By Fred Barbash, Ben Guarino and Brian Murphy
President Donald Trump called anti-Semitic violence “horrible” and vowed Tuesday to take steps to counter extremism in comments that followed criticism that the White House had not clearly denounced vandalism and threats targeting Jewish institutions.
Hours before Trump’s remarks, Hillary Clinton called on her former presidential rival to speak out against anti-Semitic acts after more than 170 Jewish graves were found toppled at a cemetery in Missouri.
“The anti-Semitic threats targeting our Jewish community at 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,” Trump said following a visit to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Trump called the tour “meaningful reminder of why we have to fight bigotry, intolerance and hatred in all of its very ugly forms.” Earlier, he told NBC News that “anti-Semitism is horrible and it’s going to stop.”
The remarks by Trump also appear aimed at easing pressure on his administration, which faces claims from opponents that it has failed to distance itself from extremist ideology and has emboldened right-wing groups through its populist, America-first themes.
The tweet from Clinton did not specifically mention the gravesite disturbances in University City, Mo., but noted increasing reports of “troubling” threats against Jewish community centers, cemetery desecrations and online intimidation.
Clinton’s message to Trump came as the president of the World Jewish Congress, Ronald S. Lauder, also urged U.S. officials to recognize that “anti-Semitism is alive and kicking.”
“American Jews are worried,” Lauder said in a statement. “It is shocking to see that Jewish sites are once again being targeted by criminals.”
On Monday, the Anti-Defamation League reported a wave of bomb threats directed against Jewish Community Centers in multiple states,including Buffalo, the fourth series of such threats since the beginning of the year, it said, a development that elicited comments from a White House spokesman and Ivanka Trump, neither of which used the phrase “anti-Semitism” or mentioned Jews.
Ivanka Trump’s tweet: “America is a nation built on the principle of religious tolerance. We must protect our houses of worship & religious centers. #JCC”
“Glad to see this,” the ADL’s Jonathan Greenblatt tweeted about Ivanka Trump’s comment. “All Jews need to urge” the president “to step forward & share a plan. His words carry weight. His actions will speak even louder.”
The exchanges were particularly noteworthy in part because of Trump’s unusual response at a news conference Wednesday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to a question about the rise in anti-Semitic incidents around the country. Rather than condemning them, Trump responded by talking about his electoral college victory, describing the question as unfair.
Trump has been criticized for refusing to describe the threats toward Jews as “anti-Semitism.” An op-ed at the Forward, the New York-based newspaper written for a Jewish audience, described Trump’s “silence about anti-Semitism” as “deeply disturbing.”
When asked again about the rise in anti-Semitic threats, during another news conference on Thursday, the president responded as if he was being personally accused. Trump said that the question was “very insulting” and that he was “the least anti-Semitic person that you’ve ever seen in your entire life.”
The weekend’s events, coming in the wake of last week’s public exchanges with Trump, served to heat up a long-simmering tension between some leaders of the nation’s Jewish community and the Trump White House.
The perpetrators of the cemetery vandalism and their motives were not yet established. Police in University City, an inner-ring suburb of St. Louis, were just launching an investigation, reviewing video surveillance at the cemetery, operated on a not-for-profit basis by the Chesed Shel Emeth Society and calling on anyone with information to come forward.
Because of the Sabbath, the cemetery does not operate on Saturday, the director of the Chesed Shel Emeth Society, Anita Feigenbaum, told The Washington Post in a phone interview.
A groundskeeper arrived Monday morning to find gravestones overturned across a wide section of the cemetery, the oldest section, bearing the remains of Jews who died between the late 1800s and the mid-20th century.
She called it a “horrific act of cowardice,” beyond anything the cemetery had experienced in the past.
The cemetery was founded in 1888 by the Russian Jewish community in St. Louis “to aid all Jews who needed burial whether they had the money or not. They started with the burial society and then extended to hospitals and houses that help the poor and the sick. To this day that’s what we do. We are not for profit. We help in this horrible time in a person’s life.”
Feigenbaum had walked through the cemetery during the day and had not yet completed counting the number of damaged stones, most of them pushed over, off their bases. So far she said she had found than 170. Feigenbaum said she was starting to hear from families of people buried there. “We will reach out to the families that are affected,” she said.
The cemetery holds the remains of more than 20,000, she estimated.
She said she was getting an “outpouring of support from across the United States” with people volunteering to help with repairs.
Separately on Monday, the Anti-Defamation League reported a wave of bomb threats directed against Jewish community centers in multiple states, the fourth series of such threats since the beginning of the year, it said.
“While ADL does not have any information at this time to indicate the presence of any actual bombs at the institutions threatened, the threats themselves are alarming, disruptive and must always be taken seriously.”
Bomb threats were called in at Jewish community centers in 11 cities across the United States: Albuquerque, Amherst, Birmingham, Chicago, Cleveland, Houston, Milwaukee, Nashville, St. Paul, Tampa and Whitefish Bay, Wis. Since January, there have been 69 bomb threat calls targeting 54 centers in 27 different states, according to the Jewish Community Center Association.
In Amherst and Buffalo, the community centers were briefly closed after a threat was phoned to the Amherst center. Disruption was the goal, said Richard A. Zakalik, the local New York JCC executive director, to the Buffalo News on Monday. “They accomplished what they wanted,” Zakalik said to the Buffalo News. “The whole point was to scare and disrupt.”
No devices or bombs were found in connection with the threats; the Jewish Community Center Association described all of Monday’s incidents as “hoaxes.” The FBI and the civil rights division of the Justice Department will probe the series of calls for federal violations, according to the Star Tribune.
Paul Goldenberg, the director of Secure Community Network, the security affiliate of Jewish Federations of North America, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that the bomb threats appeared to originate from the “same serial caller.” Noting that not every building that received a call decided to evacuate, he said that the community centers were “very well-equipped to handle this.” The centers also increased their security measures after the threats, the JCCA noted.
The weekend spate of anti-Semitic threats was not limited to the United States. In Canada, a 70-year-old Toronto woman named Helen Chaiton said that her mezuza, the case containing Hebrew verse traditionally affixed to a doorpost, had been vandalized twice over the weekend. Chaiton and her neighbors also found that the vandals had left behind sticky notes with swastikas, the CBC reported.
Responding to an inquiry from NBC News about the threats, the White House tweeted back: “Hatred and hate-motivated violence of any kind have no place in a country founded on the promise of individual freedom. The President has made it abundantly clear that these actions are unacceptable.”
The tweet from Ivanka Trump, a convert to Judaism, appeared to be unsolicited and drew generally favorable reaction, but also questions about why her father, the president, seemed reluctant to speak out.