Law Professor Refutes Claims From Ioffe, Others That Trump Caused Surge in Anti-Semitism

Mourners gather at the funeral for Tree of Life Congregation mass shooting victims
Mourners gather at the funeral for Tree of Life Congregation mass shooting victims / Getty Images

Law professor David Bernstein refuted claims from GQ magazine correspondent Julie Ioffe and others that President Donald Trump's rhetoric has incited anti-Semitic attacks. He wrote in a piece for Reason magazine Sunday night that while "Trump's inflammatory rhetoric doesn't exactly calm societal waters … there are some barriers to blaming Trump for anti-Semitic acts specifically."

Ioffe wrote in the Washington Post Sunday that Trump's rhetoric is anti-Semitic and has led to the anti-Semitic attacks such as the one in Pittsburgh on Saturday. The journalist, who on Monday claimed Trump has "radicalized so many more people than ISIS," argued in the Post that Trump should be held culpable for recent acts of violence despite never expressly encouraging them.

"This definition of culpability is too narrow, too legalistic—and ultimately too dishonest," she wrote. "The pipe-bomb makers and synagogue shooters and racists who mowed a woman down in Charlottesville were never even looking for Trump’s explicit blessing, because they knew the president had allowed bigots like them to go about their business."

Jaweed Kaleem wrote in a separate piece in the Los Angeles Times on Tuesday, "Anti-Semitism has always been present in American society, but in the last two years it has been especially visible." Only a few moments later, Kaleem also wrote, "The number of anti-Semitic incidents and crimes has been rising rapidly after years of decline, though the most recent annual tallies are still below the peaks of the last two decades."

Bernstein, a professor at George Mason School of Law, refuted the assertion anti-Semitism has risen as a result of Trump. He said an Anti-Defamation League Study being cited in the wake of the tragedy in Pittsburgh does not tell the whole story and has been misreported.

As Bernstein points out, the Trump administration includes many individuals who are committed opponents of anti-Semitism, including United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, who has fought for Israel at the U.N. against its strongest adversaries, and Assistant Secretary Ken Marcus of the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights, who has spent much of his law career fighting anti-Semitism.

Bernstein pointed out a number of problems with the ADL study, which says there was a 57 percent increase in anti-Semitic incidents in the United States in 2017. Critics of the president have used the study to tie his rhetoric to the nearly 2,000 incidents it chronicles.

In a CNN segment on Tuesday, the network said "anti-Semitism was on the decline in America for years, but then came the 2016 presidential election."

However, as the Los Angeles Times‘ own graphic based on the ADL data shows, the rise in anti-Semitic incidents began in 2014, long before Trump took office in January 2017 and before he had even announced his candidacy for president.

The study, Bernstein explains, cites almost 200 incidents of bomb threats to Jewish institutions, but by the time the study was released,  it was proven that at least one of the two perpetrators of these threats was not motivated by anti-Semitism. The ADL study also admits the rise in incidents may be due to better reporting, saying "more people are reporting incidents to ADL than ever before."

The ADL study found over 200 incidents of anti-Semitic behavior on college campuses, but Bernstein questioned whether Trump's rhetoric or another force might be behind that. "How many of those incidents emanating from traditional forms of anti-Semitism that one might associate with Trumpian populism, and how many from leftist/pro-Palestinian sources?" Bernstein asked.

Bernstein also wrote that the ADL study reports ambiguous incidents as anti-Semitic as long as they were initially reported as such. For example, grave desecration in cemeteries, including graves of Jewish individuals, at least in St. Louis, was found to be the work of a man who was "drunk" and "mad" but not necessarily anti-Semitic.

Another example Bernstein cites as ambiguous is one involving graffiti that features a swastika and the name "TRUMP." Is that graffiti supporting Nazism and Trump, or is it accusing Trump of being a Nazi? Bernstein thinks the latter is more likely.

While Ioffe says Trump is inherently to blame for these acts of hate, Bernstein argues he "would draw the line at blaming Trump for the incident, unless one wants to also explain why there were similar shootings before Trump, and also talk about all the other currents of anti-Semitism on both left and right that contribute to Jews' being by far the most targeted religious group for hate crimes for many years running.

Bernstein concluded his piece by writing, "Are Trump supporters disproportionately like to be anti-Semites? I've been asking those who insist that both those things are true to provide me with survey or other data backing these claims. Yes, data, not anecdotes, not feelings. I haven't had any responses."

Abraham Foxman, the former head of the ADL for nearly 30 years, told the Jerusalem Post that "he did not believe Trump is an anti-Semite. He said he believes Trump loves the Jewish people and cares about Israel," though Foxman says Trump's rhetoric is not always helpful.

"We need to not blame Trump but engage him," Foxman continued. "He has said the right things on anti-Semitism this week. But he needs to change the rhetoric he uses to explain his policies, which gives millions of bigots a rationale for their bigotry. I think this is doable, but we won’t accomplish it if we put the blame for Pittsburgh on him."