A surge in anti-Semitic incidents, ranging from hateful graffiti and more serious vandalism to phone threats to Jewish schools and community centers, has sparked anxiety as well as anger, moral outrage and soul-searching about the state of the nation. Outrage is a proper response. But as some recent twists in this disturbing story remind us, caution is essential as well. Important as it is to take a stand, it is also important to avoid a rush to knee-jerk conclusions about the crimes and the culprits.
Ever since Donald Trump’s election, hate crimes have been blamed on his supporters or, more broadly, on the climate created by his demonization of foreigners, immigrants here illegally or improperly vetted, and Muslims. None of Trump’s rhetoric has singled out Jews (though a campaign video attacking global financial institutions was criticized for employing anti-Semitic “dog whistles”). Nonetheless, many argue that whipping up nativist suspicion toward “alien” groups inevitably stokes anti-Semitism.
What’s more, Trump’s presidential run attracted the enthusiastic, if marginal, support of white supremacist groups and anti-Semitic internet trolls, and he was late and not very vocal in repudiating such unsavory support. It widely held among Trump foes that his victory has emboldened bigots of all stripes.
Trump’s comments last week in which he condemned anti-Semitism but asserted that some incidents were “the reverse” and an attempt to “make others look bad” also raised some eyebrows. Michael Wilner, The Jerusalem Post’s Washington bureau chief, tweeted that Trump was “acknowledging perpetrators are likely his supporters.”
But also last week, that assumption apparently proved untrue in at least one case. In St. Louis, 31-year-old Juan Thompson was arrested and charged with making at least eight threats to Jewish community centers. Thompson is a former journalist who used to work for a left-wing magazine, The Intercept (before getting fired as a fabricator), and often railed against Trump and against white people on Twitter. Thompson is African-American. Some of his social media posts suggest that he recently embraced Islam.
While there have been hate-crime hoaxes intended to implicate Trump supporters, Thompson was reportedly trying to frame a former girlfriend.
If Thompson is the perpetrator, it is extremely unlikely that he is single-handedly responsible for the wave of harassment targeting Jewish communities nationwide. The FBI does not believe that he was behind the recent vandalism of headstones at a Jewish cemetery not far from St. Louis. Cemetery vandalism also has happened in Pennsylvania and in upstate New York.
Even so, caution is in order. Another controversy arose over the weekend when New York State Assemb. Dov Hikind tweeted photos of overturned headstones at a Jewish cemetery in Brooklyn as evidence of another anti-Semitic attack. However, police have said the headstones were toppled by strong winds; cemetery operators agreed. Hikind and some other politicians remain skeptical.
The rise in bias incidents is real. Just the other day, the NYPD announced that reports of anti-Semitic hate crimes have risen 94 percent since last February. Yet it is useful to remember that the political climate may not only drive up such offenses but make people more likely to report them to the police. And the publicity around them inevitably inspires copycats — a paradoxical effect of voicing concern about the issue.
Anti-Semitism is not new; long before Trump’s political rise, Jews were the top target of anti-religious hate crimes in America. Today’s toxic political climate fans hate of all kinds. But it is important not to panic — and not to point fingers before the evidence is in.
Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics.