The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
In the aftermath of the horrific murders at a synagogue in Pittsburgh on Saturday, a good part of the media, social and otherwise, wishes to blame Donald Trump. Surely, Trump's inflammatory rhetoric doesn't exactly calm societal waters, and his remarks on Charlottesville, though often exaggerated by hostile sources, did not exactly come across as a rousing denunciation of white supremacy. Nevertheless, there are some barriers to blaming Trump for anti-Semitic acts specifically.
First, Pittsburgh was hardly the first time an anti-Semitic gunman murdered people in a Jewish insitution in the U.S. Between the Clinton and Bush II years, there was a shooting at a Jewish Community Center in L.A., a shooting at an El Al counter at LAX, a shooting at the Jewish Federation in Seattle, a shooting at a Jewish Community Center in Kansas City, and a shooting at the Holocaust Museum. Lower levels of vandalism and violence have been even more common. It's true that the death toll in Pittsburgh was especially high, but that's just happenstance; any of the other shoooters would have been happy to kill as many or more. [UPDATE: It's worth noting that many commentators, such as Franklin Foer in The Atlantic, simply ignore these past crimes, and act as if the Pittsburgh murders were some unique event in recent American Jewish history.]
Second, the Trump administration includes some very strong opponents of anti-Semitism. UN Ambassador Nikki Haley has fought anti-Semitism in the world body, one of the world's primary purveyors of it, with a vigor and effectiveness not seen since at least Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Trump appointee Ken Marcus, head of the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights, has devoted much of his career to fighting anti-Semitism (but was confirmed over the objections of Senate Democrats, some of whom thought he was too opposed to anti-Semitism too willing to identify certain types of Israel-bashing as a form of anti-Semitism).
(Some would add here that the Trump administration has been the most pro-Israel in history. While true, I'm not sure that this affects domestic American anti-Semitism one way or another, except perhaps to especially irritate anti-Semites.)
Those who wish to blame Trump have an ace in the hole, an Anti-Defamation League study that purports to show an almost 60 percent increase in anti-Semitic incidents between 2016 and 2017, which is implicitly blamed on Trump. This study has been cited on over and over in response to Pittsburgh.
There are several problems with relying on this study for Trump-bashing, however. The first is that the study includes 193 incidents of bomb threats to Jewish institutions as anti-Semitic incidents, even though by the time the ADL published the study, it had been conclusively shown that the two perpetrators of the bomb threats were not motivated by anti-Semitism. One can only guess why the ADL chose to inflate its statistics in this way, but none of the explanations speak well of it.
Second, the ADL report itself acknowledges that some of the rise in incidents may simply be due to better reporting ("more people are reporting incidents to ADL than ever before").
Third, "college campuses saw a total of 204 incidents in 2017, compared to 108 in 2016." 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? The ADL doesn't say.
Fourth, the ADL counts ambiguous incidents as anti-Semitic incidents, so long as they were reported as such. For example, the report states, "Jewish graves or cemeteries were desecrated seven times in 2017. The desecration of Jewish headstones is a classic anti-Semitic act employed for hundreds of years. The majority of the cemetery desecrations occurred in the first months of the year, at the same time as the bomb threats were called in to Jewish institutions, which contributed to a sense that the Jewish American community was under siege." The problem is that desecrations of cemeteries of all faiths is not uncommon, and are often the product of either bored teenagers or vagrants. In fact, at least some of the cemetery incidents counted by the ADL were ultimately determined by police not to be anti-Semitic in origin. The desecraton of a cemetery in St. Louis got a particularly large amount of attention. The police eventually caught the perpetrator, and determined that he was just "mad and drunk," not anti-Semitic. The ADL has not updated its study or press release to reflect such facts. Other questionable "anti-Semitic" incidents I've seen reported include graffitti with a swastika and "TRUMP." Is the "author" supporting "Trump the Nazi" or attacking Trump by accusing him of being a Nazi? My inclination would in most cases be to suspect the latter, but surely it's at least unclear.
None of which is to say that we can rule out a "surge," or at least a significant increase in anti-Semitic incidents during and perhaps because of the Trump administration. But the ADL study everyone is relying on to prove this doesn't show any such thing.
UPDATE: The most-read article in the Washington Post this morning is this piece by Dana Milbank. To my lack of suprise, he both ignores all the previous shooting incidents at American Jewish institutions and backs up a rather hysterical tone with, you guessed it, the ADL study.
Some of my friends tell me that adding reasonable context to the Pittsburgh shooting "excuses" Trump, and thus makes future incidents more likely. On the contrary, I think that reasoned criticism of Trump is useful—for example, noting that Trump's conspiratorial mindset inadvertently feeds anti-Semitism because the latter is a product of the same mindset, or that Trump should have unequivocally rejected support from white nationalists during his campaign, or that Trump is too narcissistic to apologize when he retweeted from anti-Semitic websites, and so on, though I 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.
Meanwhile, Trump's hardcore supporters are ever-alert for "fake news." Exaggeration, double-standards, failure to provide context, and blatant falsehoods about Trump simply feed their narrative that all news is fake news. And citing the obviously flawed ADL study not only ultimately is counter-productive to legitimate criticism of Trump, it also ultimately will highlight the extent to which the ADL itself has dipped its toe into the fake news business (it's not the only example). The ADL should be taken to task for its malfeasance in spreading dubious statistics, not relied upon, if one wants to retain the ADL's credibility in the long-run.
ONE MORE UPDATE: Putting aside the question of an increase in "incidents," has there been an increase in anti-Semitic attitudes among Americans that correlates with Trump? 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.