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A young volunteer cleaned headstones in a Jewish Cemetery after vandals destroyed hundreds.

Remembering the Holocaust Motivates May 7 event

For many, anti-semitic hate crimes mimic those that led up to Holocaust.

 

–By Lori (Roberts) Wilson

The Phone Rings…

… it’s your child’s daycare. The calm but measured voice says your child is all right, but your faith falters when all you retain from the next sentence is “bomb threat.”

“This can’t be happening!” you gasp, half to yourself and half to anyone within earshot.

This may not be your reality, but it has been for other fathers and mothers in the United States already in 2017. Many Jewish parents have received phone calls that their children are all right, but have been evacuated from their daycare as a bomb threat has been called into community center. Not only toddlers have been affected, but school children, adults working out in the fitness center, employees – literally thousands of Jews and friends who are welcome members and guests of Jewish community centers. According to data from the Jewish Community Center Association of North America (and as of this writing) more than 164 bomb threats have targeted 87 locations across 36 states and two provinces in Canada.

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Yes, the local JCC in Overland Park had a bomb threat in January. So far, in all of these incidents, no bombs have been found, no property destroyed, no people injured, no lives lost.

The living and the dead are victims

A phone call also could mean something else. The cemetery superintendent informs you that vandals have knocked over your grandmother’s headstone. Again, this probably and thankfully will never be your reality.

However for hundreds of families, vandals in two Jewish cemeteries (as of this writing) since January 2017 have broken headstones and shattered hearts. Emotions and reactions vary. After a St. Louis-area cemetery was vandalized, Ellen R. Portnoy wrote in a guest column published in The Kansas City Jewish Chronicle, “I think my anger is intensified because so many of my family have no graves. Their remains are included in the ashes of the concentration camps and destroyed Jewish communities in Europe.”

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Emily Ford owns and operates Oak and Laurel Cemetery Preservation, LLC, a New Orleans-based cemetery preservation company. In her report “The Year in Cemetery Vandalism 2016,” she brought up thoughts well known in her industry but relatively unknown outside the cemetery business. “There is a frequently used and oft-misattributed quote among cemetery people, to the effect of ‘Show me a civilization’s cemeteries and I will show you how civilized they actually are.’

“The quote,” explained Ford, “is usually utilized when discussing the cost of funerals or the frequency of maintenance. But it has an alternate relevance in the sphere of criminology – political vandalism, hate crimes, and other identity-targeted cemetery crime is itself a barometer for larger socio-political trends. Show someone a graffitied 9/11 memorial, a broken police memorial, or a defaced Jewish cemetery, and they will see the evidence of something much larger.”

Ford continued, noting specific anti-Semitic swipes. “The perception of the cemetery as manifestation of cultural identity is especially pertinent in the case of Jewish cemeteries. Cemeteries, along with places of worship, are symbolic of the community itself and are targeted by anti-Semitic vandals in a nearly pathological manner.”

Ford’s report noted, “In 2016, three Jewish cemeteries in the United States were subject to this type of hate crime. Within one week in February” there was vandalism at two cemeteries in Hartford, Connecticut, as well as an October incident days before Yom Kippur in Warwick, New York. Yom Kippur is one of the most sacred holy days in Judaism. The rabbi of the congregation directly affected by the Yom Kippur incident explained. It “represents hatred and persecution of the Jewish people throughout the centuries. It’s a symbol of hatred and intimidation,” said Rabbi Rebecca Shinder of the World War II Nazi swastikas and “SS” insignia graffiti that desecrated her congregation’s cemetery.

Ford also referred to global incidents. In a report of a 2016 cemetery strike by vandals in the United Kingdom, smashing and destroying headstones, “There have been repeated warnings that anti-Semitic attacks are on the rise in the UK, after reaching the highest level ever recorded last year (2015).” This article mentioned an even more disturbing report, stating “violence, property damage, abuse and threats against members of Britain’s Jewish population more than doubling last year (2014). The Community Security Trust, a Jewish security charity that runs an incident hotline, recorded 1,168 antisemetic incidents against Britain’s 291,000 Jews in 2014, against 535 in 2013 and 25% up on the previous record in 2009.”

A January 2016 article reported “a Jewish cemetery in (Hanover) Germany was desecrated for the third time in three months.”

Is that all? Probably not. “Many other incidents likely occurred but were not reported, or were not pursued as hate crimes,” according to Ford.

But that’s just the Jews, right?

A researcher implores us to think again. “People in general should be worried right now. Jews have been described as the miner’s canaries. That means everybody else has better watch out, because there’s more trouble coming,” said Aaron Breitbart, a researcher at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles.

Breitbart continued, “Whenever there is an upsurge in bigotry against any group of people, others generally get caught up in it. It’s a warning not simply to Jews but to society that there is a certain sickness, a certain rottenness that is rearing its ugly head once again. It may be the Jews one time, but it’ll be others as well. That’s why all forms of bigotry are dangerous, even if you aren’t the target at the particular time.”

So, what are we doing about all this?

The newly elected US president began a recent speech addressing these anti-Semitic incidents in our nation. “Recent threats targeting Jewish community centers and vandalism of Jewish cemeteries … remind us that while we may be a nation divided on policies, we are a country that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all of its very ugly forms,” said President Donald J. Trump in his first joint address to Congress on February 28.

Later in his speech, Trump addressed global terrorism against other religions, including Christianity. “As promised, I directed the Department of Defense to develop a plan to demolish and destroy ISIS – a network of lawless savages that have slaughtered Muslims and Christians, and men, and women, and children of all faiths and all beliefs. We will work with our allies, including our friends and allies in the Muslim world, to extinguish this vile enemy from our planet.”

Underscoring the United States’ renewed commitment to the only democracy in the Middle East, President Trump continued, “I have also imposed new sanctions on entities and individuals who support Iran’s ballistic missile program, and reaffirmed our unbreakable alliance with the State of Israel.”

 

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Hate crimes are increasing – possibly more than reported

According to a November 2016 report on the website ProPublica, the US government is not keeping accurate data on the increasing number of hate crimes.

jewish restaurant

A Jewish restaurant in Europe was targeted by anti-Semitic anarchists.

In November, the FBI released its hate crimes report, but it’s incomplete. It doesn’t reflect state and local law enforcement numbers – because more than 3,000 don’t report them to the FBI. Although the FBI is legally bound to collect this data, state and local agencies do not share the same legal mandate.

“A lot of agencies just submit a piece of paper saying they had no hate crimes,” said Professor Brian Levin, who heads the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. According to an unnamed FBI source, as many as 20 percent of state and local agencies choose not to participate at all.

And on college and university campuses, statistics from the U.S. Department of Education may be double the number of incidents counted by the FBI.

While law enforcement organizes itself for accurate data collection, ProPublica is choosing to forge ahead. ProPublica describes itself as “an independent, nonprofit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest.” They describe their new project, Documenting Hate, to become a “database of reported hate crimes and bias incidents.” ProPublica saw a necessary niche. “The need for trustworthy facts on the details and frequency of hate crimes and other incidents born of prejudice has never been more urgent.” Documenting Hate will include anti-Semitic incidents.

What difference could I make?

Stand up, speak up and become part of our remembering community. The Holocaust devastated the Jews and the world. Today’s continuing and growing anti-Semitism defies “Never again” and “Never forget.” Help us speak for others, as Martin Niemöller learned … the hard, painful and guilt-filled way.

Niemöller (1892–1984) was a prominent Protestant pastor who emerged as an outspoken public foe of Adolf Hitler and spent the last seven years of Nazi rule in concentration camps. He is perhaps best remembered for the quotation:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out —

Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out —

Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out —

Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.

 

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