President Donald Trump’s suggestion that the antisemitic threats and vandalism sweeping America have been staged to damage his reputation has sparked alarm and outrage within the country’s Jewish communities.
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro reported that Mr Trump, speaking about the wave of Jew-hate at a meeting of state attorneys general on Tuesday, had said: “Sometimes it’s the reverse, to make people — or to make others — look bad.”
This statement was widely interpreted as implying that Jews themselves could have been responsible for the bomb threats and cemetery desecrations that have been causing fear and disruption since the new year.
The comment closely mirrored a remark by former Ku Klux Klan leader and Holocaust denier David Duke, who wrote on Twitter last month:
“President Trump, do you think it might be the Jews themselves making these calls to get sympathy to push their ethnic agenda?”
At least 100 bomb threats have now been made by phone on five different days over two months, leading to evacuations at community centres and schools across the US, while hundreds of gravestones have been desecrated in cemeteries in St Louis and Philadelphia over the past two weeks. And a bullet hole was discovered in the window of an Indiana synagogue this week.
Rabbi Yosef Goldman at the Temple Beth Zion synagogue in Philadelphia said he understood Mr Trump’s words as suggesting Jews orchestrated the threats.
“I think what he said sounded very similar to what people in Germany in the 1930s were hearing,” he said. “The trouble is there are many people who will believe it, despite proof [to the contrary].”
“Antisemitic groups in this country have heard support in [Trump’s] words and have felt emboldened, as if he is one of their own,” Rabbi Goldman added.
Rabbi Goldman visited the Mount Carmel Cemetery in Wissinoming, Philadelphia soon after it had been vandalised. “It was devastating,” he said. Over 500 headstones had been toppled and broken, and the attackers had left rubbish and excrement. “It felt like walking on a battlefield after a hard fought battle.”
Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, a hate watchdog, said Mr Trump urgently needed to lay out plans to address the incidents. “We are astonished by what the president reportedly said. It is incumbent on the White House to immediately clarify these remarks,” he said.
One of Mr Trump’s advisers, Anthony Scaramucci, inflamed the debate by writing on Twitter: “It’s not yet clear who the JCC offenders are. Don’t forget the Democrats’ efforts to incite violence at Trump rallies.”
The Interfaith Alliance, which defends religious freedom, denounced Mr Trump’s remark as “outrageous and irresponsible”. The president of the alliance, Rabbi Jack Moline, said: “The remarks by Trump and Scaramucci represent an utter failure to comprehend the recent surge in violent rhetoric and attacks directed at Jews, Muslims and other religious minorities.”
In an attempt to address the storm of criticism, on Tuesday Mr Trump began his first address to a joint session of Congress by condemning Jew-hate. “Recent threats targeting Jewish community centres and vandalism of Jewish cemeteries… remind us that while we may be a nation divided on policies we are a country that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all its forms,” he said.
However, Rabbi Goldman said the comments were insufficient. “We are feeling more than we ever have in my lifetime the reality of the Jewish community being a religious minority, of our otherness,” he said.
US Attorney Andrew Luger, a federal prosecutor in Minnesota, who is also Jewish, described a “different and heightened” climate of concern.