The desecration of Jewish cemeteries in Philadelphia and the St. Louis area have prompted an outcry from Jewish groups nationwide: The problem of antisemitism in the United States appears to be rapidly worsening. They can see it and they can feel it.
And the rest of the country is beginning to sense it as well.
But who is measuring it? That would be the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which records hate crimes nationwide, and the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish nongovernmental organization that tracks and verifies antisemitic incidents on an annual basis.
Neither the FBI nor the ADL has yet issued a report for 2016, much less for the beginning of 2017, which has witnessed a slew of high-profile attacks and threats against Jews and their institutions.
But both can discern from their collection of reported incidents a clear increase in activity beyond what they have seen in recent memory.
“Regardless of what final numbers of antisemitic incidents will be, we’re definitely seeing an uptick in reporting – and that’s actually why it takes longer to go through this data and verify everything. It was happening before Election Day, but definitely since Election Day, we’ve seen an uptick,” said Oren Segal, director of the ADL’s Center on Extremism.
“We’ve never seen anything like this before,” he added.
The ADL was alarmed by a spike in antisemitic behavior on social media
in 2016, facilitated by the anonymity that attackers enjoy on platforms like Twitter. The group issued a special report on the phenomenon late last year that found more than two-thirds of 19,253 antisemitic tweets targeting journalists during the presidential election campaign had been sent by roughly 1,600 Twitter accounts.
Now it is investigating over 70 bomb threats phoned in to Jewish community centers over the past two months – and into its own headquarters, prompting a brief evacuation last week.
The perpetrators of the bomb threats have not yet been identified, and law enforcement has been unable to confirm whether one individual is orchestrating the campaign or whether several people are involved.
“We’re looking at the impact of this, so who does it is important – we need to find out – but what the impact of this is on the communities is our primary concern,” Segal said.
The ADL has also received reports of approximately 90 different white supremacist flyers being distributed on college campuses, an unprecedented number.
“Alt-right groups have determined that now is their time to strike,” said Segal, referring to a political coalition of nativists and ethnic-nationalists who supported President Donald Trump’s political rise.
FBI and ADL reports from 2015 recorded an increase in antisemitic incidents from the prior year, which at the time was considered significant.
But that “relatively small” increase has now been dwarfed by recent developments, Segal said, making note of a decade-long decline in activity leading up to the recent spike.
“I don’t think we can draw a direct line from any one thing to say that’s why antisemitism seems to be up, except for perhaps one place: social media,” Segal said.
“The reality is,” he continued, “more people are likely to encounter a swastika on their [cell]phone than they are in their neighborhood.
And when you see the number of trolls engage online in this antisemitic narrative, our concern is that their Internet activities will mainstream these hateful messages and have real-world consequences.”
Jewish Federations of North America president and CEO Jerry Silverman has expressed deep concern over the issue.
Talking to The Jerusalem Post on the sidelines of the Jewish Agency Board of Governors winter meeting in Tel Aviv, Silverman said: “The level of hate crimes, both antisemitic and against other faiths, around the world scares me deeply.”
On the other hand, he said, the Jewish community has great confidence in law enforcement authorities, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security, all of which he referred to as “great partners.” He also referenced training that has been conducted over the past few years in all community infrastructures.
“We’ve increased the capacity and capability of our security network over last three years because the wave was building and we saw what was happening,” Silverman asserted.
With clear methods and protocols in place, he said, “it’s business as usual” within a very short space of time following an incident.
“A phone call creates an environment of terrorism that is designed to change behavior,” said Michael Siegal, former chairman of the Jewish Federations of North America Board of Trustees and a member of the Jewish Agency Board of Governors.
“The good news is that the calls have not manifested themselves into anything serious, even though the call in and of itself is serious,” said Siegal, who also serves as head of the Secure Community Network, a project of the JFNA and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
“When you have to evacuate a JCC and see children standing outside, as a parent, you wonder whether or not I should continue to send kids to those environments,” he reflected. “But we don’t know if it’s one person or an organization, and until we work with the government to discover who is doing these particular calls, the pattern is that it’s probably one person or organization – very sophisticated – but not a groundswell of lots of people doing something.”
Indeed, Siegal’s successor on the board of the JFNA, Richard V. Sandler, pointed to a recent Pew Research Center study that found Jews as a religious group received the warmest ratings among Americans.
“I don’t believe myself that as a result of whatever happened over the last year that there are a greater number of antisemites in the country,” Sandler said.
“Antisemitism is a problem; always is. I think more have felt the freedom to raise their ugly heads, but hopefully that will subside.”
Silverman, too, sees light in the darkness, highlighting the thousands of dollars donated by Muslim charities to renovate the vandalized St. Louis cemetery and the fact that Vice President Mike Pence made time in his schedule to help clean up the damage. He added that he himself had received phone calls from the largest nonprofits in America offering their help.
“We don’t know enough information at this point, frankly, for this in any way to change our culture or our attitudes,” he said. “What it does is make us more alert and smarter in how to deal with it, and it allows us as communities to come together – and that’s a good thing.”