Those who charge US President Donald Trump with fueling right-wing anti-Semitism should recall that no one had accused his predecessor, Barack Obama, of spurring anti-Semitism from the left, Deputy Minister for Public Diplomacy MK Michael Oren said Thursday.
Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to Washington, also defended Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s refusal to speak out about the White House’s statement for International Holocaust Memorial Day, which failed to mention the Jewish people, saying the prime minister was engaging in “responsible” policymaking.
“Too much emphasis is put on what people say, not on what people do. The question is not what’s being said, but what’s being done,” Oren told The Times of Israel. “Yes, there is an uptick in anti-Semitism, but the conversation about it is not going in the right direction.”
In his meetings with bipartisan congressional delegations from the US, Oren said, he is often told that it is less important that hate crimes are condemned and more important that they are stopped. “The question is what is done operatively to combat and prevent them.”
In recent weeks, amid an uptick in anti-Semitic attacks, including dozens of hoax bomb threats to Jewish institutions, various US-Jewish leaders took the new administration to task for ostensibly failing to forcefully denounce rising anti-Semitism there. Trump shouted down an Orthodox Jewish reporter who tried to ask him about the uptick last week, declaring that “I am the least anti-Semitic person.”
On Wednesday, Trump for the first time condemned anti-Semitic hate crimes, such as this week’s desecration of a Jewish cemetery in St. Louis in which 170 gravestones were damaged. Vice President Mike Pence paid a solidarity visit to the vandalized site, and actively aided in the restoration effort.
Netanyahu, speaking at a synagogue in Sydney, praised Trump for taking a “strong stand against anti-Semitism.” At a joint press conference with Trump earlier this month, Netanyahu had proclaimed that there was “no greater supporter of the Jewish people and the Jewish state” than the president.
Oren, who was a noted historian of US-Israeli history before entering diplomacy and politics, did not deny that Jew-hatred was a growing concern in the US but pointed out that it was by no means a new phenomenon.
“Obviously there is problem with anti-Semitism and we have to take it seriously,” said Oren, a member of the centrist Kulanu party. “But there is anti-Semitism on the left, and nobody blamed Obama for that. During my time in Washington [as Israeli ambassador], I never encountered right-wing anti-Semitism, but I experienced a lot of anti-Semitism, mainly on campuses. Ask Jewish students in America if they fear anti-Semitism. They do — not from the right, but from the left.”
Just as Obama should not be blamed for these incidents, Trump cannot be blamed for the current wave of attacks apparently inspired by right-wing ideologies, he argued.
Anti-Semitism is not new to America, the New Jersey native said, citing incidents from his youth. “It is very precedented. Anti-Semitism was a fact of life when I grew up. I encountered it all the time: our windows were broken, I got into fistfights all the time. There were quotas [for Jews] at Ivy League universities.”
The key to confronting today’s anti-Semitism lies in local law enforcement, he said, arguing for greater efforts to trace people calling in bomb threats to Jewish centers and having the FBI put more manpower into fighting the phenomenon.
“When my synagogue was bombed, the FBI showed up the next day,” he recalled. He was referring to an April 1971 attack on the Jewish Center of West Orange, which took place on the night racist American-Israeli rabble-rouser Rabbi Meir Kahane was scheduled to address the Conservative community.
Oren, who served as ambassador to the US between 2009 and 2013, declined to comment on Netanyahu’s previous silence on the rise of anti-Semitism in America and over the Holocaust Day statement. The prime minister initially refused to comment on the fact that the White House omitted any reference to genocide against the Jews in its statement, and he later denounced the US-Jewish community’s protests over the matter as “misplaced.”
While he himself does not agree with the White House explanation for what it called an “inclusive” statement — that other people suffered as well during the Holocaust — Oren said he would not “go out and criticize” the new administration.
Rather, he urged that Trump and his team should be given time before being taking to task over such issues, quipping that it takes a new administration half a year before staffers even know where the bathrooms are in the White House.
“We [Israelis] have crucial issues that affect the security of each and every one of us,” he said, indicating that discussions over Iran, Syria and the Palestinians should take precedence in Jerusalem’s dealings with the new administration.
Netanyahu’s refusal to comment on the controversial Holocaust Day statement “was “responsible and clear-sighted” policy in that it focuses on the bigger picture, Oren said.
Obama, early in his first term, indicated that Israel was created because of the Holocaust, Oren recalled. “This was a problematic narrative, because it basically denies Jewish history. But we didn’t make a big deal about it. It was a new administration and we had important things to discuss.”
It took Obama several years before publicly setting the record straight, when in a speech to the UN he talked about the millennia-old Jewish roots in the Land of Israel, Oren said. “Let’s give Trump that same opportunity [to correct mistakes] and not jump at every little thing he says.”