A Jew was arrested for making the threats. President Trump was right in warning not to jump to conclusions.
Were the bomb threats against more than 100 JCCs in the past three months acts of anti-Semitism? Technically, yes. Any threat against any Jew or Jewish institutions is anti-Semitic. We say “technically” because the arrest of a Jew in Israel for these threats puts them in a very different context from the typical acts of Jew hatred.
The supposed vast anti-Semitic conspiracy against Jewish security, particularly against the adults and children at centers of Jewish life, may not exist. We should caution: Just as many jumped to conclusions about this conspiracy, only to be proven to be overzealous in their opposition to the current administration, we should also not jump to the conclusion that it is only the arrestee who was responsible for these threats. If they continue, then clearly the threats are the work not only of the arrestee; and a larger problem is, in fact, at hand.
That said, it behooves us to examine what went wrong in the massive assumption of a vast anti-Semitic conspiracy out there, supposedly launched by Donald Trump. The assumption was indeed massive.
Oren Siegal, director of the ADL Center on Extremism, said at a news conference following the arrest of the suspect in one of the cemetery desecrations: “White supremacists in this country feel more emboldened than they ever have before because of the public discourse and divisive rhetoric.”
Bend the Arc stated after the first wave of JCC bomb threats early last January: “In recent days, we have seen manifestations of the hatred stirred up by President-elect Donald Trump throughout his campaign. Trump helped to create the atmosphere of bigotry and violence that has resulted in these dangerous threats against Jewish institutions and individuals.”
At least as of this writing, all of these statements flowed not from evidence but from ideology; not from facts but from a political agenda; not from a professional but from a partisan perspective. We expect a qualitatively higher level of professionalism from Jewish agencies that assume the burden of protecting the Jewish people.
Perhaps it was Monday-morning quarterbacking, but we note that the former national head of the ADL, Abe Foxman, certainly no shrinking violet on the subject of anti-Semitism, stated: “Always take these things seriously, but don’t jump to conclusions. History has taught us the source of anti-Semitism does not come from one direction. It’s universal in its nature . . . I think it is on the increase, but it’s not in epidemic proportions.”
We miss Abe Foxman’s steady hand at the helm of the ADL. At least in this case, his successor, Jonathan Greenblatt, seems to be driven less by dispassionate analysis of the currents causes and dimensions of anti-Semitism, and less than a professional, nuanced opposition to it, than by thinly veiled partisan opposition to the current administration. Where Greenblatt has thus far excelled is in growing the ADL’s focus on the anti-Semitism developing in the virulently anti-Israel movement, and on online anti-Semitism. In both cases, there is ample evidence of their influence. That is the key: evidence. In the case of the JCC threats, there was no evidence as to their origin. Caution, not unsubstantiated attribution to generalities (“discourse,” “rhetoric”), was required.
Trump deserves criticism where he fails. There is a lot to criticize, and he receives it from all sides of the political spectrum. Equally, Trump’s views deserve credence in the absence of evidence to the contrary, especially when his views respect the absence of evidence, as they did in his analysis that perhaps the bomb threats against the JCCs were not the work of the typical (i.e., non-Jewish) anti-Semite. He stated: “Sometimes, it’s the reverse”; attacks are made “to make people — or to make others — look bad.”
Prof. Jonathan Sarna, an historian of American Jewry at Brandeis, stated: “It [the arrest of a Jew for the JCC bomb threats] is a reminder that we have to be very careful before we talk about a whole wave of anti-Semitism. Something like this will surely make everybody a little embarrassed as Jews, but also embarrassed in the sense that it’s not what people imagined it would turn out to be.”
Especially in the overheated, superpartisan atmosphere in which the country finds itself, and which has been stoked on all sides of the political spectrum, it is critical that threats against Jews or Jewish institutions be evaluated on the basis of evidence, not on political ideology; and if there is no evidence, it is critical that judgment be withheld until such time as the evidence is in.
To be sure, it is not only the bomb threats against JCCs that constitute the acts of anti-Semitism in the US in the past number of months. There have been two major cemetery desecrations, for example. The threats against the JCC have been in a disturbing context, requiring vigilance. However, the sustained threats against the JCCs have been by far the dominant anti-Semitic threat in number, in frequency, and in effect: disruption to individual Jews and fear in Jewish communities. If a hate crime is defined as an act designed to affect a much broader swath of the Jewish community than the immediate targets, then it is the threats against the JCCs that have by far constituted the anti-Semitism of the past number of months. It has been caused — or so it seems as of this writing — not by non-Jews.
Which means, it may well be time to chill, time to reevaluate the way Jewish leaders and agencies react to threats to Jews and Jewish institutions in the US.
There is a danger of crying wolf.
There is a danger that charges of typical, terrible acts of anti-Semitism — perpetrated by non-Jews who hate Jews — will be received with skepticism at best, and dismissed at worst; that the Jew haters who no doubt are out there will have an easier time spreading their evil message. Because look what happened: It was a Jew who did it last time, yet it was blamed on non-Jews.
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