Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Anti-Semitism and the President

​Let's talk about all these JCC bomb threats.​

I work at a Jewish Community Center. Thank God the building I work in has not yet been the target of a bomb threat, like ​nearly 70 other ​JCC​s across the country in the past month, but ​the threats still hit home​. My friends and colleagues have been evacuated from their offices and children shepherded out of harm's way per carefully-planned security procedures. These threats, some near and some far away, echo in my workplace in heightened security checks and more frequent reviews of evacuation plans.

Dealing with anti-Semitism comes with the territory of being Jewish and it takes many forms. It can be an off-handed remark based in ignorance, graffiti scrawled on a synagogue, headstones overturned in a Jewish cemetery, or threats to Jewish community centers. If you can stomach it, you can listen to an audio clip of one of the past month's phone threats here.

I​ would be lying if I said it wasn't at least a little scary to go to work everyday in this environment, but I am less gripped by fear than by anger. I'm angry that my workplace is a target because it is Jewish. Of course, I'm angry that anti-Semitism exists and is on the rise. I'm angry that these callers and vandals have so much hate in them and that anti-Semites and hate-mongers feel empowered in America today.

When the first few waves of threats were called in, I thought I didn't need or want our 45th president to respond. I certainly wasn't going to hold my breath waiting for him to express concern for our communities. He was, after all, dealing with other enemies - the media, the National Park Service, millions of cases of voter fraud, and refugees and legal green card holders - and he has been busy spending our taxes traveling to and from his Florida resort. Besides, his speech - stilted, unrefined, combative, and limited in its expressive vocabulary - has never been able to move me to anything but repulsion. I did not need him to make some hollow statement, some empty gesture. 

Except, I did need that.

Yesterday, another 11 JCCs received threats and, like all the others so far, they turned out to be hoaxes. But yesterday, I realized that I had lost count of how many threats had been reported this year. Was this the third round or the fifth? How many times now had the Birmingham JCC where I used to work been forced to evacuate? And after watching the president specifically dodge a question about combating anti-Semitism just a week before, I had finally had enough.

This president does not get to claim that he is the "least anti-Semitic person that you've ever seen in your entire life." He does not get to hide behind having a Jewish daughter or excuse himself because Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu has "known [him] for a long time." This president ran a campaign of hate. His campaign rejected civility (or "political correctness"), revived the anti-Semitic and xenophobic rhetoric of "America First," and evoked old stereotypes and tropes linking Jews to some secret global power structure that does not exist. He retweeted neo-Nazis and was hesitant to denounce the support of the KKK. His campaign and his victory gave hope to anti-Semites, racists, bigots, and all the worst slime of our society. And so, while I knew that nothing he could say would ring true to my ear as I enter my workplace every morning, I did still need him in his capacity as our president to say something.

Yesterday, after the latest 11 JCC threats, his Jewish daughter, Ivanka Trump, tweeted:

Last night, the White House released a statement condemning "hatred and hate-motivated violence."

This morning, Hillary Clinton joined in:

After all that, the president himself finally uttered the words he had been avoiding. During a visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, he said:
"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." 
It is one of his more coherent sentences, without the asides and repetitive hyperbole characteristic of his speech. It is, of course, not enough. It feels insincere given his history on the campaign trail and the fact that it took almost 70 bomb threats and a month of nagging to get him to say anything at all about an issue that the president should be forced to address. So, while his statement left me every bit as underwhelmed as I expected it would, the fact that he said anything when he so clearly did not want to feels like a small victory and I'll take it.