House anti-Semitism task force urges Trump to set up interagency mechanism
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House anti-Semitism task force urges Trump to set up interagency mechanism

Chris Smith Eliot Engel

Reps. Chris Smith, left, and Eliot Engel confer in the Capitol after releasing a letter to President Donald Trump demanding more action to combat anti-Semitism, March 2, 2017 (Ron Kampeas)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — A bipartisan House task force on anti-Semitism is urging President Donald Trump to set up an interagency mechanism to tackle the issue in the wake of waves of bomb threats against Jewish institutions and several cemetery vandalism attacks.

“Similar to the interagency task force you proposed for dismantling criminal cartels, this instrument, led by the Attorney General, could bring together the Departments of Justice – including the FBI – Homeland Security, Education, and State, and the Director of National Intelligence, to help synchronize governmental responses to anti-Semitic threats,” said the letter sent Thursday by the task force, which brings together some of the most senior members of both parties in the U.S. House of Representatives.

“Particularly with recent public reports that these threats may be originating overseas, we must engage all agencies responsible for our nation’s security from threats emanating at home and abroad,” it said. “The range of participating agencies can also improve classification of and responses to attacks, and ensure Jewish communities are fully briefed and prepared to respond appropriately to threats and attacks.”

Among the eight members of the task force are Reps. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee; Ted Deutch, D-Fla., the top Democrat on its Middle East subcommittee; Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., the chairwoman of the Middle East subcommittee; Chris Smith, R-N.J., the chairman of its human rights subcommittee; Kay Granger, R-Texas, the chairwoman of the foreign operations subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee, and Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., the top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee.

A number of the task force members released the letter in a news conference in the Capitol on Thursday morning.

Deutch, who initiated the letter, said he appreciated Trump’s remarks in his speech Tuesday to a joint meeting of Congress addressing the recent spike in anti-Semitic threats, but said a coordinated effort would be better positioned to form a comprehensive response to the bomb threats, the acts of vandalism, any acts of violence and the online harassment, as well as whether there is an international element to the threat..

“There are so many images of preschool kids walking out of schools with their teachers, holding their hands,” he said, referring to evacuations of Jewish community centers that have massively disrupted Jewish communal life in recent weeks.

Deutch said the task force had asked for a briefing on the issue, but had yet to hear back from the administration.

“We need to do more to combat it,” Smith said. “It’s a very quick movement from threats and bomb threats to actual acts.”

Deutch added: “The unease, the fear in the Jewish community is so real and so palpable.”

Engel said he felt for the first time in his life unease as a Jew living in New York.

“I’ve never seen it this great,” he said.

Lowey, whose district neighbors Engel’s, said it was “simply unacceptable” for American Jews to live in fear.

Task force members also called on the Trump administration to rebuff reports that it was planning to end the State Department office of a special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism overseas.

Smith, who authored the 2004 amendment creating the office, said the Trump administration should understand that its existence was required according to statute. He cautioned the president not to dilute the position by combining it with another.

“This isn’t a matter of ‘the president may do this,’ this is a statute created by law,’ the New Jersey lawmaker said. “My concern is that it should not be double hatted,” or made into a part-time post for an official handling another area.