The Kid From Ashkelon Isn’t the Whole Story

The teenager (C) who is accused of making anti-Semitic bomb threats in the United States and elsewhere is escorted by guards as he leaves the Israeli Justice court in Rishon Lezion on
March 23, 2017. (JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images)

The initial reaction to the news that a Jew in Israel was arrested on suspicion of making more than 100 threatening calls to Jewish institutions in the United States is shock, quickly followed by shame and disbelief.

Who would do such a thing? And why? What possible gain could come from sowing panic among thousands of parents, whose children had to be pulled from their schools or community center programs?

The alleged perpetrator is an 18-year-old with dual American-Israeli citizenship who lives in Ashkelon. His motive, at this stage, is unknown. But speculation ranges from psychological problems, the most obvious choice, to a need to feel important, especially after having been rejected by the IDF for mandatory military service.

It will take time for the fog to clear. It is expected that the United States will extradite him for trial and, if found guilty, punishment. But it’s already possible to reach a number of conclusions.

First, those who seized upon the recent wave of anti-Semitic events to attack the new administration owe President Donald Trump an apology. It was unconscionable to accuse him of not being concerned enough about anti-Semitism or, worse, of creating an environment of intolerance for “the other” that fostered anti-Semitism. These were cheap political shots that had no place in the context of a problem as serious as anti-Semitism.

Once again we are reminded of the vital precept on not rushing to draw conclusions. Not everything that at first glance appears to be anti-Semitism is actually driven by a hatred of Jews. The reverse is also true. Discrimination that may initially appear to be unrelated to one’s religion, may actually be anti-semitic in nature.

Second, this episode hammers home the need to gain control of the internet. Besides the obvious dangers, it is a tool that is being used to shame others, to commit a range of cybercrimes and, now, to spread hate and fear.

According to Ronen Bergman of Yediot Acharonot, the Israel police have argued that in light of the fact that a criminal who is not very sophisticated managed to cause so much damage, the police should be given the authority to collect cyber intelligence “like the Shin Bet and the Mossad.” While we respect the rights of individuals to privacy, in this day and age it is important to give police the tools they need to protect citizens from those who would harm them via the new technologies.

Third, even if this young man from Ashkelon is found to be responsible for making 100 calls to the United States, and more to other places like New Zealand, that doesn’t mean that anti-Semitism isn’t a real problem. This youth didn’t desecrate Jewish cemeteries in St. Louis and elsewhere over the internet.

Clearly then, it would be a mistake to lower the state of alert because of this arrest. There is a problem of rising racism, including anti-Semitism, throughout the United States, which must be taken seriously. That means, among other things, taking bomb threats at face value and evacuating children and innocents until it can be confirmed that the threat is a false alarm.

Most vitally we must always bear in mind that ultimately our safety and security is solely on the Hands of Hashem, and we must constantly daaven to the Shomer Yisrael for protection.

Fourth, there is room to question the media’s role in all this. To what extent does extensive, sometimes sensationalistic coverage of these events spark copycat threats? The media has to weigh the public’s right to know, and, to be honest, its right to sell newspapers and stay alive economically, with the risks of creating a sense of panic that encourages the perpetrators and frightens their victims.

The good news is that the cooperation between the FBI and the Israel police was seamless. And that the FBI and Homeland Security Department pursued the matter relentlessly, using what one American Jewish leader who was briefed on the investigation called “unprecedented levels of time and resources.”

Finally, the Trump Administration deserves our gratitude for stating unequivocally that the administration will show zero-tolerance for hate crimes.

“We will not tolerate the targeting of any community in this country on the basis of their religious beliefs,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement.

Since its inception as an independent nation, the United States has embodied the concept of a malchus shel chessed, a country that has made it possible for Jews and people of all religions to serve their Creator in peace and tranquility. We should never take this fact for granted, and at every opportunity express our thanks to the elected officials and others who continue this most benevolent American tradition of religious liberties and freedoms.