009 marriage to Jared Kushner: “We must protect our houses of worship and religious centers.”

The president was far stronger today than he was last week, when, in two news conferences over two days, he was asked about the apparent uptick in anti-Semitic incidents.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Watch how friendly he is.

Go ahead.

JOHN YANG: On Thursday, he dismissed a question from a reporter for an Orthodox Jewish weekly as very insulting and unfair.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Number one, I am the least anti-Semitic person that you have ever seen in your entire life. I hate the charge. I find it repulsive.

JOHN YANG: Today, the Anti-Defamation League urged Mr. Trump to present a plan to combat anti-Semitism.

And we are joined by the head of the Anti-Defamation League, Jonathan Greenblatt, who is in Palm Beach, Florida.

Jonathan, thanks for joining us.

You tweeted this afternoon that polling shows that anti-Semitic views have been fairly constant for the past 20 years, despite a little uptick, you say, in 2013 and 2016.

JONATHAN GREENBLATT, CEO and National Director, Anti-Defamation League: Right.

JOHN YANG: Why, then, are we seeing this wave of threats against Jewish community centers? What’s going on here, in your view?

JONATHAN GREENBLATT: Well, look, the ADL has been tracking anti-Semitic attitudes since the 1960s.

And, as you said, our latest poll, which looks at anti-Semitic attitudes in 2016, turned up about 14 percent of all Americans harbor these ideas. That’s more than 30 million Americans. So, it’s not a small number.

But I think what’s changed is the fact that, over the course of the last 12 to 18 months, we saw — we had a political campaign that saw extremism move from the margins into the mainstream of the political conversation.

We saw images and ideas from white supremacists literally shared from political campaigns showing up in the Twitter feeds of major news organizations. We saw it in our political rallies as well.

And then, after the election, there was a surge of hate crimes. We saw acts of vandalism, certainly a lot of slander on social media and, in fact, in the last few months, as you mentioned, a number of bomb threats, almost 70, to dozens of Jewish community centers across the country.

So, I think what’s happened is, the extremists feel emboldened. The lack of comments from the highest levels of our political office have created a vacuum that they have rushed to fill, bringing their hateful ideas literally into the center of our public life.

That’s got to stop.

JOHN YANG: Well, the president did speak out today. What’s your response to that? What do you think of what he said?

JONATHAN GREENBLATT: He did.

The president took an important first step today. Literally, we hadn’t heard him speak in the way that he did, talking about that these threats are painful and that anti-Semitism is horrible. Of course we agree.

And so his statement today was an important first step. But, as we have said for a long time, now we need the next step, which is a plan of action to calm these communities where anxiety has reached an incredibly high level.

JOHN YANG: What do you want to see him do?

JONATHAN GREENBLATT: Well, there are a series of things.

We think it’s time for the president to announce steps for the White House to undertake. Number one, the FBI has been fantastic in responding to these threats and these scares. But we’d like to see a full-fledged, comprehensive investigation from the Department of Justice, using all of their energies to launch a civil rights investigation.

They have got the power to do that and to work with U.S. attorneys around the country. Attorney General Sessions should get that started immediately.

Number two, we’d like to see a White House task force on hate crimes. This could be something again convened by the attorney general, but you would bring to bear DHS, the Department of Education, the FBI and other federal agencies to use all of their resources to deal with this problem.

Number three, law enforcement needs to be trained on dealing with extremism. The ADL does this already around the country. And we need to make sure that every law enforcement agency and officer understands how to deal with hate.

And, number four, we think every state should have hate crimes laws. It’s worth sharing, John, that five states today don’t have hate crimes laws, including South Carolina, where just last week, a man was arraigned. He had been arrested by the FBI for plotting a Columbine-style attack on a synagogue in Myrtle Beach.

But you know what? That man couldn’t be charged with a hate crime in South Carolina because it doesn’t have a law on the books. So, the attorney general could push and the president could push governors and state attorney generals to move forward with hate crimes laws all over America to protect the Jewish community and other marginalized groups.

JOHN YANG: We have got about a minute left.

The president was asked about this very topic three times over two press conferences last week.

JONATHAN GREENBLATT: Yes.

JOHN YANG: What did you think of the responses last week, and why do you think it took him until today to get to where he is today and what he said today?

JONATHAN GREENBLATT: Well, look, the response last week in both press conferences was clearly inadequate.

But what we should focus on now is, he’s taken the first step. So, how do we seize this opportunity? How can he manifest moral leadership and say, I’m not only outraged, I am energized to take action?

And when he does that, the ADL will be prepared to work with him to find the perpetrators and to ensure that America truly is no place for hate.

JOHN YANG: Jonathan Greenblatt of the Anti-Defamation League, thanks very much for joining us.

JONATHAN GREENBLATT: You’re welcome. Thank you.

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