Amid a fifth wave of bomb threats across the country this week that forced evacuations of Jewish community centers and schools from Nassau and Westchester counties to Ashville, N.C., to Indianapolis and Ann Arbor, Mich., Jewish groups are intensifying their calls for the Trump administration to act to combat the disturbing and seemingly escalating trend.
A week after the Simon Wiesenthal Center wrote to Attorney General Jeff Sessions asking that the Justice Department create a task force to identify and capture “the culprit or culprits who seek to terrorize American Jewry through their threats,” Jewish Women’s International made an extraordinary and direct address to President Trump’s own family in its call for the administration to act strongly to combat anti-Semitism.
“President Trump, we call on you to speak out, condemn these evil acts, and to immediately appoint your administration’s Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism to put into place real action that will keep our families … your family … safe,” the organization’s CEO, Lori Weinstein said in the statement.
“We know that when one minority is unsafe, no minority is safe,” it concluded.
President Trump’s daughter Ivanka converted to Judaism when she married Jared Kushner, an Orthodox Jew. Their eldest child, Arabella, reportedly attends a Jewish day school in Washington, D.C.
In his new budget, however, Trump is reportedly considering cutting a number of special envoy positions, including the position of special envoy for monitoring and combating anti-Semitism, Bloomberg reported.
Weinstein told The Jewish Week in a telephone interview that she considers the position “critically important,” both because it symbolically demonstrates our government’s commitment to addressing anti-Semitism and also on a practical level because it integrates so many related departments within the State Department.
“Now more than ever, when we see an uptick in anti-Semitic acts, when there are individuals and/or groups that feel emboldened to commit more dangerous acts, this is essential and this is part of what global leadership should mean at a time when we must be vigilant about preventing hate crimes,” she said.
After a long silence on the issue, Trump condemned the hate crimes last week, saying, “Anti-Semitism is horrible and it’s going to stop, and it has to stop.”
On Monday, following the most recent wave of bomb threats and the toppling of headstones at two Jewish cemeteries, White House press secretary Sean Spicer condemned the incidents, saying, “The president continues to condemn these and any other form of anti-Semitic and hateful acts in the strongest terms. … No one in America should feel afraid to follow the religion of their choosing freely and openly.”
The JCC Association of North America also issued a statement Monday demanding more forceful federal action. “The Justice Department, Homeland Security, the FBI, and the White House, alongside Congress and local officials, must speak out — and speak out forcefully — against this scourge of anti-Semitism impacting communities across the country,” David Posner, the association’s director of strategic performance, said in the statement. “Actions speak louder than words. Members of our community must see swift and concerted action from federal officials to identify and capture the perpetrator or perpetrators who are trying to instill anxiety and fear in our communities.”
Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, also criticized Trump for not doing enough, writing in a blog post rhis week: “We need more than a set of blandly spoken phrases bolted onto the end of a single speech.”
He proposed a nine-point plan for the White House that includes a “fully resourced” investigation into the bomb threats led by the Department of Justice; a federal interagency task force to create policy measures to combat bigotry; the appointment of a White House coordinator for fighting hate; and more training for local police in how to handle hate crimes.
Despite the new round of threats — there have now been more than 90 such bomb threats at Jewish institutions around the country since the beginning of the year, and in New York alone hate crimes have spiked since January — several area JCCs told The Jewish Week that members have taken the evacuations in stride.
“I haven’t seen anyone pull out of here simply because this is a JCC and all this is going on,” said Angela Ashraf, youth services director and parent liaison at the Kings Bay Y in Sheepshead Bay. “Nobody here is panicking.”
The Y recently increased its security measures. It has hired a security company, installed more cameras and most significantly, instituted a scanable ID-card system that only allows people into the areas of the building where they are allowed to be — so regular members don’t have access to the preschool rooms, for example. Non-members have to present IDs to the security guard, who writes down the ID number.
“All of these things are new within the last couple of years, and I think they give a strong sense of security to the parents,” said Daniel Zeltser, associate executive director of the Kings Bay Y. He added that the Y has also “done multitudes of things that are not visible, and purposely so.”
The bomb threats, he said are “of course a concern for everyone.” But, he said, “It’s not something that we will allow to disrupt our spirits or our operations and I’m really glad to say that our families are strong in the same way … they believe in this place, they want to support it … and they’re really not giving into panic or into these threats.”
Last Friday afternoon, the weight room, basketball courts and racquetball courts were all full.
Mara Bakalchuk, 79, who was doing reps on a leg press machine, said, in heavily accented English, that the bomb threats didn’t scare her. “Maybe it’s my style to live. I don’t want to be afraid,” she said.
Don Viglione, a retired healthcare administrator who was working out on a stationary bicycle, said he’s always felt a little unsafe at the Y because the building has two 30-foot flags hung out front, one American, one Israeli.
“You don’t think that some day some nut is going to come along and see that flag and the front of this building and come inside with a machine gun, or throw a bomb at it?” he said.
Asked why he continued to work out there, he said, “Well, I also drive a car. I could get into an accident at any time.”
Asked whether he thinks Trump supporters are behind the bomb threats, Viglione said yes.
“I’ve spent a lot of my life traveling around the country and I find that 90 percent of the people in this country are decent people, and the other 10 percent are rotten,” he said. “Since he [Trump] was running for president there have been swastikas painted on buildings, he’s gone after the Mexicans, he’s gone after the Muslims. Even though he says everyone is equal in the eyes of God, he has brought out that 10 percent of people that have some kind of prejudice, some kind of bias.”
Monday’s round of bomb threats was the first to significantly impact the New York metropolitan area. While up to this point there had only been one JCC that received a bomb threat in the area — the JCC of Staten Island on Jan. 12 — on Monday at least seven sites in the tri-state region were evacuated: three locations on Staten Island as well as facilities in Cherry Hill, N.J., Plainview, L.I., and New Rochelle and Tarrytown in Westchester.
This fresh wave of bomb threats comes one day after vandalism was discovered at a second Jewish cemetery. Between 75 and 100 headstones were overturned and broken at the Mt. Carmel Cemetery in Philadelphia. Six days earlier about 150 gravestones were found toppled at the Chesed Shel Emeth Society cemetery in the St. Louis suburb of University City.
Amy Koplow, executive director of the Hebrew Free Burial Association and membership chair of the Jewish Cemetery Association of North America, said the reaction to the desecrations has been “horror.”
“We’re worried,” Koplow told The Jewish Week. “It’s a scary time to run Jewish cemeteries. This is more insidious than the occasional vandalism that any cemetery suffers… . To systematically knock over 200 stones in a cemetery where it [doing so] takes work. … Whoever is doing this is doing this in a very calculated and insidious way and it is with evil intent. It’s not some teenagers who … want to cause a little mischief.”
Several Jews interviewed by The Jewish Week said they found it comforting to see people come together to help repair the cemeteries. The LaunchGood.com campaign, titled “Muslims Unite to Repair Jewish Cemetery,” had, as of Tuesday, raised $142,051 for the cause.
“Out of all groups, to see Muslim groups raise that much money and help so much, it was beautiful,” said the Kings Bay Y’s Ashraf. “Ever since the election I feel like the country has been divided a lot and everyone thinks that the other person is out to get them, so that was beautiful.”
The Y’s Zeltser said that after the St. Louis vandalism, there was an uptick in calls from both Jews and Muslims who wanted to engage in interfaith programming efforts.
In Albany, lawmakers have also been working to address the uptick in anti-Semitic incidents. Last week, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced several new actions to combat hate crimes and anti-Semitism.
At a news conference Feb. 23 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage — A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, the governor said, “We’ve seen swastikas on playground equipment in Brooklyn Heights, we’ve seen it on a Little League baseball dugout in Wellsville, which is in upstate New York, we’ve seen it on subway cars and KKK leaflets on windshields in Patchogue, Long Island. These actions are shocking, revolting and they demand a response.
“But these acts are not just violative of religious teachings, they’re not just reprehensible and immoral, cowardly and anti-American and anti-New York; they’re also illegal. And just as this state … chases down perpetrators of crimes, we’re going to chase down the people who are behind these hate crimes,” he said.
One of the three initiatives announced by the governor is a new Hate Crimes Text Line — text HATE to 81336 — for reporting acts of bias. State police will monitor the texts closely. According to Superintendent George Beach of the New York State Police, who spoke at the news conference, a new Hate Crimes Unit has 46 specially trained officers to investigate reports in conjunction with local police. The text line complements a toll-free hotline that has received more than 3,175 calls since it was instituted in November.
The governor has also offered a $5,000 reward for any information leading to the arrest and conviction of someone involved in a hate crime.
The third initiative is a proposal for next year’s budget: a $25 million grant program to increase security at schools and day care centers that are “at risk of hate crimes or attacks because of their ideology, beliefs or mission.”
Rabbi David Zwiebel, executive vice president of the charedi umbrella group Agudath Israel of America, was one of 11 religious leaders who flanked Cuomo at the press conference. He said he thought the budget item would likely pass. “I think the climate is right. It would be difficult politically for either side of the aisle to oppose it. … Political leaders, wherever they may be, are paying attention to the issue [and] … society is saying: ‘We acknowledge that religious institutions can be targets at a time like this.’”