Jewish communities in US rally against wave of bomb threats

Damaged headstones in Mt. Carmel Cemetery, Philadelphia.
Damaged headstones in Mt. Carmel Cemetery, Philadelphia.


Since the beginning of 2017, there has been a wave of bomb threats aimed at Jewish organisations across the United States, and several Jewish cemeteries have been vandalised. While it’s unclear if these events represent a rise in anti-Semitism in the country, we spoke to Observers who are a part of the targeted Jewish communities to understand how these communities are feeling.

A project by ProPublica to document hate has reported that at least 91 different Jewish organisations across the United States, sweeping from east to west, have received bomb threats since January 1, 2017. None of the threats have actually been carried out.

The threatening calls began on January 4, and then came in stops and starts over the next few weeks, with the largest bulk of calls reported on February 27, when 35 threats were made to 35 different Jewish organisations.

The threats are called in anonymously, and often take the form of a “robocall”, where the speaker’s voice is disguised using pitch-changing software, making the voice sound robotic.

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency, a news organisation based in the US, published a recording of a bomb threat that was made on January 18. They did not specify which organisation received the call.

Lack of data

There is no information on whether the phone calls across the United States transmitted the same message, and no way of knowing yet if they were perpetrated by the same person or by a coordinated team of callers. Similarly, there is no data that can determine whether hate crimes have spiked in the short period between the US election on November 8 and now. The most recent FBI statistics on hate crime are from 2015, and as local police stations are not obliged to report incidents of hate crime to the FBI, the numbers may be an underestimate. Other databases of reported hate crimes are anecdotal and so not necessarily verified, as in the case of the Southern Law Poverty Center’s #ReportHate initiative. The only way of tracking hate crimes in real time is by looking at local police records – but this makes a broader overview of national trends difficult to establish.

An example of a broken gravestone at Mt. Carmel Cemetery in Philadelphia.

Jewish cemeteries have also been desecrated in the past month, with more than 100 toppled or damaged headstones at the Chesed Shel Emeth Society cemetery in St. Louis, Missouri, discovered on February 20. Similar vandalism occurred at the Mount Carmel Cemetery in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, about a week later on February 26. The latest incident, at Waad Hakolel (Vaad Hakolel) Cemetery in Rochester, New York, occurred only on March 2.

“A devastating act of cowardice”

We spoke to Rabbi Yosef Goldman, who serves at the Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel conservative synagogue in Philadelphia, and went to Mount Carmel Cemetery to offer his help and support.

Rabbi Goldman went to the Mount Carmel Cemetery on Sunday, February 27, with other rabbis and volunteers from the community. He recorded a Facebook live video from the cemetery, featuring fellow rabbi Ari Lev Fornari.

It was early Sunday afternoon when I heard about what had happened. I was having a meeting with fellow rabbis and I quietly tapped a few of my colleagues and we went out. None of us had any personal connection to this cemetery.

When we got there, there were a handful of people there already, working to straighten the toppled headstones. There were rows upon rows of toppled headstones, hundreds of them. It was devastating to see such an act of cowardice and desecration.

Rabbi Goldman with other volunteers helping to right fallen headstones.

There were about a dozen people from different faiths – Christians, Quakers, a group of Ahmadi Muslims — who came to show their support and to help lift the tombstones with us. We spent several hours doing that. At the end of the day, as it was growing dark, more people came bringing hot drinks and food, and people came to pray, so we convened an evening service right there amidst the graves with our Christian and Muslim neighbours.

I and many of my friends and colleagues are feeling more aware of the way that we present as Jews in public: we want to keep a sense of pride in our Judaism and we have a sense of responsibility to be true to our Jewish values. But I’m feeling more aware than ever of how the status of Jews is ‘Other’, and how it is a minority.

“The greatest level of anti-Semitism this community has seen”

This is the first time in at least half a century that people remember anything of this sort happening to a cemetery in Philadelphia. I have had to reassure some of my congregants. There are many people who are scared. People in our community know that this rhetoric that is being thrown around could escalate into something far more dangerous. This is probably the greatest level of anti-Semitism this community has seen, certainly in my lifetime.

At the same time we’re seeing how the Jewish and Muslim communities in particular are coming together in response. I am confident that the Jewish community will be stronger in the wake of these incidents and that the relationships between religious communities in Philadelphia and the US will be stronger.

Rabbi Goldman said that there is a stringent security protocol already in place on Jewish sites across the city, imposed even before the threats and vandalism began. The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia works with a security consultant to assess the security needs of local Jewish organisations.


“Anti-Semites are emboldened”

I don’t know if there are more people feeling anti-Semitic, but certainly the anti-Semites in this country are feeling emboldened. Things have changed. I think that our president, Donald Trump, ran on a campaign of fear, filled with hateful rhetoric toward a number of groups including Muslims, immigrants, disabled, and LGBTQ people, and anti-Semitic groups heard in Trump’s words an affirmation of their beliefs. They have certainly claimed him as one of their own.

The David Posnack Jewish Day School in Davie, Florida, was one of the schools hit by a bomb threat on February 27 – a day after the Mount Carmel Cemetery was vandalised. The France 24 Observers team was able to speak to a parent of two children who attend the school, and who were evacuated that day. A video showing students continuing to pray in the car park of the school has been viewed over 65,000 times on Facebook.

Students continue to pray after being evacuated from David Posnack Jewish Day School in Davie, Florida, after a bomb threat.

“This is terrorism”

They have prayer services every day at the school and they have drills all the time – fire drills and active shooter drills. But they never take place during prayer services, so when they got a fire alarm drill that wasn’t during class time all of the kids knew something was different. They knew it had to be real. But they didn’t know what was happening, so they took the Torah out with them in case it was a fire.

Unfortunately the kids are very aware of anti-Semitism and they know that they are more likely to receive threats. It was disheartening for my kids, but they weren’t scared. They knew it was an unsubstantiated threat.

I don’t think that they are pranks – it is terrorism, whether or not it is followed through. They are trying to make us scared and to change our lifestyle. I just hope that we continue to take every threat seriously.

“I feel protected by Trump”

My personal belief is that the transition towards more open anti-Semitism happened because of the political scene of the last eight years. I think this new administration is strongly opposed to any hate crime and specifically towards Jewish centres. As a Jewish person, I do feel protected by Trump’s administration. Absolutely.