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Oppose Trump, but Don't Inflate the anti-Semitism Threat in America

Cliff Savren
Cliff Savren
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This is what explicitly anti-Semitic cemetery vandalism looks like, and it’s in Europe, not America. Graves desecrated by vandals with Nazi swastikas near the German city of Ebersburg, August 2005.
This is what explicitly anti-Semitic cemetery vandalism looks like, and it’s in Europe, not America. Graves desecrated by vandals with Nazi swastikas near the German city of Ebersburg, August 2005. Credit: REUTERS
Cliff Savren
Cliff Savren

Before moving to Israel, I was the director of the Cleveland regional office of the Anti-Defamation League, responsible for a territory that included not only Ohio but also Kentucky, West Virginia and half of Pennsylvania. With that close-up view of anti-Semitism in the United States, I have strong feelings about the threats against American Jewish institutions that have captured the headlines in recent months.

Jewish community centers nationwide have been the targets of telephoned bomb threats and there has been vandalism at Jewish cemeteries from St. Louis to Philadelphia. Two people have now been arrested for the hoax calls: a Missouri man, Juan Thompson, allegedly responsible for at least eight of the bomb threats, and – more surprising and unsettling -- a Jewish American-Israeli youth arrested in southern Israel, accused of a long series of elaborately executed telephoned bomb threats, including apparently multiple calls to American JCCs.

Whatever course the two suspects’ cases take, this is a good time to step back and consider the charge that anti-Semitism has been spiking wildly since Donald Trump's campaign and election. The Jewish communities targeted have been understandably alarmed, but I believe at times the reaction has verged on hysteria and lacks historical perspective. There are understandable reasons for this: the fear of a spillover effect from Trump's demonization of other minorities, as well as the almost breathless coverage by the media of the incidents targeting Jews.

Is anti-Semitism ‘spiking’ if there’s only a handful of perpetrators? The American-Israeli Jewish teenager accused of making dozens of anti-Semitic bomb threats leaves court, Rishon Lezion, March 2017Credit: JACK GUEZ/AFP

There's no doubt that media coverage has heightened the sense of alarm within the Jewish community. I’m not suggesting that these incidents shouldn’t be covered. They are certainly newsworthy, particularly when threats require the evacuation of buildings. But even before the two arrests, I wondered what the appropriate media coverage would be if this were to go on for some time. And if this was potentially the work of one or two people, I thought, it should not be construed, in and of itself, as an upsurge of anti-Semitism in the United States.

The suspects have not been convicted of anything at this point, and ironically, even after the Israeli suspect was apprehended, a JCC in Dallas received a telephoned bomb threat. That’s either an indication that the Israeli suspect is innocent, or more likely that there are others out there, perhaps copycats.

We may indeed be in the midst of an upsurge in anti-Semitic incidents, but in the absence of firm data (the ADL statistics for 2016 are not yet available), we should aim for a more cautious response. We cannot assume that there are anti-Semites behind every corner when this may be the work of a handful of people – even when that handful's 'handiwork' has a ripple effect on significant numbers of people.

During my time at ADL, I saw my share of anti-Semitic graffiti, leafletting and other acts of hatred against Jews, but for the most part, the incidents did not get the kind of publicity that they would today given the current media frenzy over the subject.

Anti-semitic graffiti, sadly, is not a new feature of American Jewish life. Temple de Hirsch Sinai vandalised with graffiti reading "The Holocaust is fake history.” Seattle, March 10, 2017. Credit: Genna Martin/AP

With regard to leafletting by white supremacist groups or other Jew-haters: this is constitutionally-protected speech; the law hasn't changed, and nor has the modus operandi of outlier neo-Nazis. They leafletted before; they'll leaflet again. The public should be aware that this kind of material is being circulated. But is it necessary to publicize the details of every single incident? Isn’t that in some way serving the public relations aims of the haters themselves?

The vandalism of Jewish cemeteries also begs some context. The scenes of widespread vandalism at Jewish cemeteries in St. Louis and Philadelphia were particularly shocking and the vast scale of the damage may be an indication of particular animus against Jews. Or maybe not. In the absence of anti-Semitic graffiti, it's far harder to explicitly label this a hate crime.

Cemeteries in the United States – Jewish and non-Jewish – are frequently unguarded, exposed targets for vandalism. In 2010, vandals struck the eastern Oregon town of La Grande, where, according to the Associated Press, more than 100 gravestones were damaged, including monuments “broken off at their bases and tipped over, and some of the older marble ones smashed to pieces.” And “one marble cross was stolen and another knocked over.” 

In Columbus, Ohio, at a historic cemetery where the graves include the grandfather of President George H.W. Bush, according to the AP, over the past two years more than 600 grave sites have been damaged. That is also a non-Jewish cemetery.

A man goes to wipe away an anti-Semitic message on a New York subway car, February 4, 2017.Credit: Gregory Locke/Facebook

Cemetery vandalism is not necessarily an anti-religious or anti-ethnic hate crime. In fact, in a highly-publicized case about a month ago of the discovery of gravestones that toppled at the Washington Jewish cemetery in Brooklyn, local authorities later said the tombstones had fallen over due to neglect, weather and soil erosion and had not been vandalized at all. 

Anti-Semitism does exist in the United States and should be a legitimate concern to the American Jewish community and to Americans of all backgrounds. The ADL and other groups play an important role in addressing the threat that anti-Semites pose.

Ongoing anti-Semitic graffiti and leafletting and even vandalism that has attracted recent media coverage have unfortunately, however, long been a part of Jewish life in America and - unfortunately – will continue to be. They are disturbing and to the extent that they pose a threat, they must be addressed.

But these incidents are not a particularly good measure of the situation in general of Jews in the United States. American Jewry is exceptionally well-integrated into the mainstream of life in the country and it's hard to see that recent events are an indication of any dramatic change for the worse.

Cliff Savren is a member of the Haaretz English editorial staff.