Updated: 2:41 p.m. EST
Donald Trump on Tuesday finally addressed the growing wave of anti-Semitic attacks in the U.S., calling them “a very sad reminder of the work that still must be done to root out hate and prejudice and evil.”
The president’s comments come just one day after another 11 Jewish community centers received bomb threats and a historic Jewish cemetery in St. Louis was desecrated, with as many as 170 headstones knocked over.
For weeks, Jewish leaders have voiced concern over a rising tide of anti-Semitism in the U.S., which they described as “alive and kicking. ”
The bomb threats this week, which all turned out to be hoaxes, follow three separate waves of similar threats in the month of January, bringing the total to 69 threats targeting 54 centers in 27 states since the beginning of the year, according to the Jewish Community Center Association. The JCCA told VICE News that in the same period in 2016 there was a single isolated incident (also a hoax), and in 2015 there were no reported incidents.
The FBI said it was “investigating possible civil rights violations in connection with threats to Jewish Community Centers across the country.”
The latest incidents have prompted leading figures both within and outside the Jewish community to call on Trump to address the issue of anti-Semitism. Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, said: “We look to our political leaders at all levels to speak out against such threats directed against Jewish institutions, to make it clear that such actions are unacceptable.”
The president of the World Jewish Congress, Ronald Lauder, called for a “strong and decisive reaction” by politicians because “anti-Semitism is alive and kicking” in the U.S. today. “This is not merely a problem for the Jewish community; it’s a problem for America as a whole,” Lauder said.
Hillary Clinton joined the voices calling for Trump to speak out against the incidents, which she described as “so troubling.” And on Monday Trump’s daughter Ivanka attempted to address the issue in a tweet using the hashtag #JCC, but failed to specifically mention anti-Semitism. Ivanka converted to Judaism in 2009 when she married Jared Kushner, now a senior adviser to the president.
On Tuesday morning, before his speech at the National African American History Museum, Trump addressed the issue: “Anti-Semitism is horrible, and it’s going to stop and it has to stop.” He added that he denounced anti-Semitism and does so at every opportunity.
Not everyone was pleased with Trump’s response, however. Steve Goldstein, the executive director of the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect, described Trump’s statements on Tuesday as “a pathetic asterisk of condescension after weeks in which he and his staff have committed grotesque acts and omissions reflecting anti-Semitism.”
In recent weeks, Trump has stumbled when offered the opportunity to speak out against anti-Semitism, responding angrily when asked to address the subject and even suggesting that the issue was a fabrication being pushed by his political opponents.
During a joint press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week, when asked by an Israeli journalist if his administration “is playing with xenophobia and maybe racist tones,” a visibly annoyed Trump deflected, offering a bizarre response about the size of his electoral victory.
The next day, Trump was again asked to address the rise in anti-Semitism within the U.S. since his inauguration, with Jewish journalist Jake Turx directly asking him what the White House plans to do about the wave of bomb threats made to Jewish centers.
Again Trump avoided addressing the issue. Cutting the reporter off before he could finish his question, an annoyed Trump responded, “I am the least anti-Semitic person that you’ve ever seen in your entire life.” He added: “I hate the charge. I find it repulsive.”
Over the weekend, Vice President Mike Pence visited the former Nazi concentration camp in Dachau, Germany. Pence said: “We can never forget atrocities against Jews and others in the Holocaust.”