WASHINGTON — Hours after the Anti-Defamation League released a report Tuesday that detailed a dramatic spike in anti-Semitic incidents in the United States in 2017, its chief told reporters that the one man who could be making things better has instead been making them worse.
“Something has changed with the way that strains of intolerance have moved from the shadows and seeped into the mainstream,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, the ADL’s CEO. “And then not being called out by people at the highest levels of authority in a way that happened before.”
One of the reasons such vitriol has reached a new plateau of public discourse, Greenblatt said, is that it’s frequently disseminated by US President Donald Trump on social media.
“I think what’s new is today we have a situation where literally the presidential Twitter account is retweeting memes that originate on sub-reddits that are developed by some of the worst segments of society,” Greenblatt went on. “The president’s retweeting of white supremacists and anti-Semitic memes during the campaign and, more recently, sharing tweets from a UK racist group — those are alarming. Those tweets and rhetoric have emboldened and given encouragement to the worst anti-Semites and bigots.”
Whereas previous presidents often denounced hateful groups and their leaders, Trump has failed to consistently and unequivocally do the same, such as after a white-supremacist rally turned violent last summer in Charlottesville, Virginia. He said in a press conference days later that there were “very fine people on both sides.”
“Those signals from President Obama or President Bush or President Clinton and others before them were incredibly important to keeping the country on track and to shutting down bigots,” Greenblatt said. “I think the country craves that kind of leadership. When we don’t have it and [when] values aren’t at the center, bad ideas can help fill the vacuum in ways that are very problematic.”
Trump also failed to immediately condemn a wave of bomb threats to Jewish Community Centers and other institutions throughout the first half of 2017. A Jewish teen from Israel was arrested for allegedly making the vast majority of those threats.
Earlier on Tuesday, the ADL unveils new data that showed there were 1,986 acts of anti-Semitism in the US last year, the second highest rate since the organization began tracking these trends in 1979. The highest year was 1994, with just over 2,000 incidents.
Discounting the JCC bomb threats, reported incidents still increased by 43% over 2016, while anti-Semitic incidents in schools and on college campuses also doubled in 2017, for the second year in a row.
“We see anti-Semitism everyday,” Greenblatt said. “What this data tells us is that our anecdotal observations are supported by empirical evidence. It is a widespread phenomenon and it is growing.”
The figures marked the second year in a row the rates have more than doubled. In 2015, the group tallied 942 anti-Semitic instances; in 2016, it tracked 1,267.
In a conference call Tuesday, Greenblatt listed a number of factors for why he thought the numbers have been skyrocketing.
He mentioned that people are more concerned with anti-Semitism, so there is more reporting such incidents. He also cited the divisive state of American politics, the emboldening of extremists, the newfound tools of social media to spread ideas once relegated to the margins, and the copy cat effect from anti-Semitic episodes receiving high levels of publicity.
This year’s audit did not include online anti-Semitic incidents; the ADL plans to unveil another report exclusively dedicated to those trends later this year.
Greenblatt said it was impossible to quantify Trump’s influence on anti-Semites throughout the US, but the influence itself, he said, was beyond question.
“We can’t conclusively say that X percentage of anti-Semitic incidents are the result of this,” he said. “I can’t say that. But I can say that when you have an incident like Charlottesville, one of the largest public displays of domestic anti-Semitism and white supremacy in recent memory, and the president’s response to the rally is to say there are good people on both sides, that was a serious failure of moral leadership.”