Since the start of the new year, an ominous wave of anti-Semitism has roared across the length and breadth of the United States. Jewish community centres, schools and institutions have received about 150 bomb threats, while two Jewish cemeteries have been vandalized. These incidents, unprecedented in scale, have caused anxiety and alarm around the country.
President Donald Trump has unequivocally condemned them, and in a rare display of bipartisanship, all 100 U.S. senators have signed an open letter demanding that law enforcement agencies address the problem on an urgent basis.
But how serious is it? Does it really threaten American Jews?
Abraham Foxman, the former national director of the Anti-Defamation League, who spent decades monitoring antisemitism, probably put it best: “What we’re seeing now is serious, but it is not a crisis.”
The bomb threats, conveyed through deliberately garbled phone messages, have rattled nerves, caused inconvenience and produced an avalanche of newspaper stories and television and radio reports. But no bombs have exploded and no one has been injured or killed.
In other words, the kind of anti-Jewish violence that devastated the Jewish community of Argentina in a massive bombing in Buenos Aires in 1994, or the genocidal violence that wiped out millions of European Jews in the Holocaust, has not even remotely touched the sheltered lives of American Jews.
Nor can the bomb threats be compared to a murderous incident that occurred in Kansas City three years ago, when Frazier Glenn Miller Jr., a neo-Nazi with a criminal record, went on a shooting rampage at a local Jewish community centre, killing three people.
Most important of all, these incidents run contrary to the spirit of American democracy and go against the grain of public opinion. The perpetrators most likely are malcontents on the margins of society — ardent antisemites or, perhaps, bored teenagers saddled with low self-esteem.
Nonetheless, the leaders of major American Jewish groups are concerned — so concerned that they met with FBI director James Comey on March 3. Comey pledged his full cooperation, while the Department of Homeland Security offered assistance as well.
An African-American resident of St. Louis, Juan Thompson, has been charged with making eight of the threatening phone calls, but he has been described as a copycat who was trying to exact vengeance on a former girlfriend rather than a hard-core anti-Semitism.
Upset by the apparent lack of leads in the case, the Jewish Community Centre Association of North America dispatched a letter to Attorney-General Jeff Sessions on March 8 urging the Justice Department to launch an investigation. “We are frustrated with the progress in resolving this situation,” the letter stated. “We insist that all relevant federal agencies, including your own, apply all the resources available to identify and bring the perpetrator or perpetrators … to justice.”
On March 7, the U.S. Senate sent an open letter to the Trump administration demanding action. Drafted by four senators — Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio of Florida, Gary Peters of Michigan and Rob Portman of Ohio — it read: “These cowardly acts aim to create an atmosphere of fear and disrupt the important programs and services offered by JCCs … This is completely unacceptable and un-American. We are concerned that the number of incidents is accelerating and failure to address and deter these threats will place innocent people at risk and threaten the financial viability of JCCs ….”
Interestingly enough, the United Nations’ commissioner for human rights, Zeid Raad al-Hussein, injected himself into the case, saying the U.S. government needs to do more to combat antisemitism and racism. “Greater and more consistent leadership is needed to address the recent surge in … antisemitism,” he said.
Trump, whose Jewish son-in-law Jared Kushner works for him as a senior advisor, has addressed the issue after remaining conspicuously silent. In February, he issued his first explicit condemnation, branding antisemitism as a “horrible” and “painful” phenomenon. Shortly afterwards, in his State of the Union speech to Congress, he denounced hate crimes.
Although Foxman believes Trump is finally acting presidential in denouncing antisemitism, he has pointed out that Trump empowered bigots by appealing to white nationalists during the election campaign. As he said recently, “He legitimized it, but did not create it. Trump is not an antisemite.”
Trump, however, has darkly suggested that the latest manifestations of antisemitism may not be genuine and that the perpetrators may well have been political opponents intent on maligning him.
Not surprisingly, American antisemites claim the bomb threats are “false flags” designed to undermine Trump’s presidency.
Writing on Twitter, former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke commented, “President Trump, do you think it might be the Jews themselves making these calls to get sympathy, to push their ethnic agenda?” In a post on the neo-Nazi website Daily Stormer, Andrew Anglin wrote, “It is obvious to us that these ‘attacks’ are almost certainly being done by the Jews themselves to gain sympathy.”
These are baseless and incredibly moronic accusations, but it should be borne in mind that a fairly significant number of Americans might find these outlandish claims credible. According to a recent survey, 12 percent of the American population is “seriously infected” with antisemitism. Yet it remains to be seen whether Americans of this ilk are indeed responsible for the bomb threats and the cemetery desecrations that have shaken American Jews of late.