Jewish communities besieged by vandals
Hatred arises anew in form of defaced graves, bomb threats
Desecration of gravesites at cemeteries in Philadelphia and outside St. Louis. Swastikas etched on cars in Miami Beach. Bomb threats forcing evacuation of Jewish community centers.
Another wave of intimidation targeting Jewish communities swept across the nation Monday, and community leaders and law enforcement struggled to stop it.
Jewish sites reported at least 16 bomb threats, said Mark Potok, senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center. The latest series of attacks was the fifth this year. “I have been here more than 20 years, and I’ve never seen any- thing like it,” Potok said. “There are provocateurs out there who say that if you don’t like somebody, go after them.”
White House spokesman Sean Spicer said Monday that President Trump was “deeply disappointed and concerned” by the cemetery vandalism and other acts.
“The president continues to condemn these and any other forms of anti-Semitic and hateful acts in the strongest terms,” Spicer said.
Potok and Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said Trump has failed to consistently speak out against anti-Semitic rhetoric.
“I think, in large part, the election of Donald Trump let the ge-
nie of anti-Semitism out of the bottle,” Potok said. “And it’s not going to go back in easily.”
Greenblatt said Monday’s threats raised the total this year to about 90. No bombs have been found.
In Wilmington, Del., Democratic Sen. Tom Carper was meeting with Jewish community leaders at the Siegel Jewish Community Center to discuss the climate of threats and violence when someone called in a bomb threat. The center was evacuated, police investigated, and programs resumed a short time later.
“It is heartbreaking for such a flash of fear to overtake a place of strong community and joy that brings together people of all ages under one roof — from the babies in the day care center to the senior citizens taking part in exercise classes,” Carper said. “These acts must end.”
Evacuating small children and the elderly from the building, sometimes in bad weather, is no minor event.
The constant threat keeps communities on edge.
“The bottom line is that this is not normal,” Greenblatt said. “This is not acceptable. We have people wondering about sending their kids to community center, to their day school.”
In Missouri, more than 150 headstones were vandalized Feb. 20 at the Chesed Shel Emeth Society Cemetery. Two days later, hundreds of volunteers showed up to help repair the damage, including Vice President Pence, who addressed the crowd, condemning the “vile act of vandalism.”
In Philadelphia, residents rallied behind the Jewish community after vandals toppled scores of headstones over the weekend.
“Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens did a wonderful job of pulling together an interfaith effort,” Greenblatt said. “But you really have to stretch to find a silver lining when a community is under siege.”
The FBI launched an investigation into the community center threats last month. The bureau publicly announced that agents and prosecutors assigned to the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division weighed possible charges of civil rights violations.
Local law enforcement authorities oversee separate investigations.
Bomb threat cases can be extremely challenging because of the broad access to technology, said Ron Hosko, a former chief of the FBI’s criminal division.
“There are so many ways to maintain your anonymity — whether it is special software or throwaway phones — they (suspects) can play this out for some time,” Hosko said.
In New York state, at least four centers became targets Monday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said. “Today, we witnessed additional bomb threats directed at JCCs,” Cuomo tweeted. “We will do everything to catch those responsible for this #antiSemitic act.” Among other threats:
A bomb threat at North Carolina’s Asheville Jewish Community Center forced a brief evacuation while Asheville police checked the interior and exterior of the facility, police spokeswoman Christina Hallingse said. Nothing suspicious was found, so a bomb squad was not called in.
“Investigation into the incident is ongoing,” she said.
Operations at the Jewish Community Center of Indianapolis ground to a halt for about an hour while bomb-sniffing dogs and investigators swept the property before an all-clear was issued.
Last week, Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla., wrote a letter urging the secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. attorney general and the FBI director to take “swift action” to address the significant number of bomb threats tele- phoned in to Jewish community centers across the nation. The letter was co-signed by 150 members of Congress.
Authorities must “do everything within their power to punish those responsible for the threats that have already taken place, to prevent future threats from occurring and to ensure these threats are never converted into action,” Murphy said.
David Posner, director of strategic performance at JCC Association of North America, said his membership was grateful to law enforcement for ensuring the centers are safe. He called on the White House, Congress and federal authorities to step up their efforts.
“Actions speak louder than words,” he said, calling for swift action to identify and capture those “who are trying to instill anxiety and fear in our communities.”
“This is not acceptable. We have people wondering about sending their kids to community center, to their day school.” Jonathan Greenblatt, Anti-Defamation League CEO
Rabbi Joshua Bolton of the University of Pennsylvania surveys damaged headstones at Mount Carmel Cemetery on Monday in Philadelphia. More than 100 headstones were vandalized at the Jewish cemetery.JACQUELINE LARMA, AP
Volunteers clean up Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery in Missouri. The cemetery was one of the latest targets of vandalism.