Many American Jews reacted with a sense of relief — and a degree of embarrassment — to the news that an Israeli teenager was arrested in connection with many of the phoned-in bomb threats to JCCs and other Jewish institutions in the United States, Australia, and New Zealand.
For several months, as dozens of JCCs were subjected to evacuations, from toddlers to the elderly; as Jewish cemeteries were desecrated, with tombstones overturned; and as reports of swastikas defacing synagogues, schools, and public spaces in the tri-state area were reported at a quickening pace, a sense of fear gripped much of the community.
Connections were suggested, though not established, to the toxic atmosphere of the presidential campaign, and specifically to Donald Trump’s demeaning comments about women, Mexicans, Muslims, and other minorities, as well as his reluctance to denounce the endorsement he received from David Duke, which in turn seemed to embolden white nationalists and other extremists to speak out with words of hate.
The community wasn’t certain whether it was witnessing an outbreak of anti-Semitism like no other in decades across the land, or was merely the intended victim of a handful of unhinged individuals. Or something in between.
Not surprisingly, given our long history, many feared the worst. And when Trump seemed resistant to fully condemn anti-Semitism and other acts of hate, it only fueled the fear that his behavior was allowing, if not encouraging, such acts.
What we’ve learned from this unsettling experience are lessons we should have known, especially since we Jews offer them ourselves at times. Namely, to take threats seriously but not to make assumptions. Remember the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995, when it was assumed the perpetrators were foreign terrorists? Instead, it was one disturbed American citizen.
We should also remember that as American Jews, we are only victims if we make ourselves victims. For all the persecution our people have suffered over the centuries, we are blessed to live with more freedom as Jews in this country than any other Diaspora nation in history.
And yet we also know that anti-Semitism still lives and that vigilance must never waver. Because, even if you put aside our kindred lone wolf, there has been no lack of anti-Semitic acts plaguing the Jewish community at home and abroad in the last several months:
Jewish cemeteries in Philadelphia and Missouri were desecrated; swastikas were found in a South Orange middle school bathroom, outside the home of congressional candidate Peter Jacob in Union Township, and on a pedestrian bridge in Essex County; and during Chanukah a public menorah was vandalized in South Orange. Even after the teen’s arrest last week, a bomb threat was called into a Dallas JCC and a swastika was found in a Phoenix high school.
Perhaps just as disturbing is that some of our local leaders don’t seem to get it; earlier this year Roseland Councilmen Tom Tsilionis and David Jacobs were forced to resign after their racially inflammatory text messages became public. In one Tsilionis wrote, “David how do I become Jewish? I want to be half Jewish (cheap) and half African American (endowed).”
Our suspicion is understandable, but if we’ve learned anything from the past week, it’s that we must not rush to judgment. This sorry episode should be a humbling one for all of us — examine the facts before we make accusations.