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Anti-Semitic incidents spark worries of a trend

In Minnesota, reported anti-Semitic acts have risen from 12 incidents in 2015 to 21 incidents in 2016, according to the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas (JCRC). 

A headstone, pushed off its base by vandals, lays on the ground near a smashed tomb in the Mount Carmel Cemetery, a Jewish cemetery, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
REUTERS/Tom Mihalek

A bomb threat made in St. Paul last week was just one of 11 similar threats made to Jewish community centers across the country that day — part of what appears to be an uptick in anti-Semitic acts in Minnesota and nationwide.

In total, Jewish community centers have received more than 80 bomb threats in just the last two weeks. Additionally, nearly 200 gravestones at a historic Jewish cemetery outside St. Louis, Missouri were tipped over or otherwise damaged last week. The bomb threats all turned out to be hoaxes, but the string of events led President Trump to make his first-ever public denouncement of hate crimes last week, calling them “horrible” and “painful.”

In Minnesota, reported anti-Semitic acts have risen from 12 incidents in 2015 to 21 incidents in 2016, according to the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas (JCRC). This year, eight incidents have been reported through February, including another bomb threat made against a Jewish community center in St. Louis Park last month and a series of anti-Semitic graffiti on the University of Minnesota campus that resulted in one student getting arrested. 

“Of course, they’re not all reported to us,” said JCRC executive director Steve Hunegs, regarding anti-Semitic acts committed in Minnesota. “Nevertheless, you can see that year over year there’s an increase. Perhaps a trend is developing.”

Crimes on the rise

Hunegs said it’s hard to draw too many conclusions about the recent anti-Semitic acts in Minnesota, but there does seem to be a rising trend in religiously-motivated hate crimes across the nation. On Monday, more than a dozen Jewish community centers and several day-schools across the country received threatening phone calls. Locally, racist and anti-Semitic graffiti was recently discovered in a bathroom at Lakeville South High School.

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According to the FBI’s 2015 report on hate crime statistics, nationwide hate crimes rose by 6 percent between 2014 and 2015, but religiously-motivated hate crimes rose nearly 23 percent. Most of those incidents targeted Jewish people, but Muslim-Americans also experienced a significant growth in hate crimes with a 67 percent increase from 2014.

Carin Mrotz, from Jewish Community Action in St. Paul, said she’s worried hate crimes may continue to grow in the state. Back in November, she helped clean off a swastika that was spray painted on a garage in north Minneapolis. But for days following the event, she said, her organization was relentlessly harassed on Twitter by people saying the act was a hoax and accusing Mrotz’s organization of spray-painting the symbol themselves.

Those exchanges and the high number of anti-Semitic incidents occurring afterward have left Mrotz a little shaken. “Honestly, it does seem like it’s on the rise and I don’t know if that’s going to stop,” she said.

Anti-Semitic acts on the University of Minnesota campus over the last two months have also spurred a strong reaction from the university’s president, Eric Kaler, who released a statement last week saying he was “profoundly disturbed” by what he called an upsurge in bias crimes locally and nationally that are targeting the Jewish community, as well as other religious, racial, immigrant and LGBTQ communities.

In St. Paul, the bomb threat — as well as a bomb threat made in St. Louis Park a month prior — are both being investigated by federal and local agents, said FBI spokesperson Jeff Van Nest. “These types of threats are taken very seriously by us,” he said, “and at the end of the day, we are really looking to hold the individual or individuals accountable for this type of threatening behavior and the disruption it causes in our community.”

Unifying the community

Hunegs said that while the bomb threats made in St. Paul and St. Louis Park may have disrupted the day for hundreds of members using the community center’s facilities, the silver lining is that the threats also brought the community together in support. “That’s an important point,” Hunegs said. “These malicious people … another thing they’re doing is unifying the community in the face of hate.”

JaNaé Bates from ISAIAH, a Minnesota-based coalition of churches, said as soon as they heard about the bomb threat in St. Louis Park, they immediately reached out to the Jewish community to offer their support and stand with them in solidarity against hate crimes. “A threat against anyone is a threat against everyone,” Bates said. “We absolutely stand with our Jewish brothers and sisters.”

Interfaith Action of Greater St. Paul, another coalition of faith communities, also reached out to the Jewish community after the St. Louis Park bomb threat to give their condolences and denounce the act. The coalition sent the JCRC a letter signed by more than 200 clergy members from all over Minnesota, and from all different religions, said the group’s executive director Randi Roth. “There were leaders in the Muslim community … leaders in the Lutheran church, leaders in the Presbyterian church and the Catholic church,” she said.

Bates said these threats are part of a larger discord developing against different religious and immigrant groups across the country. But in the end, she said, she believes these events will only give more reason to unite the community. “It’s quite disheartening but … people you would not usually think of as allies are certainly aligning across religions, across nationalities, across a million different backgrounds,” Bates said.