Jewish com­mu­ni­ties be­sieged by van­dals

Ha­tred arises anew in form of de­faced graves, bomb threats

USA TODAY US Edition - - FRONT PAGE - John Ba­con @jm­ba­con USA TO­DAY

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

MICHAEL THOMAS, GETTY IMAGES

Vol­un­teers clean up Ch­esed Shel Emeth Ceme­tery in Mis­souri. The ceme­tery was one of the lat­est tar­gets of van­dal­ism.

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