In an angry and fearful nation, an outbreak of anti-Semitism
By A.C. Thompson and Ken Schwencke, ProPublica
Visitors to the Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery in University City on February 21 check the names on headstones damaged after vandals toppled nearly 200 stones in the Jewish cemetery. File Photo by Bill Greenblatt/UPI | License Photo
March 9 (UPI) -- In late November, Marna Street, a violist with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, was walking to her car after a rehearsal. Street was shocked by what she discovered: Someone had painted a swastika, about 14 inches across, on the trunk of her car.
The vandals, Street said, had probably targeted her vehicle, which was parked in a garage not far from the University of Cincinnati, because she'd placed a magnet on it indicating that she is Jewish. Street eventually managed to scrub off the graffiti. She put the magnet in the glovebox of her car.
"I had that feeling in the pit of my stomach, like somebody just punched me," recalled Street, 68, speaking publicly for the first time. It was, she said, "a cross between fear and just plain hurt."
Working with a coalition of organizations, ProPublica late last year launched "Documenting Hate," an attempt to gather evidence of hate crimes and episodes of bigotry from a divided America. The account from Cincinnati is one of the anti-Semitic incidents the project has chronicled. But there are scores more.
Indeed, "Documenting Hate" recorded more than 330 reports of anti-Semitic incidents during a three-month span from early November to early February. The accounts — our list is by no means comprehensive — come via personal submissions, police documents and news articles. The majority, though not all, have been authenticated through either news reports, interviews or other evidence, like photos.
The incidents have taken place in big cities and small towns, along the country's liberal coasts and in deep red states. Some of the episodes — swastikas and threatening messages spray-painted at schools and colleges around the nation — have been worrisome, though relatively minor. Others have been more serious, such as the 65 bomb threats targeting Jewish organizations across the country during the period we examined (there have been nearly 70 more since then). In many cases, the culprits singled out specific individuals for abuse, defacing their homes and autos with swastikas and menacing comments.
President Donald Trump, after weeks of criticism for being slow to condemn the incidents, last week called them "horrible" and "painful" and "a very sad reminder of the work that still must be done to root out hate and prejudice and evil."
The remarks, however, came after a number of confounding comments about the issue. During a Feb. 16 news conference, Trump castigated Jake Turx, a reporter for Ami, a Jewish magazine, for asking what the government was doing to address the increase in anti-Semitic events. Trump accused Turx of lying about the question he wanted to ask, and instructed him to sit down. And without citing any evidence, Trump has wondered whether some of the recent anti-Semitic incidents were carried out by liberals, or Jews themselves, intent on discrediting him.
"There's a push on the left to conflate anti-Semitism with Trump, while at the same time criticizing him for having Jared Kushner, who wears his Jewishness as proudly as anyone, as his most trusted confidant and in the highest echelons of the White House staff," said Joe Borelli, a Trump supporter who represents Staten Island on the New York city council, according to Breitbart News. "It is mind-boggling."
The White House would not comment for the record when asked whether Trump had in any way contributed to the threats and violence.
On a national level, data on hate crimes and bias incidents is spotty at best. The FBI admits the information it collects is incomplete — many police departments don't participate in the hate crimes tracking program — and the bureau has yet to release statistics on 2016 and 2017. As a result, determining with authority whether anti-Semitic events are rising or declining is difficult.
There is little question, however, that the incidents have generated genuine concern. In a rare show of unity, all 100 U.S. senators this week issued a public letter urging the Department of Justice, FBI and Department of Homeland Security to protect Jewish institutions and prosecute those responsible for terrorizing them. In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently announced a $25 million grant to better protect day care and community centers from threats.
The available data does support the idea of an uptick. After years of decline, anti-Semitic crimes began trending upward in 2015, according to FBI data. Experts say that increase seems to have accelerated in recent months, as Trump's unique brand of nativist populism has helped to pull more extreme right-wing groups, some of them avowedly racist, closer to the political mainstream. On Twitter, openly anti-Semitic figures have built vast networks of supporters and cultivated large audiences, while the Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website geared towards millennials, has seen its traffic grow to roughly a half a million unique visitors per month. In New York City, the police department said anti-Semitic hate crimes nearly doubled in the first two months of 2017 as compared to the same period last year.
"One of the constituencies Trump mobilized was the KKK-style anti-Semitic extreme right," said Lawrence Rosenthal, a scholar of fascist history and director of the Center for Right-Wing Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. These groups "had been absolutely on the fringe of American politics for at least my lifetime — and I am getting old."
Oren Segal, who tracks anti-Semitic incidents in his role as director of the Anti-Defamation League's Center on Extremism, concurs. "The anti-Semites think they have a champion in the highest office," said Segal, who believes that "divisive rhetoric" aired during last fall's presidential campaign has emboldened racists and inspired them to strike out at their perceived enemies in the Jewish community.
"We have seen a significant uptick in the reports we've received, certainly starting around the election in November and continuing through the first two months of 2017," Segal told ProPublica.
Amid the larger national debate about any responsibility Trump may bear for racist and anti-Semitic behavior, the accounts emerging from the "Documenting Hate" database offer a chance to appreciate the very personal experiences of violation and fear.
ProPublica's review, which did not involve incidents occurring online, where anti-Semitic trolling and abuse have become widespread, uncovered many episodes which had never before been reported by the media or investigated by police.
Our tally is almost surely an undercount. It consists of incidents covered in media reports, as well as accounts gathered by the Southern Poverty Law Center and a coalition of news organizations including ProPublica, Univision News, Buzzfeed News and The New York Times Opinion section.
The reports we examined generally fall into two categories. Most appear to have been committed by angry individuals who aren't affiliated with any organized group. They are often teens or adolescents who defame Jews — and other minority groups — through graffiti or verbal taunting. In some cases, the Nazi symbol was specifically aimed at non-Jews.
A smaller number were orchestrated by extremist political groups, such as the New Order, an outgrowth of the long-dormant American Nazi Party founded by George Lincoln Rockwell, and the Atomwaffen Division, a new, youthful fascist group. A handful of cases involved a saboteur who remotely hijacked computer printers at Stanford and other colleges, programming them to spit out page after page of neo-Nazi propaganda.
Some experts tracking this wave of incidents said it was crucial to situate them within a wider historical context.
"Generally, we've seen a remarkable decline in anti-Semitism over the past 40 years," noted Jonathan Sarna, a history professor at Brandeis University and one of the foremost chroniclers of Jewish-American life. "In the 1950s, we didn't just have bomb threats — we had bombings. Synagogues in the south were bombed."
Sarna added: "It's important to be vigilant and concerned. But it's also important to not to overreact."
Across the nation, Jews were directly harassed with hateful imagery and messages in dozens of instances we examined.
During Hanukkah last year, vandals desecrated a large homemade menorah that stood in the front yard of a home in Chandler, Ariz., twisting the sacred symbol into a swastika. Days after the presidential election, New York state Sen. Brad Hoylman found a swastika carved into the elevator door in his Manhattan apartment building and received a flyer in the mail saying that Jews would be "punished" for failing to convert to Christianity.
Not everyone who has encountered Nazi imagery is Jewish — gays, lesbians, African Americans and others have also been targeted.
Consider the story of Karen Schaeffer, who found a swastika and the word "SCUM" drawn on her front door in mid-November.
"I was pretty scared," said Schaeffer, who lives in Wyandotte, Mich., a small blue-collar town outside Detroit. "I'm not even Jewish, but I am a pretty loud-mouthed liberal woman in a town that doesn't always appreciate that."
She has an idea about what drew the attention of the anti-Semites: a campaign sign in her window for Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator who unsuccessfully ran against Hillary Clinton in the Democratic presidential primary.
Police came to Schaeffer's house to investigate, but made no arrests.
In Cincinnati, Street, who is the principal violist emeritus with the symphony and a music teacher, said the graffiti on her car left her "feeling very vulnerable." Her father and grandmother fled Nazi Germany for the safety of the United States in the 1940s.
Several weeks after Street's car was defaced, schools in her city began getting hit with anti-Semitic graffiti.
First, someone painted a large white swastika on a sign at Cincinnati's Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the largest seminary for Reform Judaism in North America.
When the incident happened in early January, it was another psychic blow for Street. She worried about her friends who work at the college, and tried to understand the acts of ugliness taking place in her city. The crimes, she said, "are not huge, but compounded they are very frightening."
Across the nation, similar graffiti appeared on the campuses of more than 35 other colleges during the three months examined by ProPublica.
Late on the night of Jan. 21, a mask-wearing vandal equipped with a spray can defaced Withrow University High School, a public school on Cincinnati's east side, painting "Trump" and swastikas all over the campus. The vandal, who tagged signs, sidewalks and buildings, also painted anti-gay and anti-black slurs.
Dozens of other schools were also tagged with anti-Semitic graffiti during the same time period.
"Some people will say that the swastika vandalism is just being done by a bunch of kids and dismiss it as irrelevant. I think it's the opposite. The fact that young kids are doing this is potentially the scariest part of it," said Segal of the Anti-Defamation League.
On college campuses, much of the new anti-Semitism has been coming from organized groups of extremists out to intimidate or recruit new members.
At the University of Washington, in Seattle, a pro-Trump student group calling itself the "UW Wall Building Association" flirted with Nazism in a public Facebook post suggesting that undocumented immigrants should be sent to "concentration camps."
Neo-Nazis also crisscrossed the university campus at night, pasting up stark black-and-white posters threatening violence and uploading videos of their exploits to YouTube. One poster, featuring the death's head, or Totenkopf insignia, used by the SS during World War II, promised to "Drive out the sodomites and degenerates of Seattle." Another poster encouraged students to "join your local Nazis" and visit the website IronMarch.com, a fascist web hangout that encourages people to exterminate Jews and start a "race war now."
"People are just shocked. We can't believe this is happening," said a graduate student who requested anonymity for fear of being harassed.
When the student saw the posters, she said she felt physically ill. "I called my mom and was sobbing. I was so upset. My ancestors were slaughtered by the Nazis," said the student, who is Jewish.
The neo-fascist organization did not reply to a request for an interview about its activities.
White nationalist groups including Identity Evropa, led by a California man convicted of attacking an Arab cabdriver at gunpoint, and True Cascadia, which aims to promote "White ethnic consciousness in the Pacific Northwest," are also propagandizing at the school.
Segal has tracked 112 instances of white supremacist groups posting flyers on college campuses since September 2016.
Over the past several months, synagogues and other Jewish institutions have come under sustained harassment.
In December, somebody repeatedly hurled rocks through the windows of Temple Menorah-Keneseth Chai, a historic synagogue in Philadelphia. On the opposite side of the country, in Las Vegas, a young man in jeans and a pullover sweatshirt scratched a swastika into a black marble column during Shabbat services at Chabad of Southern Nevada.
In other states, Christian churches ministering to gays and lesbians or Latinos have also been tagged with swastikas.
But it is the array of bomb threats directed at Jewish community centers that has captured the most media attention and generated the most concern. Federal authorities on March 3 charged Juan Thompson, an erratic former journalist who once wrote for the Intercept website, with making threats to a small number of JCCs as well as other Jewish institutions.
But the figures responsible for the scores of threats to other JCCs remain at large. On Tuesday, another 17 locations of Jewish institutions in the United States received bomb threats.
Some faith leaders are urging Trump to issue a stronger public condemnation of anti-Semitism before the problem worsens. "We need him to say very forcefully, 'This is not acceptable' — and to follow up with action," said Rabbi Steven Fox, chief executive of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the nation's most prominent rabbinical body.
Fox said Jewish community leaders have requested a meeting with the White House to discuss the surge in anti-Semitic activity, but, so far, have not been granted an audience with Trump or his advisers.
Within his denomination, Reform Judaism, "there is great concern about this uptick in hate crimes, this increase in hate speech," Fox told ProPublica. "In the last two years we've seen this real hatred for anybody that's different — hatred for Muslims, hatred for the LGBTQ community. We see it as a deeply troubling trend, not just in America, but in the world."
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