Everything You Need to Know About the Wave of Threats Terrorizing U.S. Jews

The bomb threats and cemetery desecrations are no longer thought to have one source, but law enforcement has made little visible progress toward catching the culprits as worry and fear mounts.

A guard outside the David Posnack Jewish Community Center and school after people were evacuated because of a bomb threat, Monday, Feb. 27, 2017, in Davie, Florida.
Wilfredo Lee, AP

Over the past 45 days there have been an estimated 190 incidents targeting Jews and Jewish institutions throughout the United States, including verbal and written threats and vandalism. The highest-profile manifestation: over 90 bomb threats called in to 73 Jewish institutions in 30 states and one Canadian province in five separate waves.

190 anti-Semitic incidents across the U.S. in 6 weeks Haaretz.com

Paul Goldenberg, a former law enforcement official who directs the Secure Community Network, a security group affiliated with the organized U.S. Jewish community, told Haaretz that the situation was “unprecedented.”

■ In the first wave on January 9, threats were made against 16 Jewish institutions nearly all Jewish community centers in Florida, Tennessee, Maryland, South Carolina, North Carolina, Delaware, Georgia, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Across the ocean in London, bomb threats have been called in to three Jewish schools,

■ In the second wave on January 18, 26 Jewish community centers were threatened in Florida, Alabama, Tennessee, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Connecticut, California, Kansas, New York, Michigan, Ohio, Maryland, Minnesota, Delaware, Maine, Missouri and Texas.

■ In the third wave on January 31, it was 17 Jewish community centers in California, Colorado, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, New Mexico, Ohio, Utah, Wisconsin. This time, Canada was included, with a Jewish center in Ontario threatened, as well as a Jewish day camp near Chicago used as a child care facility.

■ In the fourth wave on February 20, at least 10 Jewish community centers  were included in New York, Wisconsin, Minnesota, New Mexico, Texas and Alabama.

■ In the fifth wave on February 27, the largest number of institutions yet received threats; for the first time, Jewish day schools were a major target. Eight schools and 21 Jewish community centers were threatened in Alabama, Delaware, Florida, Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Virginia, along with a regional office of the Anti-Defamation League in California. (The ADL’s national headquarters in New York received a threat on February 22.)

Also, on the same days as the bomb threats, Jewish cemeteries were discovered vandalized in two major American Jewish communities:

■ On February 20, more than 100 gravestones were found smashed and overturned in the Chesed Shel Emeth Jewish cemetery in St. Louis.

■ On February 26, hundreds of graves were vandalized at the Mount Carmel Jewish cemetery in Philadelphia.

How are the bomb threats being made?

The U.S. calls were prerecorded “robo-calls” in some cases and live calls in others. In both types, the callers used voice disguising technology. Experts believe the calls are coming from a single source, though the phone numbers have also been disguised to be made undetectable. Thus far, no actual bombs or other signs of a physical threat have been found at any of the locations.

Are the bomb threats and cemetery desecrations all related?

This seems doubtful, though possible. Goldenberg, who works with the FBI and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, says that at first there was a theory that the bomb threats were all being made by the same person. Also, police in various locations told local media that the threats were clearly coordinated.

But the cemetery desecrations, Goldenberg says, represent “a very different kind of activity with a very different symbolism.  At a minimum, we’re talking about copy cats.”

With all the threats appearing to be hoaxes, what’s the big deal?

As ADL Chief Executive Jonathan A. Greenblatt has noted, “Bomb threats are most often not credible and are usually used as scare tactics in order to disrupt an institution’s operations, and to cause fear and panic. At this juncture, none of these threats appear to be credible.”

But of course each threat must be treated as a real threat. Jewish community centers are active 24/7 and most of them contain preschools, day care centers, swimming pools and other sports facilities used by Jews and non-Jews. Some contain senior centers or day care facilities for the disabled.

Thus evacuating buildings is difficult and highly stressful, and the atmosphere of fear and panic is particularly marked when preschools and schools are involved; some parents are questioning the wisdom of sending their children to such facilities. So while no physical damage has been done to the institutions, a clear financial and psychological toll has been taken.

What is the U.S. government and President Donald Trump doing about it?

After coming under fierce criticism from political rivals and allies alike for his relative silence and defensiveness following the first two waves of bomb threats, Trump finally spoke out about the issue on February 21. “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,” he said.

After the fifth wave of attacks, White House spokesman Sean Spicer repeated the message, telling reporters, “The president continues to be deeply disappointed and concerned into the reports of further vandalism at Jewish cemeteries. The president continues to condemn these and other forms of anti-Semitic and hateful acts.”

At the same time, Trump reportedly is considering cutting a number of special-envoy positions, including one dedicated to fighting anti-Semitism, as part of a forthcoming budget proposal.

In a statement, the FBI and Justice Department said they were “investigating possible civil rights violations in connection with threats to Jewish Community Centers across the country.” Separately, the FBI said it would “collect all available facts and evidence and will ensure that the investigation is conducted in a fair, thorough and impartial manner.”

David Posner, the director of strategic performance at the JCC Association of North America, has said that although he has been reassured that the FBI is making the issue a “top priority,” he is eager to see real progress.

“Actions speak louder than words,” he said. “Members of our community must see swift and concerted action from federal officials to identify and capture the perpetrator or perpetrators who are trying to instill anxiety and fear in our communities.”

According to Posner, “The Justice Department, Homeland Security, the FBI and the White House, alongside Congress and local officials, must speak out – and speak out forcefully – against this scourge of anti-Semitism impacting communities across the country.”

Some local leaders have stepped forward to combat the phenomenon. In New York, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has unveiled a text-message tip line to report hate crimes, a $5,000 reward for a perpetrator’s conviction and a proposal for $25 million to increase security at religious schools and day care centers.

But as Posner noted in an interview with The Washington Post, “This is really an FBI issue. State and local law enforcement can’t solve this. The commonalities of the calls have to be handled at the highest level.”

What about the Israeli government and prime minister?

Throughout the waves of anti-Semitic incidents, there has not yet been a clear denunciation or call for action by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He did respond to Trump’s February 21 remarks, saying that it’s “very important that President Trump took a strong stand against anti-Semitism, and it’s important that we all continue to do so in the years ahead.”

Netanyahu was criticized by Yehuda Bauer, the academic adviser of the Yad Vashem Holocaust remembrance center in Jerusalem, for waiting until Trump made a statement before speaking out. Netanyahu “follows President Trump,” Bauer told National Public Radio. “He did not react immediately.”

Who is responsible for all this?

For now, the culprits’ identity is left to speculation. In the past, anti-Semitic vandalism, violence and threats have emerged from both ends of the political spectrum. The current threats and damage could theoretically come from the far left political groups or even terrorists sympathetic to the Palestinians and hostile to Israel.

Many politicians on the left believe the responsibility lies on the far-right: neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups that have been encouraged by Trump’s election.

Trump has given “license and permission to anti-Semites,” Florida Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz told Politico on Monday. She said the fact that the president failed to renounce anti-Semitism quickly and vigorously and reject his own supporters who embrace such hatred “has opened the floodgates.”

In any case, the bomb threats are widespread and technologically sophisticated.

If it’s a group effort, it could be an informal group, an established organization or possibly a state player hoping to further destabilize U.S. politics and social affairs. The last option would have seemed far-fetched six months ago, but in the post-election atmosphere, it can’t be ruled out.

For their part, anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists have insisted that the attacks are coming from the Jewish community itself, in an effort to pressure the Trump administration into policies favoring Jews and Israel. That charge has been aggressively promoted on social media by former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke, who tweeted Monday: “Why can’t the government trace where these threats are coming from - Tel Aviv?”