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As more Jewish facilities get threats, all 100 senators ask Trump administration for ‘swift action’

A young Israeli man who also holds U.S. citizenship was arrested in Israel on March 23, in connection with a wave of threats made to Jewish community centers (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

A new wave of threats were made late Monday and Tuesday to Jewish schools and institutions, including the New York and Washington offices of the Anti-Defamation League, according to that group and other officials.

These latest bomb threats came as a letter signed by every U.S. senator was sent to top law enforcement officials in the Trump administration, asking them to do more in response to the bout of threatening messages that have continuously rattled Jewish groups this year.

“We write to underscore the need for swift action with regard to the deeply troubling series of anonymous bomb threats made against Jewish Community Centers (JCCs), Jewish day schools, synagogues and other buildings affiliated with Jewish organizations or institutions across the country,” the senators wrote in a letter, a copy of which was shared publicly Tuesday by Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Gary Peters (D-Mich.), two of the lawmakers who said they were behind the message.

The senators’ letter and the new threats underscored the anxiety still present in Jewish communities four days after a disgraced former journalist was arrested and charged with being responsible for a handful of the threatening messages.

Fired last year for fabrication, former journalist charged with making some JCC threats

Authorities have accused 31-year-old Juan Thompson of making at least eight of the more than 100 threats that have been reported. The FBI, which has called its investigation of the threats “a top priority,” said they do not think Thompson was behind all of the calls or responsible for the vandalism of headstones at three Jewish cemeteries.

“There are many more JCC bomb threats that have not been solved, and communities are hurting,” Evan Bernstein, the New York regional director at the Anti-Defamation League, told reporters in a conference call hours after Thompson was arrested.

The threats Tuesday targeted facilities in at least eight states, Washington, D.C., and Toronto, officials said.

“Four ADL offices in Atlanta, Boston, New York and Washington D.C. received telephoned bomb threats today,” Jonathan A. Greenblatt, the ADL’s chief executive, said in a statement. “This is not ‘normal.’ We will not be deterred or intimidated.”

The ADL’s national headquarters in New York and the group’s San Francisco office had also received threats last month. New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) said he had asked the New York State Police to help investigate bomb threats at the ADL headquarters as well as Jewish Community Centers in Upstate New York.

“Jewish Community Centers across New York serve as a gathering place for children, seniors, friends and neighbors — and any threat to them is an attack on all of us,” Cuomo said in a statement.

Trump questions who is really behind anti-Semitic threats and vandalism

Greenblatt said that the new threats included those to “at least six JCCs and three day schools in Oregon, Wisconsin, Illinois, New York, Florida, Maryland and Toronto.” The Jewish Community Center Association of North America said that “several” facilities received threats made via telephone calls or emails Monday night or Tuesday morning.

In an email to its community on Tuesday, the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington in Rockville said it received an email bomb threat at 11:32 p.m. on Monday, after it was closed.

Similar threats had been reported by other Jewish centers in Portland, Rochester and Milwaukee, Michael Feinstein, president and chief executive of the Rockville facility, wrote in the email. The Rockville building was swept multiple times “and nothing was found,” Feinstein wrote. “We continue to operate as usual, but with our heightened level of security.”

Before Tuesday, the ADL had reported 121 bomb threats made across the United States and Canada, including Jewish Community Centers and day schools.

“It is time for action, and we call on the administration and Congress to take concrete steps to catch those threatening the Jewish community,” Greenblatt said.

‘Stand together against this bigotry’: Another Jewish cemetery vandalized and again Muslims reach out to help

In their letter, lawmakers said that the threats “are not isolated incidents,” and called them an anti-Semitic attempt to spread fear nationwide.

“This is completely unacceptable and un-American,” the senators wrote. “We are concerned that the number of incidents is accelerating and failure to address and deter these threats will place innocent people at risk and threaten the financial viability of JCCs, many of which are institutions in their communities.”

The letter was addressed to Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and FBI Director James B. Comey, two of whom have spoken out about the threats or reached out to community members.

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On Friday morning, Comey met with Jewish community leaders to discuss the threats, and after that meeting the groups involved released a joint statement praising “the extraordinary effort that the FBI is applying to the ongoing investigation.”

Kelly said last week that the Department of Homeland Security would “heighten our outreach and support” to Jewish communities, reaching out to Jewish Community Centers to offer training and other added support.

“The right to worship and commune within and across faiths is fundamental to the American experience and our way of life,” he said in a statement. “DHS will continue to support communities across the country to preserve these fundamental freedoms.”

Juan Thompson was charged with cyberstalking for allegedly communicating threats to Jewish Community Centers to harass a woman. (Video: Thomas Johnson, Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

The threat comes at a time of increased concerns about anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry across the country, particularly following President Trump’s election. The ADL said that there has been an uptick in anti-Semitic incidents since Election Day. In a recent report, the Southern Poverty Law Center said hate groups — particularly anti-Muslim groups — are on the rise, a spike it attributed in part to Trump and his rhetoric.

Last fall, the FBI released data showing that hate crimes against Muslims had reached the highest levels since 2001, something experts and community advocates said was fueled by anti-Islamic commentary on the campaign trail.

Adding to the unease felt by many minority groups, in recent weeks a Sikh man in Washington state and two Indian men in Kansas were shot by attackers who, during those separate incidents, reportedly told them to get out of this country.

Trump spoke out against the Jewish Community Center threats as well as the shootings in Kansas during an address to Congress last week, saying that those incidents “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 its forms.”

His comments came after he was criticized for repeatedly choosing not to speak out against the anti-Semitic threats. During two news conferences last month, Trump was asked about the subject and in both cases, he declined to condemn anti-Semitic episodes, instead responding in one case by mentioning his electoral victory and in the second case by criticizing the reporter who raised the issue. He later condemned anti-Semitism during a visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture and then at the beginning of his speech to Congress.

In between, though, Trump unsettled public officials and Jewish groups by appearing to question who was really behind the anti-Semitic threats. Trump suggested that sometimes threats can be made in “the reverse,” according to two people who attended the meeting, echoing earlier comments he had made suggesting that his political opponents might express bigoted sentiments seeking to make him or his supporters look bad.

A White House spokeswoman, asked for an explanation of what Trump said after his comments last week, pointed to his remarks before Congress and did not respond to a follow-up email.

Further reading: 

Philadelphia police investigate ‘reprehensible’ toppling of 100 headstones at Jewish cemetery

The disturbing history of vandalizing Jewish cemeteries