(April 28, 2017 / JNS)
The Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) decision to count an Israeli teenager’s alleged recent bomb hoaxes as “anti-Semitic incidents” is prompting criticism from some Jewish community officials.
The ADL reported April 24 that anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. “jumped 86 percent” in the first quarter of 2017. More than 70 percent of the recent incidents were what the ADL called “harassment incidents,” and 42 percent of those were 161 bomb threats made against Jewish institutions.
Aryeh Tuchman, associate director of the ADL’s Center on Extremism, told JNS.org that the bomb threats were categorized as “anti-Semitic incidents,” despite the fact that an Israeli-Jewish teenager purportedly suffering from mental illness has been indicted for making nearly all of them, because “when an incident has a major terrorizing effect on Jewish communities, we can’t ignore it.”
Some other community figures see it differently. Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, told JNS.org, “Now that it’s clear that this was a mentally unstable individual, I would not categorize these as anti-Semitic hate crimes.”
Kenneth L. Marcus, president of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, said, “Given what we now know about these threats, it seems highly unlikely that they were motivated by anti-Semitic animus. However, we do not yet know enough about the perpetrator to have a full understanding of why he did what he did.”
The perpetrator’s motive in an attack is the key to determining if it is a “hate crime” rather than an ordinary crime, according to the FBI, which defines hate crimes as “crimes in which the perpetrators acted based on a bias against the victim’s race, color, religion, or national origin.”
Prominent constitutional attorney Nathan Lewin told JNS.org that “if the threats to the Jewish community centers resulted from the actions of the disturbed Israeli-American boy, they would not satisfy the FBI’s definition of hate crimes.”
The ADL’s press release regarding the recent incidents stated that in the first quarter of 2017, there have been “155 vandalism incidents, including three cemetery desecrations, an increase of 36 percent.”
Asked if the three recent desecrations of Jewish cemeteries represented an increase from the previous year, the ADL’s Tuchman replied that there “was one cemetery desecration in all of 2016,” taking place in that year’s first quarter.
Contrary to Tuchman’s statement, there were at least three desecrations of Jewish cemeteries in the first quarter of 2016. One target was the Zion Hill Cemetery in Hartford, Conn., where a total of 35 tombstones were toppled in two separate attacks. The third attack occurred at Indiana’s Fort Wayne Jewish Cemetery, where more than 50 gravestones were damaged.
The Brandeis Center’s Marcus said some recent reports of anti-Semitic incidents “are what one might call ‘shark stories,’” referring to media reports about shark attacks several summers ago. Many people, he said, “feared that shark attacks were spiking, and experts struggled to identify the reason. At the end of the day, it turned out that such attacks were not increasing at all—there were more stories about them because the shark narrative had caught the attention of influential editors and media outlets.”
The total annual number of anti-Semitic incidents nationwide has fluctuated significantly in recent years, according to the ADL’s annual tallies. The number increased 2 percent in 2010, fell 14 percent in 2012 and 19 percent in 2013, then jumped 21 percent in 2014, 3 percent in 2015, and 34 percent in 2016.
Regarding the reasons behind the reported rise in incidents last year, Tuchman said, “We believe the 2016 presidential election and the heightened political atmosphere may have played a role in some of the increase. Anti-Semites, especially on the extremist right, have felt emboldened to act on their prejudices.”
The Wiesenthal Center’s Cooper disputed the notion that the Trump campaign was to blame for recent anti-Semitic incidents.
“You cannot say it was caused by Donald Trump or ‘elements around him,’” Cooper said, pointing out that “anti-Semites were incensed” at the president when he invited Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Wiesenthal Center, to deliver a prayer at the presidential inauguration in January.
“All of us have to remember that if we have any chance of marginalizing anti-Semitism and motivating our neighbors to help us, it cannot be turned into a left or right issue,” Cooper said.
Prof. Eunice G. Pollack, a historian of anti-Semitism and co-editor of the Encyclopedia of American Jewish History, is concerned some of Trump’s opponents are distorting the issue.
“Those deemed progressive hope to distance themselves from accusations of anti-Jewish bias by attaching it only to the right,” she said. “But the [college] campuses—where malignant anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism have intensified and spread in recent decades—are hardly dominated by the ‘alt-right.’”
Marcus agreed that while “some incidents can be attributed to the alt-right community,” the anti-Trump camp “also includes an anti-Semitic edge to it. So we are seeing Jew-hatred coming from both sides: left and right, pro-Trump and anti-Trump.”