US President denounces racism, anti-Semitic threats

Mr Trump with Dr Ben Carson, his nominee for secretary of housing and urban development, at an exhibit on Dr Carson at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture on Tuesday.
More than 170 Jewish headstones were toppled in a weekend vandalism attack at the Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery in Missouri. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON • President Donald Trump has denounced racism and anti-Semitic threats after weeks of struggling to offer clear statements of solidarity and support for racial and religious minorities.

During a visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Mr Trump read carefully from prepared remarks decrying bigotry and specifically condemning a wave of recent threats against Jewish centres across the country.

"This tour was a meaningful reminder of why we have to fight bigotry, intolerance and hatred in all of its very ugly forms," he said.

"The anti-Semitic threats targeting our Jewish community and community centres 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."

Scanning the piece of paper with his finger as he read, Mr Trump praised the museum on the National Mall in Washington for its popularity, and said that the exhibitions had left their mark on his wife, Melania, who visited a week earlier.

For a president who prides himself on a freewheeling approach to leadership, Mr Trump's demeanour on Tuesday was notably sombre and disciplined.

More than 170 Jewish headstones were toppled in a weekend vandalism attack at the Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery in Missouri.
Mr Trump with Dr Ben Carson, his nominee for secretary of housing and urban development, at an exhibit on Dr Carson at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture on Tuesday. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

The appearance stood in stark contrast to the flashes of irritation that he showed at a news conference last week at the White House, when he dismissed reporters' questions about his outreach to African-American political leaders in Washington and his lack of response to a sharp increase in anti-Semitic incidents across the country.

The differing responses come as calls have been growing for Mr Trump to respond to a wave of bomb threats directed against Jewish community centres in multiple states on Monday - the fourth in a series of such threats this year, according to the Anti-Defamation League.

More than 170 Jewish gravestones were found toppled at a cemetery in suburban St Louis, in Missouri, over the weekend.

Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, director of the Religious Action Centre of Reform Judaism, called Mr Trump's statement "as welcome as it is overdue".

"President Trump has been inexcusably silent as this trend of anti-Semitism has continued and arguably accelerated," he said.

"The President of the United States must always be a voice against hate and for the values of religious freedom and inclusion."

On Tuesday, White House press secretary Sean Spicer dismissed the idea that Mr Trump has been slow to address anti-Semitism and racism. Mr Spicer said: "I think it's ironic that no matter how many times he talks about this, that it's never good enough."

BREAKING SILENCE

The anti-Semitic threats targeting our Jewish community at community centres 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.

US PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP

While presidents are often asked to set the tone for the country on sensitive issues of race and religion, Mr Trump has rarely seized the moment.

In the past week, he seemed to bat aside opportunities to address anti-Semitism. And when asked by a reporter whether he would meet with members of the Congressional Black Caucus, Mr Trump asked the reporter, who is African-American, whether she would arrange the meeting with the lawmakers.

After a campaign in which Mr Trump was criticised for appealing primarily to white Christians while slamming Mexican immigrants, Muslims and urban African-American communities, the President has said little to assuage concerns that he would govern in a similar fashion, his critics charge.

"I think it was a good symbolic gesture, but we need something of substance," civil rights leader Jesse Jackson said.

The executive director of the Anne Frank Centre for Mutual Respect, Mr Steven Goldstein, also blasted Mr Trump in a Facebook post. He called the President's acknowledgment of anti-Semitism a "Band-Aid on the cancer of anti-Semitism that has infected his own administration".

Meanwhile, the President's daughter, Ms Ivanka Trump, issued a statement on Twitter calling for "religious tolerance" after the latest wave of threats against Jewish community centres.

She converted to Judaism before marrying Mr Jared Kushner, an Orthodox Jew, in 2009. The tweet was her most vocal foray into a public discussion and was made over an issue that her allies say she feels personally.

WASHINGTON POST, NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 23, 2017, with the headline 'US President denounces racism, anti-Semitic threats'. Print Edition | Subscribe