President Donald Trump addressed a small group of Jewish leaders Friday morning, condemning people who spread anti-Semitism and other kinds of hate.
The call came one day after Trump doubled down on remarks he made condemning both sides during racially charged clashes between white supremacists and counterprotesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, last month. During the demonstrations, white nationalists held torches and chanted anti-Semitic and Nazi slogans, including “Jews will not replace us.”
Last month, the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist denominations – representing more than 4,000 synagogues, the large majority of American Jewish congregations – announced after Trump’s remarks equating the Charlottesville neo-Nazi protesters with antifascists that they would not participate in the annual call.
That left mostly Orthodox rabbis calling in. On Friday, Trump spoke to the leaders for less than 10 minutes, with no question-and-answer period, according to three leaders who participated in the call.
“We forcefully condemn those who seek to incite anti-Semitism, or to spread any form of slander and hate – and I will ensure we protect Jewish communities, and all communities, that face threats to their safety,” Trump said, according to a White House transcript released late Friday.
The participants said that White House officials asked them not to speak to the media about the call. But they described its contents: Trump expressed his admiration for the Jewish community’s contributions to American society.
He expressed his “love” for Israel because of the “vital security partnership” between the two nations and its “shared values” with the United States. “The Jewish State is a symbol of resilience in the face of oppression – it has persevered in the face of hostility, championed democracy in the face of violence, and succeeded in the face of very, very tall odds,” he said.
Trump also said his administration is fighting against anti-Israel bias at the United Nations. He called a recent report on Israel by the UN “unfair and biased,” and “a horrible thing that they did” and said it should instead focus on Iran, Hezbollah and the Islamic State.
As he wished the leaders a good Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year that falls next week, he also said that he hopes his son-in-law Jared Kushner and the ambassador to Israel he appointed, David Friedman, will make progress on a peace agreement with Palestinian leaders by the end of the next Jewish year.
Trump said there were several Holocaust survivors on the call. “By telling your stories, you help us to confront evil in our world and we are forever grateful,” he told them.
The Jewish community, which is politically and religiously diverse, has a complicated relationship with Trump. Many in the Orthodox community have supported him because they preferred his policies on Israel to Hillary Clinton’s. During Trump’s first state visit abroad, he made a point to become the first sitting president to visit the Western Wall, one of Judaism’s holiest sites in Jerusalem.
But Trump has also been accused of not doing enough to fight hate crimes, and many of his supporters have been associated with anti-Semitic speech. A recent survey found that 77 percent of Jews have an unfavorable opinion of the president, with the rate of disapproval even higher among Reform Jews, the largest denomination in America.
Only 11 percent of Reform Jews have a favorable opinion of Trump, compared with 71 percent of Orthodox Jews.
Kushner, who is Jewish and serves as a senior adviser to Trump, introduced him on the call. “Anyone that knows the President understands that he takes great pride in having a Jewish daughter and Jewish grandchildren,” Kushner told the leaders.
Trump did not directly address the anti-Semitic chants in Charlottesville, although some interpreted his condemnation of anti-Semitism and all forms of bigotry as an indirect reference to the events last month.
Rabbi Marvin Hier, the founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center who participated in Trump’s inauguration, said he, too, was outraged that Trump compared the two sides in Charlottesville, but that he did not think skipping the call was a useful response. He dialed in Friday.
“I criticize the president for that,” he said. “So you criticize. And he is the president of the United States. There are important issues we face – political, religious issues; issues of ethical and moral concern. You don’t say, ‘I’m retiring to my house and locking the doors, and I’ll see you in a few years.’ ”
Participants said that Trump’s comments were similar to remarks Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush made on previous High Holy Day calls, but that Obama generally took at least a few questions. Trump spoke to far fewer rabbis; Obama’s calls reached hundreds of participants.
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Sarah Pulliam Bailey, Julie Zauzmer