Local and national media report on more than 170 toppled Jewish headstones after a weekend vandalism attack on Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery in University City, a suburb of St Louis, Missouri, U.S. February 21, 2017 | REUTERS/Tom Gannam
In late November, Marna Street, a violist with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, was walking to her car after a rehearsal. Street was shocked by what she discovered: Someone had painted a swastika, about 14 inches across, on the trunk of her car.
The vandals, Street said, had probably targeted her vehicle, which was parked in a garage not far from the University of Cincinnati, because she’d placed a magnet on it indicating that she is Jewish. Street eventually managed scrub off the graffiti. She put the magnet in the glovebox of her car.
“I had that feeling in the pit of my stomach, like somebody just punched me,” recalled Street, 68, speaking publicly for the first time. It was, she said, “a cross between fear and just plain hurt.”
Working with a coalition of organizations, ProPublica late last year launched “Documenting Hate,” an attempt to gather evidence of hate crimes and episodes of bigotry from a divided America. The account from Cincinnati is one of the anti-Semitic incidents the project has chronicled. But there are scores more.
Indeed, “Documenting Hate” recorded more than 330 reports of anti-Semitic incidents during a three-month span from early November to early February. The accounts — our list is by no means comprehensive — come via personal submissions, police documents, and news articles. The majority, though not all, have been authenticated through either news reports, interviews, or other evidence, like photos.
The incidents have taken place in big cities and small towns, along the country’s liberal coasts and in deep red states. Some of the episodes — swastikas and threatening messages spray-painted at schools and colleges around the nation — have been worrisome, though relatively minor. Others have been more serious, such as the 65 bomb threats targeting Jewish organizations across the country during the period we examined (there have been nearly 70 more since then). In many cases, the culprits singled out specific individuals for abuse, defacing their homes and autos with swastikas and menacing comments.
President Trump, after weeks of criticism for being slow to condemn the incidents, last week called them “horrible” and “painful” and “a very sad reminder of the work that still must be done to root out hate and prejudice and evil”
The remarks, however, came after a number of confounding comments about the issue. During a Feb. 16 news conference, Trump castigated Jake Turx, a reporter for Ami, a Jewish magazine, for asking what the government was doing to address the increase in anti-Semitic events. Trump accused Turx of lying about the question he wanted to ask, and instructed him to sit down. And without citing any evidence, Trump has wondered whether some of the recent anti-Semitic incidents were carried out by liberals, or Jews themselves, intent on discrediting him.
“There’s a push on the left to conflate anti-Semitism with Trump, while at the same time criticizing him for having Jared Kushner, who wears his Jewishness as proudly as anyone, as his most trusted confidant and in the highest echelons of the White House staff,” said Joe Borelli, a Trump supporter who represents Staten Island on the New York city council, according to Breitbart News. “It is mind-boggling.”
The White House would not comment for the record when asked whether President Trump had in any way contributed to the threats and violence.
On a national level, data on hate crimes and bias incidents is spotty at best. The FBI admits the information it collects is incomplete — many police departments don’t participate in the hate crimes tracking program — and the bureau has yet to release statistics on 2016 and 2017. As a result, determining with authority whether anti-Semitic events are rising or declining is difficult.
There is little question, however, that the incidents have generated genuine concern. In a rare show of unity, all 100 U.S. senators this week issued a public letter urging the Department of Justice, FBI, and Department of Homeland Security to protect Jewish institutions and prosecute those responsible for terrorizing them. In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently announced a $25 million grant to better protect day care and community centers from threats.
The available data does support the idea of an uptick. After years of decline, anti-Semitic crimes began trending upward in 2015, according to FBI data. Experts say that increase seems to have accelerated in recent months, as Trump’s unique brand of nativist populism has helped to pull more extreme right-wing groups, some of them avowedly racist, closer to the political mainstream. On Twitter, openly anti-Semitic figures have built vast networks of supporters and cultivated large audiences, while the Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website geared towards millennials, has seen its traffic grow to roughly a half a million unique visitors per month. In New York City, the police department said anti-Semitic hate crimes nearly doubled in the first two months of 2017 as compared to the same period last year.
“One of the constituencies Trump mobilized was the KKK-style anti-Semitic extreme right,” said Lawrence Rosenthal, a scholar of fascist history and director of the Center for Right-Wing Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. These groups “had been absolutely on the fringe of American politics for at least my lifetime — and I am getting old.”
Oren Segal, who tracks anti-Semitic incidents in his role as director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, concurs. “The anti-Semites think they have a champion in the highest office,” said Segal, who believes that “divisive rhetoric” aired during last fall’s presidential campaign has emboldened racists and inspired them to strike out at their perceived enemies in the Jewish community.
“We have seen a significant uptick in the reports we’ve received, certainly starting around the election in November and continuing through the first two months of 2017,” Segal told ProPublica.
Amid the larger national debate about any responsibility Trump may bear for racist and anti-Semitic behavior, the accounts emerging from the “Documenting Hate” database offer a chance to appreciate the very personal experiences of violation and fear.
- Incidents at colleges and universities, like the man who wandered the University of Florida’s campus in Gainesville wearing a swastika armband.
- Incidents at K-12 schools, including swastikas painted on almost any surface you could imagine — including students’ hands.
- Incidents at government buildings, most of which were libraries, though one involved the words “Heil Hitler” and “Trump” scrawled inside of a Brooklyn wastewater treatment plant.
- Incidents at private homes and businesses, including swastika graffiti and propaganda on businesses in Eugene, Oregon.
- And incidents at public parks, mostly graffiti, though one enterprising vandal dug a 20-foot by 20-foot swastika into the grass at a park in Levittown, New York.