When the Anti-Defamation League released its annual audit of anti-Semitic incidents in February, a video showed images of the vandalism at Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery in University City and declared that the number of incidents nationally had increased 57 percent in 2017.
The New York Times and a number of other news organizations also used images from the cemetery to illustrate stories about a “surge" in anti-Semitism.
But then two months later, Alzado Harris, who had multiple burglary convictions, confessed that he had committed the vandalism in an intoxicated rage at a friend who dropped him off near the cemetery. He was not charged with a hate crime because there did not appear to be “any anti-Semitic motive,” St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch explained.
This incident was one in a number of recent high-profile crimes that reverberated throughout the St. Louis Jewish community in which the perpetrators appeared to target a specific group only to have the motive revealed later as, at the least, more complicated than blatant anti-Semitism.
The ADL still counts such incidents in its audit. But people who study anti-Semitism in the United States do not universally agree that there is, in fact, an alarming upward trend.
“I don’t think the number of incidents is a particularly useful measure, but I think that even when the Jewishness of an institution is known or the harassment is directed at a Jewish institution or individual, it doesn’t mean that there is a wave of anti-Semitism,” said Leonard Saxe, director of the Steinhardt Social Research Institute at Brandeis University.
Shortly before the more than 150 headstones at Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery were knocked over or damaged, hundreds of bomb threats were made against Jewish community centers around the country. Jonathan Greenblatt, ADL national director, later said these “were acts of anti-Semitism and deserve to be treated as a hate crime.”
It turned out that two people were making the threats. One was an American- Israeli teen in Ashkelon, Israel, who has autism and a brain tumor that affect his behavior, his parents said. An Israeli judge who ruled that he was fit to stand trial last month convicted him of multiple counts of extortion. He has been charged with hate crimes in the United States.
The other caller was Juan Thompson, a former St. Louis journalist who made the threats as part of a plot to frame and terrorize an ex-girlfriend. A federal judge sentenced him to five years in prison for cyberstalking and making fake bomb threats.
The ADL points out that the number of anti-Semitic incidents “against Jewish institutions” – which is one specific category in the audit — rose 101 percent from 2016 to 2017. But within that category, if bomb threats by a “troubled Jewish teenager” were excluded, the figure would be 5 percent.
“That should be a warning sign about the use of the number of incidents to indicate a general rise in anti-Semitism,” said Saxe, who also authored a recent study that found that at elite schools, Jewish students said they were rarely exposed to anti-Semitism, which runs counter to ADL findings. A recent Stanford University study also found that students at five California college campuses felt “low levels of anti-Semitism or discomfort.”
The ADL included the bomb threats in the audit because “regardless of the motivation of any specific perpetrator, Jewish communities were repeatedly traumatized by these assaults on their institutions and threats to their safety,” the report states. The organization also says that it had increased the frequency of such reports because of concerns over anti-Semitism.
Karen Aroesty, director of the ADL for Missouri and Southern Illinois, has cautioned against labeling such incidents as hate crimes until law enforcement is able to determine the “motivating behavior.” But she defended including incidents such as the bomb threats and vandalism in the audit because the impact “was as if it had been anti-Semitism, no question.”
Still, Aroesty said, a report like the audit is more relevant to people in New York and Boston, “where there are physical attacks and assaults on Jews,” than in Missouri, where the number of anti-Semitic incidents increased to 17 in 2017 from seven in 2016.
Greenblatt, the ADL national director, said the increase in anti-Semitism nationwide could be attributed to a “rising climate of incivility, the emboldening of hate groups and widening divisions in society.”
But David Bernstein, a law professor at George Mason University in Virginia, wrote in The Washington Post that Greenblatt and the ADL have “stoked the panic” over anti-Semitism “with wildly exaggerated rhetoric.” He points to a quote from Greenblatt that the “American Jewish community ... has not seen this level of anti-Semitism in mainstream political and public discourse since the 1930s.”
Bernstein told the Jewish Light that when Donald Trump was elected president, there was “a certain amount of hysteria in the Jewish community” and that the ADL “saw this as a way of refocusing their donor base on the problem of anti-Semitism.”
Amid concerns about anti-Semitism, more people are reporting incidents to the ADL than ever before, according to the organization. There were 1,986 reported anti-Semitic incidents in 2017, compared to 1,267 incidents in 2016.
Saxe, the Brandeis professor, said that this reporting might be attributed to the fact that Jews “are much more comfortable being public about their Jewishness.”
“That in a country of 330 million people, there were 2,000 incidents, is such a tiny, tiny number, that it is hard to know what to make of it,” Saxe said. “Thankfully we live in a country where you can go out on the street in a kippah.”
In May, Timothy McLean of Glen Carbon was accused by police of spray painting swastikas on about 200 headstones at a cemetery in Glen Carbon, Ill. He was charged with 22 felonies, including four counts of committing a hate crime.
His mother told KSDK-TV (Channel 5): “I don’t expect much compassion with the severity of what has happened, but there’s a lot of layers to this.”
She said her son had mental illnesses that had gone untreated for years.
His father told the station: “This is not a hate crime, but is a mental illness crisis.”
A judge determined last month that McLean was not mentally fit to stand trial after an evaluation by a court-appointed psychologist.
Aroesty told the Light that she was waiting to hear his motivation before making a judgment on the hate crime charge.
“Why did he do it? Why did he use a cemetery? Was is it just because he lives nearby? Was he angry about someone or something?” Aroesty asked. “Hate crime is unique. That’s why I care about his motivation. If it turns out that his motivation was something else, he is still going to be convicted of crimes that they can prove.”