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March 5, 2017 7:32 am

Is the ‘Rising Tide’ of US Antisemitism Only a Surge in Reporting?

avatar by Lori Lowenthal Marcus /

Overturned gravestones at a Jewish cemetery in Philadelphia. Photo: Screenshot.

Overturned gravestones at a Jewish cemetery in Philadelphia. Photo: Screenshot. – Nearly 100 bomb threats have been called into Jewish institutions since early January, and scores of headstones at three Jewish cemeteries — in Missouri, Pennsylvania, New York — were desecrated in February. But is America witnessing a significant uptick in antisemitism, or just a surge in the attention paid to, and the reporting of, antisemitic incidents?

To answer that question, the incidents themselves must first be appraised accurately. They are religious hate crimes, as per the FBI’s definition, of “a criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a religion.”

In the past 20 years, however, there have been larger-scale crimes against Jewish institutions, including:

  • In 1999, a white supremacist walked into the lobby of the North Valley Jewish Community Center in Granada Hills, Calif., and fired 50 shots, wounding three children, a teenager and an adult. The shooter, Buford O. Furrow, Jr., was gunning for Jews.
  • In 2006, Naveed Haq forced his way into the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle facility, where he shot six people, murdering one of them.
  • In April 2014, Frazier Glenn Miller Jr. drove to the Overland Park JCC and the Village Shalom retirement home in Kansas, and fatally shot three people. Miller hoped to kill Jews by targeting Jewish institutions, but his victims happened to be Christians.

The recent bomb threats, none of which were followed by actual attacks, are not a new phenomenon in the US, although the successive and coordinated hits on so many Jewish institutions in a relatively short period of time is in fact unprecedented.

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Jewish cemeteries, meanwhile, have been occasionally vandalized for as long as they have existed. In December 2010, more than 200 headstones were knocked over, smashed and graffitied at Washington Cemetery in Brooklyn. An internet search going back decades uncovered dozens of Jewish cemetery desecrations, but the overwhelming majority of these attacks received minimal media attention and some were not reported at all. So why have the St. Louis-area, Philadelphia and Rochester attacks proved different?

A security expert who deals exclusively with Jewish institutions, Jason Friedman of the Community Security Service (CSS), told that he is not convinced that there has been “a dramatic increase in antisemitic events, rather than a big increase in the reporting of and on such events.”

CSS recently issued a detailed 42-page report documenting 45 years of antisemitic incidents, including shootings, arson attacks, use of explosive devices and hostage situations; it did not catalogue hoax bomb threats and cemetery desecrations. Two sample entries from 2016 include a foiled bombing attempt at an Aventura, Fla. synagogue in April, and explosives thrown at the homes of two Chabad-Lubavitch rabbis in Rockland County, NY. Although those acts caused property damage and were intended to inflict physical harm, even death, they received little media coverage.

The FBI has been compiling statistics on hate crimes since 1999, and through 2015 — the most recent year for which data is available — Jews have always been the biggest target of religious hate crimes by a wide margin.

In 1999, Jews were on the receiving end of 76 percent of all religious hate crimes in America. That figure was 56.5 percent in 2001 and 65.3 percent in 2002. No other religion suffered half as many hate crimes as Jews during those years. Jews have been the targets of between 500 and more than 1,000 hate crimes every year since the FBI began its documentation.

While news headlines and politicians decry the “rising tide” of hatred against Jews, the Pew Foundation recently published a report, titled “Americans Express Increasingly Warm Feelings Toward Religious Groups,” which belies such claims. Between June 2014 and January 2017, non-Jewish Americans’ feelings toward Jews grew warmer, from 63 to 67 “degrees,” according to the survey, conducted last month.

Friedman, meanwhile, said he sees a silver lining in the possible uptick in the reporting of antisemitic incidents — that it encourages Jewish institutions to be forward-thinking and proactive.

Though there has been a groundswell of anger directed at President Donald Trump for allegedly failing to swiftly or sufficiently denounce antisemitism — and some critics have labeled the president an antisemite and claimed he is responsible for unleashing a wave of religious hatred — the White House has condemned the recent acts. The president began his Tuesday speech to Congress by calling attention to the “recent threats targeting Jewish community centers and vandalism of Jewish cemeteries.”

So is there really a surge in antisemitism, or just a rise in the coverage of an old problem?

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