Community calling for federal aid to combat anti-Semitism


Esther Bell

After a pattern of bomb threats at Jewish institutions and the desecration of Jewish cemeteries, community members at a March 2 meeting placed blame on the rhetoric of President Donald Trump.

By Eric Bradach

Bomb threats at Jewish places of worship and organizations and anti-Semitic rhetoric are a national trend that has recently emerged in Chicago. 

At approximately 10 a.m. Feb. 20, the Hyde Park Jewish Community Center, 5200 S. Hyde Park Blvd., received a bomb threat by telephone. Following their protocol, the center contacted the Chicago Police Department and evacuated the building. CPD found the threat to be unsubstantiated, and the center resumed normal activities by noon, according to Addie Goodman, executive vice president of the Jewish Community Centers’ Chicago chapter. 

Even though law enforcement found the threats noncredible, they should still be taken seriously, said Lonnie Nasatir, upper Midwest regional director for the Anti-Defamation League. ADL received bomb threats at its national office in New York City Feb. 22 and San Francisco location Feb. 27, he added. 

The threats come on the heels of desecration of Jewish cemeteries over the past two weeks in St. Louis, Philadelphia and Rochester, New York.

Juan Thompson, a former reporter for The Intercept, was arrested in St. Louis and charged with one count of cyberstalking a woman he had dated and making eight bomb threats in her name to the JCC and ADL, according to a March 3 FBI report.

“It has been a very difficult couple of weeks as [the bomb threats] seem to continue,” Nasatir said. “We’re now at 122 bomb threats as of [March 1] at 96 [Jewish] institutions.” 

In a Feb. 20 statement in response to the bomb threats, Mayor Rahm Emanuel said the U.S. was founded on religious freedom, and the nation has benefited from its religious diversity. 

“Cowardly acts like the recent wave of threats against Jewish community centers across the country, including here in Chicago, are an affront to our most basic American values and shared sense of human decency,” Emanuel said. 

Goodman said the Hyde Park incident was the second bomb threat JCC Chicago received in 2017. The other was Jan. 31 at the organization’s Lake County location, 23280 N. Old McHenry Road, Lake Zurich, Illinois, and was also proven to be unsubstantiated by local law enforcement. 

Despite anti-Semitism and these threats, the JCC has received strong support from the community, Goodman said. 

“Families that are well beyond the [JCC] geography [have been] reaching out and expressing their sadness and hope that we all get past this together,” Goodman said. “We are feeling solidarity across our communities.” 

Nasatir said ADL has received an “outpouring of support” from various community organizations, including Muslim-based groups. CPD and city officials have been “strong” in their response, he added. 

“It has been a rallying cry for a lot of other minority communities,” Nasatir said. “It has awakened other communities to say ‘an attack against one community is an attack against all.’” 

Jamie Weisbach, a Jewish resident of Hyde Park and organizer for IfNotNow Chicago, a Jewish advocacy organization, said he has not “seen anything like this” in his lifetime. The group held a community meeting at the University of Chicago, 5733 S. University Ave., to allow locals to voice and discuss their concerns March 2. 

“I think a lot of young Jews respond to older [generations’] fear of anti-Semitism as sometimes overhyped,” Weisbach said. “A lot of Jews in my generation are coming to feel that’s not the case. Anti-Semitism is once again becoming a major force in our life that we are feeling on a daily basis.”

In Springfield, State Rep. Litesa Wallace, D-Rockford, has introduced legislation to combat hate crimes. House Bill 3711, filed Feb. 10, would allow Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan to bring civil action for damages in the event of a hate crime, independent of criminal prosecution results. 

Wallace told The Chronicle the bill was drafted with Madigan’s office and was created to protect minority groups, which may face a rise of prejudice and discrimination.

“Recently, we’ve seen people who are a lot more outward with their hatred for other groups,” Wallace said. “If there’s anything we could do to help protect those groups that are vulnerable to harassment and violence, we should be doing that.” 

Hate crimes are defined by the FBI as a criminal offense against an individual or property motivated by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender or gender identity. 

According to the FBI’s latest Hate Crime Statistics report, there were 7,173 hate crimes victims in 2015. The report said 1,402—19.7 percent—were  bias against religion. The Jewish community was hit the hardest with 52.1 percent of all anti-religious hate crimes.

“Anonymous calls from cowards will not daunt me,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO and national director of ADL in statement to President Donald Trump Feb. 27, the day before Trump’s first joint address to Congress. “They will not discourage our courageous volunteers around the country.” 

Trump noted the recent events in the opening of his joint address; however, he did not discuss any policies to confront the issue.

“Recent threats targeting Jewish community centers and vandalism of Jewish cemeteries—remind us that while we may be a nation divided on policies,” Trump said in his address. “We’re a country that stands united in condemning hate and evil.” 

Judy Levey, executive director of the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, said her organization was initially fearful of the bomb threats. However, emotions later turned into anger in light of the lack of response from the White House, she added. 

“I don’t think our president has done enough to call out and condemn those acts,” Levy said. “[Despite recent comments,] he ought to be doing a lot more.” 

Nasatir said it is clear the alt-right movement was “emboldened” by rhetoric in the 2016 presidential election cycle. The policy proposals toward immigration and Muslim bans were “music to their ears,” he added. 

Levey said there seems to have been an “evil strain unleashed” that gives people the impression they have a “license to act on their hate” because of Trump’s campaign rhetoric. 

“We know there are factions of hate groups that supported [Trump’s] election, including the Ku Klux Klan,” Levey said. “It seems as if this is a president that doesn’t mind being supported by those hate groups, and that is dangerous for all of us.” 

Weisbach said the nation seems to be at a moment of “instability” and does not know what the ramifications would be should elected officials do not redirect the curve. 

“It gives me a lot of fear,” Weisbach said. “I grew up in a country where I never really felt unsafe being Jewish.”