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The Danger of American Jews Over-reacting to anti-Semitic Threats

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Northeast Philadelphia Police Detectives Nick McReynolds, left, and Thomas Walsh look over headstones that were vandalized at Mount Carmel Cemetery in Philadelphia on Sunday, Feb. 26, 2017.
Northeast Philadelphia Police Detectives Nick McReynolds, left, and Thomas Walsh look over headstones that were vandalized at Mount Carmel Cemetery in Philadelphia on Sunday, Feb. 26, 2017.Credit: Michael Bryant/AP

Consider, if you will, two numbers: 144 and 0. 

The first is the number of bomb threats called in to Jewish institutions across the U.S. in recent months. The second is the number of bombs found on those premises.

Threats aimed at Jewish sites rightly concern Jews, and, for that matter, all civilized people.  Anti-Semitism, in case anyone ever had any doubts, is alive and, unfortunately, real. But that sad fact doesn’t preclude the need to keep things in perspective. To remind ourselves, that is, that, as disconcerting as bomb threats are, all that is needed to effectively make one anonymously is an unlocked cellphone and a prepaid SIM card. Using the internet to make an untraceable call is even easier. (Toppling gravestones, for its part, while it takes a bit more effort, is not terribly difficult for a hardy pair of teens with more muscle than mind.)

Picture a shlub without much of a life to speak of, nursing a beer in front of his television and happily regarding the effects of his inspired crank call to a JCC or synagogue. He sees the place being evacuated, and is delighted to watch all the talking heads with furrowed brows decrying the “continuing wave of violence.” Maybe the fellow actually hates Jews, maybe he just heard that they make good, easy targets. Maybe he is even capable of true violence. But then again, maybe not. 

What’s more, the Law of Unintended Consequences remains entirely in effect. All the public condemnations of the bomb threats, gatherings to protest them, official statements and proclamations and demands that something be done to prevent them (as if anything really could), all the partisan blaming of the current American administration for supposedly creating a “hateful atmosphere” may actually only serve to provoke more of the same. After all, our anti-Semitic Joe Sixpack is mainly interested in attention. And he has discovered how easy it is to garner. His fellow shlubs across the land, moreover, have seen and greatly admired his work.

Here’s a radical idea for the media to consider: Ignore the calls.

What would happen if news organizations would deign to simply not report future bomb threats?  If they downgraded the importance of such ugliness from “acts of violence” to “stupid human tricks”? Is it hard to imagine that doing so might discourage future crank calls and copycats?

I think it would. Frankly, I’m more concerned about anti-Semitism in the guise of “anti-Zionism” on numerous campuses than our shlubs with cellphones. The latter cause nothing but fear and disgust; the former actually infects malleable minds with misinformation and animus.

To be sure, naked Jew-hatred exists out there too, even in the U.S. There are, as there have always been, bands of neo-Nazis and other assorted misfits preparing to wage war against their imagined Jewish menace. 

But, unlike in some European countries, there is very little actual violence against Jews qua Jews in America today. In 2015, the ADL cited seven cases of altercations involving Jews, several with stones or eggs having been thrown, or bb-pellets shot, at them – nationwide, over the course of the year. But the sort of serious anti-Jewish knifings, shootings and arsons that have occurred elsewhere are simply not part of the American scene. And as far as mainstream America is concerned, a recent survey by the Pew Research Center revealed that Jews are the most warmly regarded religious group in the country.

Brighton Police Chief Mark Henderson talks to reporters after a press briefing after a bomb threat was reported at the Louis S. Wolk Jewish Community Center in Brighton, N.Y on Tuesday, March 7, 2017.Credit: TINA MACINTYRE-YEE/AP

More emblematic of America than crank callers or stone-throwers was the action of non-Jewish riders of the No. 1 train in New York City last month who, encountering anti-Semitic graffiti on a subway map, set themselves to the task of erasing it. Or the reaction of a Montana town to a planned anti-Jewish march nearby: a resolution “denouncing hate, bigotry, and intolerance, which today masquerade under euphemisms such as ‘white nationalism’ and the ‘alt-right.’” And the march, incidentally but significantly, never took place.

I’m no Pollyanna when it comes to actual threats against Jews. I’m not in the “It can’t happen here” camp. Of course “it” can. Jewish fortunes have turned on dimes throughout history. It just isn’t happening now. 

And if we want to be rid of the nuisance of “casual” anti-Semitism like crank calls, graffiti, and vandalism, the best path to that goal might just be for the media to ignore such things and for the rest of us to focus instead on people and institutions that are doing actual harm to Israel and, thereby, to Jews.

Rabbi Avi Shafran is a columnist for the American edition of Hamodia and blogs at www.rabbiavishafran.com. Follow him on Twitter: @RabbiAviShafran 

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