The spate of bomb threats called in against Jewish Community Centers across the nation, including the Birmingham JCC, are only the most high-profile of an increasing number of anti-Semitic hate crimes, according to the Anti-Defamation League, an international organization that fights anti-Semitism and advocates for human rights.
In the past month, 65 bomb threats have been called in to 55 different Jewish Community Centers across the nation, said Shelley Rose, the interim regional director of the Southeast branch of the Anti-Defamation League. These acts follow a dramatic increase in hateful rhetoric and crimes against the Jewish community, Rose noted, as well as increased hate against the Muslim and immigrant communities.
Rose said that the toxic political atmosphere of the last presidential campaign and the nation’s coarsening political discourse have given those with hateful views the courage to speak their minds.
“I have to think that at least some of it is coming from [the fact that] all during the campaign, we saw a real increase in hateful rhetoric coming from candidates,” she said. “It just emboldens those people who hold those kind of hateful views to speak out more and say things that we have always considered socially unacceptable. Once you allow that kind of hate speech to be out there, it then emboldens some people to then act on that, so you see an increase in hate incidents.
“We see even a lot more reports about incidents in schools, in middle schools and high schools, and even, I think, some elementary schools,” she added. “They are repeating the kinds of things that they see going on both in social media and out in the world.”
The FBI’s annual Hate Crime Statistics Act Report found that in 2015 (the most recent year for which data is available), 694 anti-Jewish hate crimes affecting 730 people were reported to law enforcement, up from 635 such hate crimes the previous year. The ADL found the situation to be even worse: The Anti-Defamation League study found that 941 anti-Semitic “instances of hate” occurred in 2015, including 56 violent assaults.
The months following the November 2016 election saw a large number of hate crimes committed against many minorities. The Southern Poverty Law Center documented 1,094 instances of “bias-related harassment and intimidation” between November 9 and December 12, including 33 instances of anti-Semitic harassment in that period. Reports of intimidation against minorities have slowed since then, but they continue to be prevalent enough that The New York Times started a weekly column titled “This Week in Hate” to document reports of hate crimes and harassment across the nation, including those motivated by anti-Semitism.
Similarly, ProPublica’s “Documenting Hate” feature is an ongoing effort to involve victims, witnesses, and journalists to create a continual record of hate crimes. “The 2016 election left many in America afraid of intolerance and the violence it can inspire,” ProPublica’s web page says. “The need for trustworthy facts on the details and frequency of hate crimes and other incidents born of prejudice has never been more urgent.”
The first round of bomb threats were called in to Jewish Community Centers across the Northeast on January 9, and JCCs throughout the South were targeted in the second wave on January 18. The latest spate occurred on January 31, when 14 centers in the U.S. and one in Canada received threats, according to a statement released by the Birmingham Jewish Federation. In no case was a bomb found.
The identity of the caller is unknown, as is whether they are acting alone or are part of a larger hate group, said Rose. However, she said that their goals in calling in false bomb threats are clear.
“Whoever is doing it, their intent is to disrupt and to inspire terror and fear into the community. They know that JCCs are very active places. A lot of people are there during the day. Many of [the JCCs] have child care centers there, and that just adds another level of fear and terror because you have to get all the children to safety, the parents have to be notified, and you have to take seriously every threat. So it causes a great deal of disruption,” she said.
Rose said that while there are no easy answers to dealing with the resurgence of anti-Semitism throughout the country, everyone needs to be willing to speak out against hatred they see in their own lives.
“At ADL, we do believe in free speech and that people have the right to express hateful views. Once that crosses the line into action, that’s another story, and we believe there should be hate crime laws to address that kind of criminal activity,” she said, adding that anti-Semitism demands a response. “If you see or hear hateful things being done or said or put out on social media, you need to counter it and say this is not acceptable, this is not what America is all about, not what we believe in, and we reject this kind of language and kind of hate,” she said. “I think you can’t underestimate the importance of being willing to speak up and speak out and a lot of times that can have a real positive effect.”
Betzy Lynch, executive director of the Levite Jewish Community Center of Birmingham, said that Jewish Community Centers, by bringing people of disparate backgrounds and faith together, are themselves vital tools in dispelling bigotry.
“Anybody, old, young, no matter what faith, ethnicity, race, so on, anybody who wants to be a part of the JCC, and has the capacity to do so, can. … Every single day, we help build relationships among diverse groups of people and help people to know each other … and to have friends that are a different race or ethnicity or religion,” she said. “That’s what we do to build community, and I think because the JCC has been here for 110 years in Birmingham, we actually make Birmingham a far more interesting place and a far more diverse place.
“Given that context, I think that the work of JCC — which is probably the irony of the whole bomb threat situation — is exactly what [helps combat anti-Semitism],” Lynch added. “Our goal is to continue to be that bright spot in a dark time where we’re helping people have ties with something bigger than themselves, which is our community. And I think the importance of our work today and the importance of our work in the last 110 years has always been critical, but I think these [instances of anti-Semitism] are stark reminders to us about why we do this every day.”