Since anti-Semitism is likely to come up in tonight’s presidential debate, and since both President Biden and Donald Trump have a habit of wandering with their words, we should set expectations appropriately: The risk is not that they say nothing but that they say everything, thus diluting points they really need to emphasize.

Put simply, the two men have a habit of watering down their condemnations of bad behavior with caveats and contradictions.

“Americans have a right to peaceful protest. But blocking access to a house of worship—and engaging in violence—is never acceptable,” Biden said about the recent pro-Palestinian mob attacking Jews in Los Angeles.

That first sentence is a sign of the president’s fear of angering his base, which has made simple condemnation of anti-Semitism politically uncomfortable for his party. That the president needs to signal his reassurance to the base first, then condemn anti-Jewish violence second, dissolves any force the statement might have had. The same is true of the ubiquitous suffix “and Islamophobia” the administration adds to condemnations of anti-Semitism.

A good rule of thumb: Do not begin condemnations of bad behavior with praise for the perpetrators. Also: do not end such condemnations with denunciations of that which did not happen (i.e. the phantom cases of Islamophobia among counterprotesters).

Luckily for Biden, he knows how to do this correctly. Left-wing anti-Israel thugs may be recreating the Charlottesville riot weekly, but Biden continues to talk about that 2017 white nationalist rally specifically, and he makes his point clearly every time. Here is how he described it in August 2021, on the hate riot’s fourth anniversary: “The forces of hate and violence were summoned from the shadows as Neo-Nazis, Klansmen, and white supremacists descended on a historic American city. With torches in their hands and veins bulging from their necks, they spewed the same antisemitic bile that was heard in Germany in the 1930s and with the same beatings and bigotry we saw in Jim Crow America for nearly a century.”

He did not say: “The right to free speech and peaceful protest is sacred, but violence and intimidation are not.” He painted a midnight-dark portrait of the marchers who were no different from any number of protest mobs ransacking Jewish neighborhoods and assaulting Jews in the street. He is capable of the moral clarity he has lacked these past eight months.

We can fully expect Biden to condemn anti-Jewish hate, but that’s too low a bar. He has the power and authority to do something about it. On college campuses and at synagogue protests, anti-Zionist extremists in his party have quite clearly violated the civil rights of Jews all over the country. Enforcement under Biden is virtually nonexistent, and he should have to explain why that is.

Meanwhile, The Donald isn’t exactly famous for his nuance. Trump surely sees this issue as being to his advantage, which is true—on paper. The chaos and disorder wrought by the pro-Hamas hordes is usually an albatross on the incumbent. But it is on anti-Semitism specifically that Trump not only trips himself up but often freely abdicates any moral authority. I have no doubt that Trump will harshly condemn the people involved in these protest mobs, but that, too, is a low bar.

For example, what’s Trump’s go-to argument for why Jewish voters should ditch the Democrats? As he said in March but has repeated in several forms: “Any Jewish person that votes for Democrats hates their religion. They hate everything about Israel and they should be ashamed of themselves because Israel will be destroyed.”

Trump is reminded every time he says something like this of how wildly inappropriate it is to pronounce judgment on someone’s Jewishness using his partisan attachments as proxy. It’s certainly no better than the way Trump’s political opposites use Judaism as a stand-in for liberal sacred cows like abortion or gun control. But the fact that he keeps doing it suggests he may do so on a national debate stage with the country watching closely.

Equally obnoxious are his claims to American Jews’ allegiance because of his past policies. Ought the Jewish community express appreciation when good policies are enacted? Sure. Does that put us in the debt of an elected politician? Not in a democracy, thank you.

Biden’s record on combating anti-Semitism is atrocious. But if he’s smart, he’ll be ready to hit Trump for the latter’s equivocation on right-wing hate, including Charlottesville.

Expectations overall for both of these men have been set low because they are ramblers who are easily distracted and prideful to a fault. But American Jews will be looking for clarity on anti-Semitism, and cannot afford to grade on a curve.

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