WASHINGTON/NEW YORK – Federal law enforcement apprehended a man on Friday suspected of calling in bomb threats to Jewish centers and institutions, allegedly copying tactics employed in a larger phenomenon gripping the community nationwide.
Juan Thompson, a 31-year-old man from St. Louis, Missouri, made several threats in the name of a former romantic partner he had been cyber-stalking, according to a statement released by the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York.
“Today, we have charged Juan Thompson with allegedly stalking a former romantic interest by, among other things, making bomb threats in her name to Jewish community centers and to the Anti-Defamation League,” US Attorney Preet Bharara said. “Threats of violence targeting people and places based on religion or race – whatever the motivation – are unacceptable, un-American and criminal.”
But Thompson is apparently responsible for only a fraction of the over 100 bomb threats made against American Jewish community centers, or JCCs, since the beginning of the year. Fears stoked by those threats have been compounded by the desecration of three Jewish cemeteries – in Missouri, Pennsylvania and New York – and a surge in Nazi-inspired vandalism against Jewish institutions since the November presidential election.
JCC leaders met with the Department of Homeland Security on Wednesday, and FBI director James Comey convened leaders of the Jewish community on Friday to discuss the federal government’s response.
“Agents and analysts across the country are working to identify and stop those responsible,” FBI spokeswoman Susan McKee said. “The FBI is committed to ensuring that people of all races and religions feel safe in their communities and places of worship.”
The Department of Homeland Security said it is working closely with Jewish community centers to “advise and support on protective measures” that JCCs can implement in order to help keep their members safe.
The organization’s president and CEO, Doron Krakow, issued a statement on news of Thompson’s arrest on Friday.
“JCC Association of North America is gratified by the arrest made in connection with the large number of antisemitic threats that have targeted JCCs and other Jewish institutions over the past two months,” Krakow said. “We trust that the perpetrators behind all of the threats will be swiftly identified and brought to justice.”
St. Louis man charged over bomb threats to Jewish groups
Congressmen from both parties called on the Trump administration last week to coordinate a more comprehensive federal response to the growing crisis, which is affecting virtually every corner of the Jewish community, dispersed among Republican and Democratic districts.
In New Jersey, Sen. Bob Menendez and Sen. Corey Booker joined Gov. Chris Christie and several congressmen in a solidarity rally with six local JCCs that have faced repeated harassment.
“Today, we are all Jewish,” Menendez said.
Major American Jewish organizations are looking for ways to mitigate the threat, first and foremost by cooperating with local and federal law enforcement. But several organizations are also looking into why this spike is happening now, hoping to come up with a strategy that will target this wave of antisemitism at its source.
Jewish institutions in the US should “think security at all times,” Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt told The Jerusalem Post in an interview on Wednesday
“American Jews have achieved in an extraordinary way here: the economic heights we’ve reached, the social capital we have accumulated, the political achievements, it’s really quite remarkable,” Greenblatt acknowledged. “And, at the same time, what we know from the history of the Jewish people is that we need to remember that we are still a minority and we need to remember that we are still vulnerable. We need to be vigilant every step of the way and not take our eye off the ball.”
The ADL has been measuring antisemitic attitudes in the United States since the 1960s, and while generally the numbers have gone down since then, the organization has become well accustomed to threats over the years. Over the past week, its offices in New York and San Francisco both received bomb threats.
“We are office environments, filled with professionals who are in the business, on the front line of fighting antisemitism, dealing with bigots and racists and we, unfortunately, see our fair share of threats,” Greenblatt said. “So, while it’s difficult when your building gets evacuated, I wouldn’t even compare it to what it’s like to be a mother whose pre-school aged child is rushed out of the building, or to a daughter or a son who’s elderly parent is wheeled out of their care program.”
He believes those targeting the ADL are trying to send a message of intimidation to the whole community.
“We have been in the crosshairs of the KKK, of the neo-Nazis, of the alt-right for quite some time,” Greenblatt said. “I am not daunted, my staff is not deterred, my board is not distracted, my amazing courageous volunteers are by no means dissuaded and we won’t be by these threats.
“These are cowards, these are pathetic people who mask their voice and hide behind the Internet and don’t even have the courage to show up,” he went on. “It’s not hard to tip over headstones in the middle of the night. It’s not difficult to threaten pre-school children.”
In recent months, and in general, the ADL has been working with law enforcement on security measures for Jewish institutions across the country, as has the Secure Community Network, which began operating in 2004. The organization seeks to be a central address serving the American Jewish community concerning matters of communal safety, security and all-hazards preparedness and response. It works in tight collaboration with federal agencies including the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security to provide support and security training for the staff members of Jewish organizations.
Paul Goldenberg, national director of the Secure Community Network, has several decades of background in law enforcement. He said the last few months have been “somewhat of an enigma” for him.
“The current climate and threat environment, even for us who have spent years in the business, is alarming, and the incoming data in recent months is troubling,” he said.
In the past month, network representatives have been on the ground in some of the affected communities. Last week, they held a virtual training session with Jewish organization staff members, including many JCC workers.
“When communities are trained to engage, to understand that if they see something they have to say something, to know how to behave and respond if there is an attack on their facilities, that makes not only for a safer facility, a more empowered people but also good partners multiply,” Goldenberg said. “Every bit of training becomes more precious today than ever.”
The goal of those making the threats is often “not just to cause loss of life, but more dangerously to try to wear us down along with our spirit, our sense of endurance,” according to Goldenberg.
“We cannot voluntarily allow for what these offenders themselves could never have achieved on their own and that’s by giving up our values as a community, our way of life,” he said. “Communities that address the psychological impact of these hate crimes and terrorist threats no doubt have a greater ability to resist manipulation.”
When asked whether he believes antisemitism is more widespread in the US than it is perceived to be, Goldenberg told the Post
that while the Jewish community has dealt with vandalism, intimidation and assault for years, it is very much a part of the fabric of life in the US.
“The relationship with American law enforcement is extremely mature,” he said. “In many of the communities across Europe, we see armed paratroopers in front of Jewish schools, museums and Jewish centers. I don’t believe that we will ever get to that point here.”
In recent days, many Jewish groups, including the ADL, have called on the Trump administration to make sure perpetrators of the bomb threats and vandalism are brought to justice, while acknowledging that Trump’s rhetoric since the first days of his campaign may have played a role in the recent phenomenon.
“Words have consequences and the lack of words has consequences too,” Greenblatt said. “We welcome the president’s strong statement at the start of his first address to congress, but unfortunately it took a long time for these comments to be made in a clear manner.”
“Now they need to take a consistent approach, because the antisemites have rushed to fill the vacuum that was created when we didn’t have more immediate denunciations of David Duke or quicker clarifications when antisemitic images were tweeted out during the campaign,” he continued. “I do think it is incumbent upon our elected officials and our political leadership, and all public figures, to speak out in a clear and consistent voice against antisemitism.”JTA contributed to this report.