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American Jews Are Reeling From Anti-Semitic Threats

Bomb threats, graffiti, and online trolling have targeted Jewish Americans — some for the first time

On Monday, the Jewish Community Center of Greater Ann Arbor, Michigan, received a bomb threat by phone — again. "We actually received our first bomb threat last May," David Shtulman, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Ann Arbor, told MTV News. "That was really scary, because it wasn't happening everywhere else. This time, we knew it was happening everywhere. It really wasn't if it would happen here, but when."

That same day, 30 other Jewish community centers and day schools received bomb threats, bringing the number of intimidating calls against Jewish community centers — spanning 81 locations in 33 states and two Canadian provinces — to over 100 since January 9. In addition, hundreds of tombstones — some more than a century old — have been desecrated and toppled over by vandals in Jewish cemeteries in two major U.S. cities. The threats have become so commonplace that Ann Arbor's Jewish community center has developed a protocol for bomb scares, much like the ones they have for tornadoes. Through the Secure Community Network, the Jewish Federation of North America provides updates to Jewish centers and schools on new threats on a near-daily basis; they recently alerted the network about a gunshot through a synagogue window in Indiana.

But the calls just keep coming — and so do the cemetery attacks, and the swastika graffiti, and the endless trolling and doxing of Jewish journalists and writers online. "Dealing with bigotry, hatred, and anti-Semitism, that's my everyday," Oren Segal, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, told MTV News. "But the past several months have been unprecedented on several different levels." Segal said that what concerns him most is the lack of consequences white supremacists have faced as they rail against Jewish people and institutions. "I don't recall a time when white supremacists have felt so emboldened and so comfortable, have felt that they have so much perceived support in the public discussion and from public officials," Segal said.

Finding the perpetrator (or perpetrators) of the menacing calls that have hit Jewish centers across the country since January 9 of this year has been difficult. The intimidating messages have used sophisticated technology; many appear to come from a single source and use voice modification and "spoofing" technology to mask the caller’s location. "It would be really comforting to think that it's just a bunch of teenagers," Shtulman said, "but unfortunately, after 90 of these things in the last six weeks, nobody can find these people, so there's a level of sophistication that you can't just attribute to teens. There's some sort of organization behind this." But Segal said that though the technology may be complex, that doesn’t tell us much about the people behind the threats. "Access to that technology is much more universal [in 2017]. Clearly, it's much easier to engage in these sorts of bomb threats on a wider scale than at any point in human history." The internet and anonymous social media accounts have made it much easier, he added, to attack Jewish people or spread anti-Semitic memes and images online, too. "People are more likely to come across anti-Semitism on their phone than they are in their neighborhood."

Discrimination aimed squarely at Jewish people and Jewish life in the United States isn't new. In the early 20th century, Ivy League universities put caps on the number of Jewish students admitted, while the Immigration Act of 1924 was devised, in part, to stop Eastern European Jews from entering the country. And the myths propagated by the threatening images and messages shared on Reddit and Twitter are often the same as those that have been spread by political regimes across Europe for centuries. They portray Jewish life as inherently foreign and "cosmopolitan," a separate class that secretly controls the worlds of finance and culture and is hell-bent on "poisoning" American (typically Protestant Christian) traditions and beliefs. They believe wealthy Jewish people — particularly political figures like casino magnate and conservative Trump supporter Sheldon Adelson and liberal philanthropist George Soros, who created moveon.org — are dangerous, and even entire cities with higher Jewish populations have " suspect" values. Anti-Semitic attitudes aren't the exclusive purview of any one political party, either. "Anti-Semitism and what that means — conspiracies about Jews, wanting to threaten Jews, and wanting to isolate them — is thousands of years old," said Segal. "It's the way that it's manifesting that's very different, no matter whether it's coming from the right or the left."

It’s worth noting that Donald Trump's daughter, Ivanka, and son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner, are both Orthodox Jews, and Trump condemned anti-Semitism during his Congressional address on Tuesday night. But the Trump administration's responses to the threats have been lacking. Trump even seemed to suggest on Tuesday that some of these recent anti-Semitic incidents have been caused by Jews themselves. And much of the most virulent anti-Semitism, particularly online, is coming from members of the alt-right movement that lurked behind President Trump's presidential campaign. Some likely claim to be anti-Semitic to get attention, but others are true believers. Jessica Radloff, a digital entertainment correspondent for Glamour magazine, told MTV News, "Although I don't believe Donald Trump is anti-Semitic, his presidential campaign has given those who are racist and anti-Semitic an opening to invoke their opinions that they hadn't had before."

For young Jewish people, the recent onslaught of threats against their community has been scary and deeply saddening. Radloff recently found out that her great-great-grandparents' tombstone was among those toppled in a St. Louis Jewish cemetery earlier this year. The hits to Jewish centers have also been difficult for the reporter, who spent summers going to JCC camps in St. Louis. "My grandparents even started a fund to pay for those that couldn't afford to go to camp," she said. "And the great thing about [JCCs] is that you don't even have to be Jewish to belong. Every religion and ethnicity is welcome." Segal agreed, and said that that's making the threats against JCCs even worse. "JCCs are places for the entire community, and people well beyond the Jewish community have been directly impacted," he said. "That speaks to bigotry and hatred more broadly."

Shtulman told MTV News that small children attending early childhood education courses or summer camps at JCCs might not know what's going on, but their parents do. "We communicate really closely with the parents, and we've been fortunate in that nothing has actually happened," he said. "But if you're sending your kids to this Jewish early childhood center because you like the programming and you like what they're doing, but there's an equally good program three blocks away that's not getting these threats, it's really tempting to move your kid." And Segal said that the worry might be too much for some parents. "I know that some parents have been so concerned that they've second-guessed whether or not they should be sending their kids to these schools. That just feeds into the purposes of what these people want."

This has been a harrowing experience for thousands of people, but Segal said that the response from the communities surrounding Jewish cemeteries and community centers has been deeply heartening, as hundreds of people — including Muslim congregations across the country — have volunteered to help repair tombstones and support Jewish communities. "This time will not be remembered only for the hatred and the bomb threats and the vandalism — it'll be remembered for how people responded. People have stood up for the Jewish community. The more that we see that, the more that we'll turn this difficult time into something that unites us."

For the JCC of Greater Ann Arbor, life has returned to normal, more or less. But David Shtulman said that at times like this, people should run to Jewish institutions, not away. "If people want to show support, bring your kids, come to regular programming, say 'We're not afraid to be in these buildings.' That's the greatest message people can send."