Philadelphia-area Jews woke to a brutal sight on Sunday morning: tombstones overturned at the Mount Carmel Cemetery.
Andrew Mallin was on his way to his father’s grave when he stumbled upon the vandalism. “It's just very disheartening that such a thing would take place,” he told a local ABC affiliate. “It’s just very heartbreaking.” Mallin’s find was not contained within a single area; tombstones were overturned throughout the cemetery, a vista of violation.
The desecration of the Philadelphia cemetery isn’t an isolated event. During the weekend of February 18, nearly 200 Jewish graves were vandalized outside St. Louis, and on February 1, 55 gravestones were overturned at a Fort Wayne, Indiana, Jewish cemetery.
All three incidents come at a moment of heightened anxiety for American Jews: The cemetery violations appear to be the latest disturbing trend in anti-Semitic acts across the country, coming after weeks of bomb threats to Jewish community centers (JCCs) across the country. Since 2017 began, there have been some 70 bomb threats called in to JCCs and schools. And on February 22, the offices of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) also received a threat.
Adding to Jewish anxiety as this wave of anti-Semitic threats seemed to increase was a strangely quiet White House.
President Donald Trump was asked repeatedly about his response to the uptick in anti-Semitic activity and threats. Each time, he offered either no response or vague comments that failed to address the problem.
He had two opportunities to condemn the threats at press conferences in the second week of February; in both instances, he appeared to dodge the question.
At a press conference held with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on February 15, when asked by Israeli journalist Moav Vardi about “a sharp rise in anti-Semitic incidents,” Trump pivoted immediately to talking about his Electoral College win, and then vaguely promised there would be a “lot of love” in his administration. During his rambling, 77-minute press conference the following day, he was asked directly about the bomb threats. He appeared to misunderstand the question, seeing it as a reflection on himself, and defensively answered he was the “least anti-Semitic person.” He did not, then, condemn the anti-Semitic incidents.
In fact, he failed to deliver a strong, specific message about anti-Semitism until the morning of February 22, when he finally acknowledged the bomb threats were “horrible and painful.”
Many in the Jewish community felt the message was too little, too late, especially coming from a White House that had previously failed to mention Jews in its message commemorating Holocaust Memorial Day. Meanwhile, Vice President Mike Pence made a stronger gesture than the president, traveling to St. Louis on February 22 to help clean up the vandalized cemetery there.
But the problem is not one of messaging. It is that each bomb threat — and each overturned tombstone — makes American Jews feel less safe, and less at home, in their own country. Every threatening call signals the spread of a new, vigorous and virulent anti-Semitism that is haunting Jews from Missouri to Alabama to New Jersey.
“I have never seen anything like this,” Ryan Lenz of the Southern Poverty Law Center recently told Vox, in response to the latest string of bomb threats. “This is a very unique trend in threat communications coming at the end of a very unique rise in hate and extremism across the United States.”
Lenz was referring to the 2016 presidential campaign itself. As my colleague Yochi Dreazen wrote back in October, then-candidate Trump “revived some of the ugliest of anti-Semitic stereotypes” in speeches and advertisements that recalled historical canards about Jews controlling the global levers of power and money. There was also an increase in anti-Semitic activity on Twitter midway through the campaign, including attacks on Jewish journalists. In a special report, the ADL found that some 800 journalists had been harassed.
Now it seems the wave of anti-Semitism has spread from threats against JCCs and the preschool kids who spend their days there to dishonoring the dead.