Old Hatred Needs New Response

On Monday and Tuesday, bomb threats forced the evacuation of Jewish community centers in a dozen cities; and in St. Louis, a 123-year-old Jewish cemetery was savagely desecrated, with at least 180 matzeivos knocked down. Given the proximity to Jewish homes in the area, local residents worry that the vandals may have targeted not just the cemetery but the community as a whole.

That’s only this week. Since January 1, 54 Jewish centers in 27 states were the targets of 70 threats. The increase over last year — which saw only one such incident — is dramatic.

The impact of these events reaches beyond the borders of the United States. Jews in Europe and Israel in particular have expressed concern.

In the case of St. Louis, Rabbi Menachem Greenblatt, Rav of the Agudath Israel in the city, has been receiving phone calls from around the world from people inquiring as to whether their relatives’ matzeivos were among those damaged.

While these acts are despicable, and the concern about them is certainly legitimate, we think it is important to keep some things in mind as we react and consider what can be done about them.

To begin with, despite the numbers that have been cited, actual anti-Semitic violence against persons remains rare in the U.S. B’chasdei Shamayim, the recent incidents involved threats; not a single bomb was found in any of the buildings that were targeted.

The hatred is there, seeking outlet, and for whatever reason it has emerged during these weeks, without any clear connection to other events. All the speculation about what motivated the perpetrators is just that — speculation. Whatever else may have been on the minds of the bomb-threat callers and cemetery vandals, only hatred of Jews can be known for sure.

While there is no easy answer to this problem, there are reasonable ways to respond.

Trying to read the twisted minds of the culprits will not avail. All that can be done at this point is to recognize that these are crimes and must be treated as such. In that respect, New York State Senator Simcha Felder’s bill to criminalize and increase penalties for even minor damage to cemeteries is very much in order.

While his proposal would only affect New York, the problem needs to be addressed around the country. St. Louis, unfortunately, is not alone. More than 1,800 individual cemetery markers were affected in the U.S. last year, costing at least $488,000 to repair, according to figures released by Felder’s office.

The bill passed the state Senate by a unanimous vote. We urge the Assembly to follow suit. State and local governments elsewhere should heed these recent outrages and take similar action.

We note with appreciation the condemnations and expressions of solidarity in the general community, not only from Jews but non-Jews as well.

The decision by the Trump administration to send Vice President Pence to visit the vandalized cemetery on Wednesday is a powerful testament of the president’s commitment to fighting anti-Semitism.

The governor of Missouri, Eric Greitens, condemned the vandalism as “disgusting” and called on the public to “fight acts of intolerance and hate.” He invited people to join him at the Chesed Shel Emeth cemetery with rakes, garbage bags and cleaning supplies to help restore the site.

Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt issued a statement on Tuesday calling the desecrations “an affront to the values we hold dear as Americans.”

“An attack against any faith compels all people of faith to come together in unyielding support for our neighbors, and unequivocal condemnation of the horrendous attack they have suffered. Together, we will make it clear to the perpetrators of this desecration that they have only strengthened our resolve to defend the rights of every faith and individual in our community,” Blunt said.

At the same time, two Muslim activists launched a campaign to raise funds for repairs at the cemetery. The drive, started by Linda Sarsour and Tarek El-Messidi, had an initial goal of $20,000 but had already raised more than $90,000 as of Wednesday.

Such news is heartening. The haters are far outnumbered by people of good will and a government and police that have been making real efforts to protect our communities and holy places.

Having said all that, it should also be stressed that vandalism is not the only threat facing Jewish cemeteries. Neglect and overgrowth are ubiquitous. The external violence against the resting places of our forebears should raise awareness of our responsibility to show greater respect for the niftarim.

We may not be able to prevent attacks from the outside, but we can at least do our best to maintain our batei kevaros in good condition.