Sarah Wildman · Thursday, February 23, 2017, 10:03 am
In the first weeks of 2017, 69 bomb threats were called in to Jewish community centers across the country, sending preschool kids scurrying to safety, again and again, beyond the walls of their daytime homes. Over this past weekend, a historic cemetery outside St. Louis, Missouri, was vandalized, with nearly 200 tombstones overturned. On Wednesday morning, the New York offices of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) received a bomb threat, while hours later a Jewish day school in North Carolina was evacuated after receiving a similar threat.
And for weeks, that surge of anti-Semitic incidents was ignored by President Donald Trump, who repeatedly brushed aside questions about the proposed violence (and had previously released a statement on Holocaust Remembrance Day that didn’t mention Jews). Trump made his first targeted comments about the threats on Tuesday, calling them “horrible and painful,” but his words weren’t enough to counter the growing sense in the Jewish community that their vulnerability is, at best, unimportant to the president. Steven Goldstein, executive director of the Anne Frank Center, tweeted angrily that the belated remarks were a mere “Band-aid on the cancer of anti-Semitism that has infected [Trump’s] own administration.”
(It was his Vice President, Mike Pence who won accolades by a surprise visit to the vandalized cemetery on Wednesday, where he spoke and rolled up his sleeves to join the clean-up efforts.)
But it isn’t just concern about Trump that is filling the Facebook feeds of America’s Jewish community. It is the genuine fear that the country has entered into a new era where anti-Semitism has left the shadows and taken a louder, bolder place on the center stage of American society.
That fear shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. As my colleague Yochi Dreazen wrote back in October, candidate Trump “revived some of the ugliest of anti-Semitic stereotypes” in speeches and advertisements that recalled canards over Jews controlling the levers of power and money in American society.
It’s important to note two caveats. First, this year’s anti-Semitic threats have thankfully not resulted in any actual violence; the last deadly attack on a Jewish target took place in 2014 when a white supremacist gunman killed three people at a pair of Jewish institutions in Kansas. Second, it’s not clear that overall anti-Semitism is actually on the rise. The ADL found last fall that 14 percent of Americans, or 34 million people, harbored anti-Semitic attitudes, a number largely unchanged from prior years.
Still, one threat against a JCC would be unsettling, but 69 of them, in just a few weeks, is an epidemic that is both unprecedented and terribly unnerving.
The spike in anti-Semitic vandalism and threats comes amid a global trend of racist, xenophobic, and Islamophobic rhetoric, and amid the rise of populist political leaders who espouse such thinking. From Brexit to the election of Donald Trump to the polls showing Front National leader Marine Le Pen leading the pack in the upcoming French election, there is a new permissiveness displayed toward populist speech that highlights nationalism over globalization while shunning immigration and outsiders, especially Muslims and other non-Christians.
Racism for some, points out Ryan Lenz of the Southern Poverty Law Center, no longer carries shame.
“It feels like hate has gone mainstream, and so it is a time of real fear,” says Rabbi Joshua Stanton, a congregational rabbi in the New York metro area. Stanton notes it feels like anti-Semitism is somehow suddenly “more socially acceptable than it has been in a generation or two. For a growing number of sub-groups, it is seen as acceptable and even a marker of belonging.”