(JTA) — During Donald Trump’s joint news conference with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu on Wednesday, the president was asked a direct question from an Israeli reporter about “a sharp rise in anti-Semitic incidents across the United States” — on the same day that the Southern Poverty Law Center reported that the number of hate groups in the United States, most subscribing to anti-Semitic views, rose in 2016. The question also came after a six-week period in which Jewish community centers around the country were forced to evacuate in three separate incidents due to coordinated bomb threats.
Below is the question and answer from the news conference at the White House, with my annotations.
REPORTER: Mr. President, since your election campaign and even after your victory, we’ve seen a sharp rise in anti-Semitic — anti-Semitic incidents across the United States. And I wonder, what do you say to those among the Jewish community in the states and in Israel and maybe around the world who believe and feel that your administration is playing with xenophobia and maybe racist tones?
And Mr. Prime Minister, do you agree to what the president just said about the need for Israel to restrain or to stop settlement activity in the West Bank? And if we could follow up on my friend’s question — simple question: Do you back off from your vision to the (inaudible) conflict of two-state solution as you lay out in (inaudible) speech? Or you still support it?
DONALD TRUMP : Well, I just want to say that we are, you know, very honored by the victory that we had — 306 Electoral College votes. We were not supposed to crack 220. [Turns to Netanyahu] You know that, right? There was no way to 221, but then they said there’s no way to 270. And there’s tremendous enthusiasm out there.
Trump, we know, often boasts about his Electoral College victory. But what connection is he drawing between charges of bigotry and the strength of his win in the election? Is it possible that he tuned out after the first part of the question — in which the reporter mentions “your election campaign and even after your victory”? Is he stalling before answering the anti-Semitism question? Or, and this seems likely, is he suggesting that whatever criticisms people have about his unusual and taboo-breaking campaign, he was vindicated by the electorate? He has used this tactic before: On Nov. 14, right after the election, Lesley Stahl of “60 Minutes” asked if he was going to release his tax returns. Trump replied, “Obviously, the public didn’t care because I won the election very easily.”
DT: I will say that we are going to have peace in this country. We are going to stop crime in this country. We are going to do everything within our power to stop long simmering racism and every other thing that’s going on. There’s a lot of bad things that have been taking place over a long period of time.
It’s notable, given the question and the fact that he is standing next to the prime minister of the Jewish state and in front of the Israeli flag, that Trump makes no mention of Jews or anti-Semitism at this point. Specific attacks on Jews (and some of his supporters during the campaign launched some doozies, especially at journalists like Julia Ioffe and Jonathan Weisman) are subsumed under “every other thing that is going on.” Jewish antennas are on high alert on this point, especially after the White House released an International Holocaust Remembrance Day statement that did not mention the Jewish victims of the Nazis. It would be surprising if Trump hadn’t been prepped on this point.
DT: I think one of the reasons I won the election is we have a very, very divided nation, very divided.
Did Trump just acknowledge he won the election only because we have a “very divided nation”? If so, that would contradict his early boast about the size of his victory, as well as his repeated unsubstantiated claims that his loss of the popular vote was only the result of massive voter fraud.
DT: And hopefully, I’ll be able to do something about that. And I, you know, it was something that was very important to me.
Trump has been significantly less inclined than most recent presidents to reach out to those who didn’t vote for him, although he did say in his inaugural address, “It is time to remember that old wisdom our soldiers will never forget: that whether we are black or brown or white, we all bleed the same red blood of patriots, we all enjoy the same glorious freedoms, and we all salute the same great American flag.”
DT: As far as people, Jewish people, so many friends; a daughter who happens to be here right now; a son-in-law, and three beautiful grandchildren.
When Trump finally gets around to mentioning Jews, he has five in mind: son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner, Kushner’s wife Ivanka and their three children. For some in the Jewish community, his Jewish relatives are all the evidence they need to conclude that Trump will not tolerate anti-Semitism. Defending Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, against allegations of anti-Semitism, the Zionist Organization of America’s Morton Klein wrote in November, “Would Trump’s Orthodox Jewish daughter Ivanka, whose children go to an Orthodox day school, ever allow an anti-Semite to work with her father?”
But other Jewish groups felt Trump did not do enough during the campaign or since to send a strong message to bigots and white supremacists saying that they weren’t welcome in his coalition. The Anti-Defamation League wasn’t satisfied with Trump’s response today, tweeting, “Troubling that @POTUS failed to condemn real issue of anti-Semitism in US today.”
DT: I think that you’re going to see a lot different United States of America over the next three, four or eight years. I think a lot of good things are happening.
And you’re going to see a lot of love. You’re going to see a lot of love.
OK? Thank you.
On the campaign trail, Trump often invoked “love” as a solution to America’s racial and religious divides, as he did after winning Indiana in the Republican primaries: America, he said, which “is very, very divided in so many different ways, is going to become one beautiful loving country, and we’re going to love each other, we’re going to cherish each other and take care of each other.”
Minority groups might prefer a little less love and little more focus on the issues that concern them most, like, in the case of the Jews, a strong statement condemning anti-Semitism and a pledge to carefully monitor hate crimes and threats.
February 15, 2017