A headstone, pushed off its base by vandals, lays on the ground near a smashed tomb in the Mount Carmel Cemetery, a Jewish cemetery, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, US February 27, 2017..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
WASHINGTON – Lawmakers from both parties are expressing grave concern over a measurable spike in antisemitic threats, attacks and acts of vandalism across the US, and are calling on the Trump administration to coordinate a more proactive and comprehensive response.
A bipartisan congressional task force founded primarily to combat antisemitism overseas reconstituted itself last week in order to meet the growing challenge at home. That group, composed of four Democrats and four Republicans, sent a letter to President Donald Trump on Thursday detailing specific steps he could take to mitigate the threat.
Their letter was prompted by the overturning of hundreds of Jewish tombstones in Pennsylvania and Missouri last week, an unprecedented spike in antisemitic vandalism in New York State since November, and more than 100 bomb threats called in to Jewish Community Centers across the country since the beginning of the year. On Thursday morning, a Jewish cemetery in Rochester, New York, was found vandalized
. Five headstones were found toppled at the Waad Hakolel Cemetery, also known as the Stone Road Cemetery.
“If 100 branches of any institution in this country – any religious site, any business, or, God forbid, any school – were targeted by bomb threats in such a short period, there should be public outcry and it should rise to the highest levels of concern,” said Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Florida), discussing the letter with reporters.
“We’re asking for a more comprehensive federal response,” Deutch said. “We’re here today to bring necessary attention to this public security threat. Because a threat to the Jewish community – or to any religious community – is a threat to us all.”
Democrats offered “credit where credit is due” to Trump for opening his first address to a joint session of Congress with robust condemnation of the recent events. But “actions speak louder than words,” Nita Lowey (D-New York) told The Jerusalem Post.
“The Department of Justice must have access to the necessary resources to fully investigate,” she said. “I look forward to hearing the president’s response.”
The task force letter calls on the White House to take three specific actions: Provide the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division with the resources it needs to fully investigate the phenomenon; create an interagency mechanism to coordinate detection and response; and evaluate growing antisemitic rhetoric online, which may be inciting real-world attacks.
“This is the first time, I think in my lifetime, where I’m really worried about it,” said Rep. Eliot Engel (D-New York). “It’s something where people tend to say, well, big deal, it’s not really a threat. But it is a threat. If you don’t cut it right from the beginning – pull up its roots – this is something that will spread.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan on Thursday called the recent spate of events “vile and disgusting,” and praised the Trump administration for harshly condemning the perpetrators.
“On behalf of the whole House, I want our friends in the Jewish community to know we stand with them,” said Ryan, who insisted that Democrats and Republicans were united on the matter. “We stand with you.”
One Republican on the task force, Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey, called on the administration to act “immediately” on the letter and to swiftly appoint a special envoy at the State Department to monitor and combat antisemitism.
“This isn’t a matter of the president ‘may do this.’ This is a statutorily constituted special envoy,” said Smith, who wrote the amendment in 2004 that established the position. “It’s not a matter of discretion. He must do it.”
The Republican said he is worried that the “rising tide” of antisemitic activity across the US may soon turn violent.
“It’s a very quick movement from threats and bomb threats to actual terrorist acts where people may die,” he said.
Experts on antisemitism with the Anti-Defamation League told the Post last week that recent events were truly unprecedented: Since the November presidential election, more threats and acts of vandalism have been recorded than in the previous year combined.
“There should be a point person to lead this effort, there should be a point person in the White House to work with the Jewish community,” Deutch told the Post. “But we’re offering what we hope are some very concrete steps that can be taken to address this concern and to stem the tide of these threats.