Mounting Threats Against Jews Leave Security Expert Baffled and Concerned

'This is unprecedented, we don't know how to explain it, and, frankly, I'm worried,' says Paul Goldenberg, head of Secure Community Network.

Northeast Philadelphia Police Detective Timothy McIntyre and a Philadelphia police officer look over tombstones that were vandalized at Mount Carmel Cemetery on Sunday, Feb. 26, 2017, in Philadelphia.
Michael Bryant/AP

The waves of bomb threats against American Jewish institutions and high-profile vandalism of Jewish cemeteries are challenging accepted notions of anti-Semitic attacks, a prominent security expert says, warning that the threat of violence has reached unprecedented levels.

Paul Goldenberg, a former law enforcement official, is the national director of the Secure Community Network, is more concerned about attacks against Jewish institutions "than ever before during my entire career as a law enforcement officer," he tells Haaretz.

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"In the past 45 days," Goldenberg said, "there have been 190 incidents against Jews and Jewish institutions throughout the United States. This is unprecedented, we don't know how to explain it, and, frankly, I'm worried."

The SCN is a non-profit established in 2004 by the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations and the Jewish Federations of North America. According to its website, SCN is "exclusively dedicated to homeland security initiatives on behalf of the American Jewish Community." In this capacity, Goldenberg liaises with the FBI, which is responsible for criminal investigations, and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which is responsible for ensuring security within communities.

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Security officials have also noticed an increase in neo-Nazi activity throughout the country, especially on websites. "Some sites have even put up pictures of Jewish children, as if they were targeted." 

Goldenberg reveals that, since the wave of attacks against Jewish Community Centers began less than two months ago, security officials "had a working theory that the calls all made by the same person.  But I don't think that any longer.  Not since the desecration of the cemeteries – that's a very different kind of activity, with a very different symbolism.  At a minimum, we're talking about copy cats."

On Monday, at least 21 Jewish centers, including eight schools, received bomb threats in the fifth such wave sweeping the United States. According to the JCC Association, Monday's wave brought the total of called in bomb threats over the last two months to 89 incidents at 72 locations in 30 states and 1 Canadian province.

On Sunday, a Jewish cemetery in Philadelphia became the latest victim of vandalism, when anywhere between dozens to hundreds of headstones were broken and toppled. This was the second incident in as many weeks, after hundreds of Jewish graves were desecrated St. Louis.

Goldenberg says the pattern of the threats and violence is different from what he has worked with until now.  "In the past, such attacks were tied to geopolitical events – like Israel's war in Gaza, for example.  So we could hold our breath and know that when the situation calmed down, it would end.  But there's no such connection now."

SCN makes security recommendations to Jewish communities throughout the U.S. and in Europe – although he declined to specify what these recommendations are and noted that SCN has no authority to mandate the implementation of any such measures. 

SCN also provides training for security personnel in Jewish institutions.  Over the past two weeks, Goldenberg said, they have provided telephone training to over 1,000 institutions, more than 800 of them in a single call-in.  They also provide on line training (https://scnus.org/training/scn-homeland-security-and-preparedness-training-center) and files of best practices.

Throughout the interview, Goldenberg emphasized that he has no doubt about the unwavering commitment of the American law enforcement establishment to solving this problem.  "American law enforcement is taking this very, very seriously and is totally committed to apprehending whoever is doing this."

But why is it taking so long to find the person or persons making the telephone calls to the JCCs?

"We are dealing with people who are leveraging very modern technologies for evil purposes," Goldenberg responded. "But they need to know that American law enforcement also has sophisticated technologies, and we will find them."

Security measures implemented in the United States are very different from those in Europe, where Goldenberg also consults.  "Unlike Europe, in the U.S. we will not put armed guards in front of our institutions," he said. "Our goal is to create a culture of security rather than a security wall."

He concluded by saying that he is also "concerned that people will start to believe that Jews are not safe in America.  We are, we are taking proactive steps to ensure our safety, and we will remain open for Jewish life."