President Trump said on Tuesday that the rise of anti-Semitism in the United States since his inauguration was “horrible” and “painful,” reacting publicly for the first time to mounting threats targeting Jewish people and institutions after he drew criticism for being slow to condemn them.
During a visit to the National Museum of African-American History and Culture, Mr. Trump said he was reminded of the need to combat hatred “in all of its very ugly forms.” He spoke one day after 11 bomb threats were phoned in to Jewish community centers around the country and a Jewish cemetery in University City, Mo., was vandalized.
“The anti-Semitic threats targeting our Jewish community and community centers 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,” Mr. Trump said.
The statement came after weeks of private complaints from leaders of major Jewish organizations to members of Mr. Trump’s inner circle, including his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, about the president’s seeming unwillingness to speak out forcefully against anti-Semitic acts. His failure to do so stoked concern among some Jewish leaders that Mr. Trump, whose presidential campaign drew the support of racist and anti-Semitic groups including the Ku Klux Klan, was at best willing to stay silent about such actions and at worst quietly condoning them.
Mr. Trump’s comment on Tuesday was a rare concession to the demands of outside forces by a president who prides himself on standing his ground. Despite the questions that arose during his campaign, Mr. Trump has never proactively delivered a statement condemning anti-Semitism.
“The president’s sudden acknowledgment of anti-Semitism is a Band-Aid on the cancer of anti-Semitism that has infected his own administration,” said Steven Goldstein, the executive director of the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect. “When President Trump responds to anti-Semitism proactively and in real time, and without pleas and pressure, that’s when we’ll be able to say this president has turned a corner.”
He added, “This is not that moment.”
The White House was criticized by Jewish groups last month when it issued a statement honoring International Holocaust Remembrance Day that did not mention the six million Jews who perished, instead broadly mentioning “the depravity and horror inflicted on innocent people by Nazi terror” and “those who died.” Pressed on the matter, Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, defended the statement as “inclusive” of all of those targeted during the Holocaust, including Gypsies, priests and gay people, and he called the criticism “pathetic.”
Concern mounted among Jewish leaders after a news conference last week at which Mr. Trump reacted angrily to a question about his response to the increasing number of anti-Semitic acts around the nation. The president called the query insulting and demanded that the questioner, who works for a Jewish publication, sit down. The Anti-Defamation League called the president’s reaction “mind-boggling.”
Mr. Trump, who was criticized during his campaign for being slow or halfhearted in condemning hate speech, has been particularly stung by accusations that he is anti-Semitic or that he has nurtured the rise of such sentiments. Such accusations have been leveled against both the president and his chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, a former chairman of Breitbart News, a website that has cultivated a white nationalist following.[...]
Still, some leaders said they wished Mr. Trump had made a personal call for his administration to find and prosecute perpetrators of the recent anti-Jewish threats. The Simon Wiesenthal Center urged Mr. Trump to present a plan for combating anti-Semitism and called on Attorney General Jeff Sessions to form a task force on the matter.
Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks anti-Semitic activities, said the wave of threats was “really worrying,” especially because of the “tendency on the part of this administration to completely overlook terrorism and political violence from the domestic radical right.”
Mr. Potok also welcomed Mr. Trump’s comments, but he criticized them as tardy.
“It’s very nice that President Trump opposes these crimes,” Mr. Potok said. “It might have been helpful if he had done so months or even years earlier.”
Mr. Spicer complained on Tuesday that Mr. Trump was being treated unfairly. “It’s ironic that, no matter how many times he talks about this, that it’s never good enough,” he said at a briefing with reporters. He declined to respond to a shouted question about whether Mr. Trump would ask the Justice Department to prosecute those responsible for the anti-Semitic acts.
Mr. Trump has mentioned his Jewish grandchildren and daughter when questioned about his commitment to combating anti-Semitism.
Yet defenses of Judaism that do not involve fealty to Israel have proved tougher for a man raised in New York, a city heavily populated with Jews.
In an interview with Jake Tapper of CNN at the end of February 2016, soon after Mr. Trump won the South Carolina primary, Mr. Trump demurred when pressed repeatedly about the support offered to him by David Duke, a former Ku Klux Klan leader. “Honestly, I don’t know David Duke,” Mr. Trump said at the time.
Asked by reporters days later why he would not simply disavow Mr. Duke, Mr. Trump shrugged and said, “I disavow, O.K.?”