Opinion

Michael A. Cohen

Trump owns startling spike in anti-Semitic acts — indeed, he feeds it

FILE — A participant gives a Nazi salute during a march through the grounds of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Va., Aug. 11, 2017. The demonstrations in Charlottesville were perhaps the most visible manifestation to date of the evolution of the American far-right, a coalition of old and new white supremacist groups connected by social media and emboldened by the election of Donald J. Trump. (Edu Bayer/The New York Times)
Edu Bayer/The New York Times
White supremacist groups march through the grounds of the University of Virginia on Aug. 11, 2017.

It’s 2018 in America, and anti-Semitism is on the rise.

According to a new report from the Anti-Defamation League, anti-Semitic incidents were startlingly up nearly 60 percent in 2017 from the previous year. It’s the largest one-year jump in the nearly 40 years since the ADL began tracking such information.

This jump is happening at the same time that the ADL is reporting a 250 percent rise in white-supremacist activity on America’s college campuses.

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According to Jonathan Greenblatt, the head of the ADL, the numbers on anti-Semitic incidents “had been trending in the right direction for a long time. . . . And then something changed.”

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Greenblatt won’t say it directly (and many are reluctant to do so), but we all know what that change has been: the election of Donald Trump. What we’ve seen over the past two years is not just the normalizing of anti-Semitic rhetoric in our political discourse, but the abject failure of the president of the United States to condemn voices of intolerance and hatred.

It was only six months ago that Trump refused to single out neo-Nazi demonstrators for condemnation and said there were “very fine people on both sides” of the protests and counterprotests in Charlottesville, Va.

But Trump’s dalliance with white supremacists and anti-Semitic groups goes way back. After all, Trump appointed Steve Bannon as his top political adviser, a man who called his news organization, Breitbart News, a “platform for the alt-right”; has been credibly accused of making anti-Semitic statements; and has maintained close connections to neo-Nazi and white-supremacist figures.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump refused to condemn David Duke. He tweeted out anti-Semitic imagery, and his Twitter account regularly retweeted supporters who had previously made hostile and racist comments about Jews. He said at an event for the Republican Jewish Coalition, “I’m a negotiator like you folks are negotiators”; and perhaps most infamously ran a closing ad that attacked those who “control the levers of power in Washington” and derided a “global power structure that is responsible for the economic decisions that have robbed our working class,” interspliced with images of then-chief of the Federal Reserve, Janet Yellen; liberal philanthropist George Soros; and Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein — all of whom are Jewish. It stands out as one of the most blatantly anti-Semitic ads ever run by a modern presidential campaign.

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Indeed, the attacks on Soros as some sort of liberal puppetmaster controlling Democratic politicians and pushing a radical left-wing agenda have become practically de rigeur among Republicans. Just last week, the Missouri Republican Party responded to the indictment of the state’s GOP governor (who, ironically, is Jewish) by attacking the attorney general who brought the charges for having allegedly received campaign contributions from the liberal philanthropist. The notion that Soros is responsible for Governor Eric Greitens’s legal woes originated in a — wait for it — Breitbart article titled “George Soros Declares War on the State of Missouri.”

But perhaps Trump’s greatest crime has been his refusal to speak out more forcefully against this rising wave of anti-Semitism. A year ago, Trump offered a tepid statement acknowledging the issue — one that came after his administration found itself under criticism for failing to mention the destruction of European Jewry on International Holocaust Remembrance Day and Trump had berated a Jewish reporter at a press conference for asking about the spike in anti-Semitic incidents.

But since then, Trump’s rhetoric has been one of complicity, rather than condemnation. Even if one wants to give Trump the benefit of the doubt and argue that he hasn’t personally made any anti-Semitic comments, it is his silence that speaks volumes. Over and over, Trump has shown a willingness to denounce a broad cross-section of people – undocumented immigrants, football players who kneel for the national anthem, the “fake news” media, the FBI, and Democratic politicians. But when it comes to white supremacists and neo-Nazis, Trump holds his fire or seeks to find a moral equivalency between bigots and their critics. Once upon a time, Republicans were willing to even lose elections rather than associate themselves with racists and bigots. Those days are long gone.

The removal of societal norms that once denounced and ostracized those who used such language and held hate-filled views has, in effect, become an emboldening act. Trump’s reticence is empowering hate-mongers, white supremacists, and anti-Semites who are seemingly unafraid to speak out and even act upon their hateful views. In the president, they see an ally who is content to traffic in racist, prejudiced tropes and is unwilling to forcefully condemn those who turn such words into actions.

Indeed, citing the notable increase in anti-Semitic incidents in schools (in Massachusetts alone, they are up 50 percent since last year in K-12 schools), Greenblatt said, “Kids repeat what they hear. And so in an environment in which prejudice isn’t called out by public figures, figures of authority, we shouldn’t be surprised when we see young people repeat these same kind of tropes.”

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We shouldn’t be surprised either when adults do the same. Trump’s rhetoric and his reluctance is giving aid and comfort to hate — and it’s only going to get worse.

Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.