How Jews Are Responding to a Wave of Anti-Semitic Bomb Threats and Vandalism
The surge of attacks have brought only weak responses from Donald Trump. Some fear it will only get worse.
At around noon on January 9, Michael Feinstein was in a routine office meeting when the phone rang and someone told a receptionist a bomb was about to go off. The caller sounded like an older woman, though Feinstein, CEO of the Bender Jewish Community Center (JCC) of Greater Washington, DC, now suspects they were using voice-altering technology.
More than 300 people were quickly evacuated from Feinstein's Rockville, Maryland, facility, waiting around in nearby buildings as police swept the place for explosive devices. "We had to get people packed up and out as quickly as possible," he recalled.
Nothing was found, and about two hours later, the JCC was back in business, preschool classes, exercise routines, and all. Denizens did what they could to brush the scare off, but they weren't the only ones singled out for intimidation that day.
Since last month, at least 67 bomb threats have been phoned in to 52 Jewish centers across the country, according to the JCC Association of North America. The latest wave came on Monday, when 11 centers were targeted. That same day, police officers in a St. Louis suburb discovered that nearly 200 headstones at a Jewish cemetery had been ransacked in what appeared to be a targeted attack.
No suspects have been arrested for any of the bomb threats, nor that act of vandalism, though the FBI is investigating at least some of the incidents. And it's not exactly unprecedented for minority groups to experience violent intimidation in the United States; Muslim Americans have reported everything from verbal attacks to physical assault in recent weeks. Still, it's safe to say the volume of anti-Semitic incidents has rattled large swaths of America's Jewish community, especially given that we'reonly a few weeks into a new administration that has been criticized for its ties to white supremacists. Now the fear is that the climate for Jewish Americans, like that for other minorities, may get worse before it gets any better.
The bomb threats, according to some advocates like Feinstein, are "part of what we're seeing around the country, in terms of anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant types of language that we're seeing bubble up and really be expressed in ways we haven't seen in a long time."
This kind of environment is easier to deal with when you feel like the government is on your side. But twice during press conferences last week, reporters asked President Trump about the rise in anti-Semitism. And twice, he demurred, the first time by ranting about his Electoral College victory, the second time by berating the Jewish reporter who dared to inquire about it. A third reporter who asked a follow-up question was told by the president that some of the attacks were essentially a false-flag operation by opponents.
A White House statement issued following the latest round of JCC bomb threats on Monday did little to address the fears of Jewish Americans, condemning "hate-motivated violence" but failing to use the word "Jewish." For some critics, this recalled how the administration's Holocaust Remembrance Day statement did not mention Jews, the principal target of Nazi Germany's genocidal agenda.
Finally, on Tuesday, President Trump told MSNBC that "anti-Semitism is horrible, and it's going to stop and it has to stop." He also told reporters, "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."
The president's delayed response has perplexed many Americans, especially because he likes to tout the fact that he has a Jewish daughter and son-in-law, and has been politically aligned with the Israeli right. But at the same time, Trump has advanced "anti-Semitic ideas, rhetoric, and personnel, and [is] opening a white nationalist space that has been important to his electoral and political strategy," according to Tarso Ramos, executive director of the Political Research Associates, a group that researches right-wing movements in America.
It's not exactly a secret anymore that Steve Bannon, perhaps the most powerful man in the White House as Trump's chief strategist, has been accused of harboring anti-Semitic sentiments, both in his private life and as the mogul behind far-right media outlet Breitbart News. And his campaign rhetoric—including that notorious anti-Clinton tweet with a Star of David on a pile of cash—didn't exactly quell concerns about latent anti-Semitism.
Of course, some Jewish advocates will take what they can get and appreciate Trump coming out against anti-Semitism, even if it took a while. "I'm glad it's finally on his radar, and he actually made a comment about it and spoke out against anti-Semitism and the bomb threats and bigotry in general," said Feinstein, of the Greater Washington JCC.
But Stosh Cotler, CEO of the Jewish social justice group Bend the Arc, finds the statement inadequate—and she's not exactly alone. Cotler told me that Trump and his administration are complicit in spreading anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and anti-immigrant sentiment, adding that it was the job of activists to "connect [the] dots" between different forms of bigotry. Specifically, Cotler cites the president's attacks on Muslims and immigrants, as well as some of his more outrageous tweets and retweets during the campaign, the Star of David incident among them.
Anti-Semitism has always existed on the fringes of American political life. But since World War II, Jewish Americans whose ancestors came from Europe have achieved a degree of mainstream cultural acceptance. (Jews of color have continued to face more overt prejudice.) But Jewish activists and their allies say that the rise of Trump is amplifying anti-Jewish sentiment to an unusual extent—even if, unlike Muslims, Jews are not being explicitly targeted by the administration's policies.
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More than 1,000 "bias-related incidents" were reported just in the first month after the presidential election, according to one now well-known count by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). Immigrants were the most frequently targeted group, but the center cataloged 108 incidents involving swastikas and 33 that specifically targeted Jews. In a separate report, the SPLC said the number of hate groups had increased for the second year in a row.
"Over the last two years, we've seen a campaign that has blown horrific dog whistles to various ideologies across the radical right, and the effect of that has been to provide a feeling of legitimation to racists and extremists who normally, in any other environment, would be in the shadows," said Ryan Lenz, a senior writer for the SPLC's Intelligence Project, which publishes reports on hate groups in the US. "This has slowly percolated under the surface, and a singular political event has turned a key in their heads to make them think that [targeting minorities] is now permissible."
In response to the rise in anti-Semitism, the Anti-Defamation League—which reportedly experienced a bomb threat of its own on Wednesday—is calling on Attorney General Jeff Sessions to dedicate more resources to investigate the threats and crimes against Jews.
For her part, Cotler, of Bend the Arc, is planning on taking a more grassroots approach: Her group will continue to partner with and protest alongside other minorities under attack and was heartened, Cotler said, by the response of Muslim Americans like Linda Sarsour, an activist who raised more than $80,000 to restore the vandalized Jewish cemetery in Missouri.
"If we're concerned about having an America that aspires to democracy, inclusion, and human dignity, then we must rise up and see this president and his administration for who they are," Cotler said. "And we must hold accountable all of his enablers, all of the people who remain silent, who say that this is not their fight."
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