At least 86 Jewish organizations in the United States have received threats since Jan. 1, 2017, according to authorities. South Florida is no exception. Just this Monday, a bomb threat forced the evacuation of a Jewish Community Center in Davie. A synagogue in Miami Beach was desecrated over the weekend and several cars in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood were marked with swastikas.
WLRN spoke with Yael Hershfield, Florida's interim regional director of the Anti Defamation League, who expressed his concerns about the increase in frequency of these anti-Semitic incidents.
HERSHFIELD: The Anti-Defamation League is disheartened that the Jewish community continues to be the target of hate crimes and hateful incidents. There has been a rash of bomb threats since the beginning of the year. We're talking 90-plus bomb threats to Jewish institutions [and] two cemeteries that have been desecrated. It's devastating and it's hurtful, and that is not the only place where hate was expressed against the Jewish community. We have seen vandalism of personal property. There were the cars in Miami Beach, a car here in Boca Raton, at schools. We see this increased presence of the symbol of hate against the Jewish community. Its history cannot be denied.
WLRN: Would you say that there's been an uptick in the last couple of months? Can you compare it to any other time in recent years?
What we're seeing is an increased frequency. I don't think the Jewish community has experienced this in a while. We know these bomb threats have been hoaxes. It's still very disruptive to the Jewish community.
What do you say to families, especially young people, about what they see, whether they see it in the news or online or up close?
I think parents can be prepared to talk to their children about hate and how hate manifests itself in our society. But in the same token, talk about the good people in our community, law enforcement, the leaders of the community that are doing all that they can to keep them safe and to look around and see that the Jewish communities have been prepared, have protocols in place to assist in the evacuations.
So while it is disruptive, on the other hand people need to remember that the Jewish community is organized in that we are constantly reminding them about the security protocols that need to be in place.
At what point does security have to increase at schools or community centers within the Jewish community?
I think that the Anti-Defamation League message has always been that security needs to be a mindset. It has to be something that is constantly being explored, how improved procedures have to be practiced. This is not a one time deal. This is something that unfortunately Jewish communities are all very familiar with and needs to be implemented and be viewed every day 24/7.
I am confident that right now those conversations have been happening and that law enforcement is ready to assist any Jewish institution to review their plans and how to improve them.
Monday we saw Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz show a bit of emotion and anger in the efforts to try to catch the folks involved in this. What's your response to what you've been hearing from lawmakers and law enforcement? Are you satisfied that they are doing everything possible?
There's always room for improvement. I know the president, from a few days ago, expressed his disgust with the anti-Semitic incidents and condemned it. But we want to see words matched with action.
There are many different things that could be done to address the situation. For example, the FBI has determined that the bomb threats passed the threshold of civil rights violation. So the Department of Justice, under the leadership of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, has it within its power to really open a full investigation and allocate the resources behind it so that we can catch the perpetrators.
We would also like to see a high level Cabinet task force address this incident as well as other hate crimes. And again, Attorney General Sessions has the capability of combining such a task force under the direction of the White House, bring in the Department Of Justice, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and really look at what needs to be done to address this matter.
We're also talking about the fact that there are still five states around the country that don't have hate crime statutes on their law books. Just last week the FBI made an arrest of a man in South Carolina; that man could not be charged under South Carolina statutes with a hate crime because they don't have one. Every single state in the nation should have a hate crimes bill on their books right now.
And lastly, the ADL has been training law enforcement on how to recognize and investigate hate crimes. More of such training needs to be in place so that the community can feel safe and know that law enforcement is responsive to this kind of incident.
I think that when we stand as a community and we denounce hate wherever we see it we stay stronger. We need to show moral leadership from all corners of our society to condemn anti-Semitism and all crimes of bigotry. And when we do that we will push those bigots, those hateful individuals, to the corner, and that's our hope.