Anti-Semitic incidents, from vandalism to cyberbullying, have been on the rise since Donald Trump was elected president.
But it was a conference of white nationalists on Nov. 19 in Washington that caught the attention of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Held at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center on the other side of the National Mall from the museum, the conference was led by a man who has become the face of alt-right, Richard Spencer of the National Policy Institute. In a YouTube video, Spencer can be seen leading a chant of “Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory” — echoing Nazi supporters of Adolf Hitler.
Two days later, the museum issued a statement condemning the conference.
“The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is deeply alarmed at the hateful rhetoric at a conference of white nationalists held at the Ronald Reagan Building just blocks from the Museum,” it stated.
“The Holocaust did not begin with killing; it began with words,” the remarks continued. “The Museum calls on all American citizens, our religious and civic leaders, and the leadership of all branches of the government to confront racist thinking and divisive hateful speech.”
The museum’s statement did not name any politician. But it comes on the heels of a campaign that included rhetoric against Jews and other ethnic and religious groups, as well as people with disabilities and women. The Southern Poverty Law Center estimated that there have been 867 “hate incidents” since Nov. 8, and 100 of them have been anti-Semitic. In the Washington area, there have been a number of swastika drawings and similar vandalism that have occurred at schools, synagogues and other public spaces and private property both before and after the election. Since then there have been a series of inclusion-themed events such as interfaith gatherings and school walkouts aimed at countering the hateful acts.
It is not unusual for the museum to issue a press release condemning violence or oppression, but most are not directed at hate in the United States.
Museum officials declined to comment further, but Norman Eisen, a former U.S. diplomat who sits on the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, said the museum has a responsibility to stand up for the oppressed at all times.
“The museum has an important, nonpartisan role to play in addressing contemporary issues relating to its mission,” he said. “It has done so judiciously and powerfully.”
Anna Sommer Schneider, a professor of Holocaust studies at Georgetown University, said it is the museum’s role to “alert the public and wave the red flag that there is something going on in our country and we should do something about it.
“We have to remember that the museum and the presidential council first appointed by President [Jimmy] Carter said it clearly that the role of the museum is not only to educate about past events but also prevent any form of anti-Semitism, hatred and anti-Semitism in the future,” she said.
Sommer Schneider said she does not think people voted for Trump based on bigotry, but rather the desire for a better life. Yet, she said, this is similar to the decision the Germans took to support the Nazis in the 1930s.
But why did the museum not say something earlier during the anti-Semitic incidents that happened before the alt-right conference? Sommer Schneider said that condemning the conference helps illuminate the trend for the public, which may otherwise perceive each event as an isolated incident.
“Because we sometimes blame hooligans for incidents like this; in this particular case we can name those people who facilitate this horrible, biased language and I think this is why in this particular case the Holocaust museum issued this statement,” she said. “I think this is the right decision for the museum to issue the statement that they did to remind people that we cannot ignore events and behaviors since the recent election.”