It’s not the bomb threats, stupid!


Workers placing headstones back on their bases at Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery in the St. Louis area, on Feb. 21. Photo by James Griesedieck

Phone calls are an exceedingly cheap form of harassment, which makes them highly likely to be hoaxes. Because likelihood is not certainty, such calls are still taken seriously, and they still incite fear and disrupt lives. But the times I’ve written about the rise in anti-Semitism since the election, I didn’t even include the hoax bomb threats in a list of hate crimes. That’s because anyone can call in a bomb threat, from anywhere in the world.

That’s all the more clear now that we’ve learned that many calls came from one Jewish teen in Israel. But even if not one of the bomb threats came from a white supremacist, we are still in the floodplain of a rising wave of far-right hate.

An anonymous phone call to a JCC rarely represents an intent to cause actual physical harm. But there are acts really threaten endangerment, acts done in-person or to a person. Acts committed from a distance are only more serious if they target specific people: a family in Montana who is attacked by “troll storm”, journalists whose find their image superimposed onto a view of Auschwitz or an oven. In-person acts include swastikas spray-painted on synagogue doors, or much worse, a bullet in a classroom window. Someone can’t do them unless they are ready to show up on Jewish property and risk being identified or caught.

The ladder of escalation increases by orders of magnitude: actions that involve property destruction are another order of magnitude. Actions that destroy the property that stands for and houses the people being attacked rise to yet another order of magnitude: the arson of a mosque, cemetery gravestones broken and knocked over.

These targets, the mosque where people prayed, the grave where someone was laid to rest and where people come to remember them, stand in for real people. Their sacredness and significance comes from that role. Though no one is endangered by a fallen gravestone, a cemetery is called a “beit olam”, an eternal home, or a place that houses eternity. It’s all of our past and, since we all will end up there in some fashion, our future.

There is zero possibility that such acts are commited by a prankster, even an anti-Semitic one. There next step beyond this is violence against living human beings, and we have to assume that is what the perpetrators mean. As I wrote before Purim in the Jewish Journal, that’s “what kind of person you have to be to knock down Jewish tombstones”.

African Americans have faced such direct violence with little break for more than two hundred years in too many areas and circumstances throughout this country. One more innocent black man was slain in New York this week by a white supremacist. Muslims and people who look Muslim now face this level of violence here, though they face far worse violence on a mass scale in a number of Muslim nations. Jews have faced violence for two millenia, but we’ve had a respite, here in America. Though our respite has been disturbed by swastikas and vandalism, we are still one step away from that reality.

I can imagine rightists complaining that this argument ignores the fact that people are afraid of terrifying violence from Islamic extremists. But we are all targets of that violence – Jews, Muslims and Christians, gay or straight, all races, all religions. It doesn’t divide us but unites us. In contrast, one purpose of hate crimes that target a minority group is to divide that group from the rest of America.

The people who knocked down tombstones were not pranksters or cranks or armchair haters. I guarantee that they were not planting “false flags”. But back in February, Trump thought they might be and said so.

Soon after, a person was arrested for calling in some of the bomb threats. He turned out to be African American, probably anti-Semitic but certainly not alt-right, who was mostly focused on trying to harm his ex. Jews on the right felt reassured: false flag theory “confirmed”. Now that the next person to be apprehended, for a much large number of calls, has turned out to be Jewish and Israeli, they are feeling even more justified.

So far, these crimes, from phone calls to arson, have brought Jews, Muslims, and faithful Christians together. Paradoxically, however, they are dividing Jews from each other based on right and left politics.

The Trumpist right – and most alarmingly, the Jewish right – is predictably generalizing to say that the tide of anti-Semitic crime is a hoax without connection to Trump’s rhetoric or followers. But the perpetrators of anonymous bomb threats are an entirely different segment of humanity from the perpetrators of tombstone desecration. Unmasking or stopping the one in no way mitigates the meaning or threat of the other.

Nevertheless, Mort Klein would like the Jews who are worried about Trump-inspired anti-Semitism to deliver an apology to Trump (not for the first time – he’s called for AIPAC, the ADL, and The Forward to apologize to Trump and allies in the past year).

How is it that Mort Klein, Dennis Prager, and their ilk , don’t get the difference between a phone call and a direct act of violence? An insightful analysis of the Jewish left versus the Jewish right by Shmuel Rosner appeared on 3/21 in the Jewish Journal. Rosner, quoting Yehudah Mirsky, suggested that while the left is still trying to create a society of justice where Jews are protected because everyone is protected, the right has regressed to the age of the court Jew, the age when a high-placed Jewish leader would (try to) protect his or her people from the mob’s wrath by asking for intervention from the powers that be. In that model, backing the most powerful is how Jews can be assured of protection.

We have the best-placed court Jews we could imagine, I suppose. The son-in-law and daughter of the President. But that’s all they are. Even so, the right is ready to accept this regression of several centuries, as long as the state of Israel can do whatever and be safe. But that attitude will also lead to our enemies here doing whatever.

The Jewish right, by downplaying manifestly anti-Semitic violence and denouncing other Jews, will help the nativist right and alt-right spread the lie of a Jewish left conspiracy to malign Trump. It’s a claim that could come straight out of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

We will not be safe if we are waiting for Donald Trump to show up for his job and do something. Nor can we count on Mort Klein, David Friedman, Ivanka or Jared – our court Jews – nor on Netanyahu – “melekh Yisrael”, the king of Israel, as he is sometimes praised, to step up to champion the Jewish people outside of Israel.

But we can, and together with our allies, we will.

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