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Scores of headstones vandalized at Jewish cemetery

The gravesites of more than 170 Jews were vandalized at a cemetery in University City, Missouri, sometime over the weekend.

And on Monday, the Anti-Defamation League reported a wave of bomb threats directed against Jewish Community Centers in multiple states, the fourth series of such threats since the beginning of the year, it said, a development that elicited comments from a White House spokesman and Ivanka Trump, neither of which used the phrase “anti-Semitism” or mentioned Jews.

President Donald Trump on Tuesday denounced recent threats against Jewish community centers as “horrible … painful” and said more must be done “to root out hate and prejudice and evil.”

Trump made the remarks after touring the newly opened National Museum of African American History and Culture.

“This tour was a meaningful reminder of why we have to fight bigotry, intolerance and hatred in all of its very ugly forms,” Trump said.

“The anti-Semitic threats targeting our Jewish community and community centers are horrible and are painful and a very sad reminder of the work that still must be done to root out hate and prejudice and evil,” Trump said. He did not outline what that might include.

The president’s comments marked the first time he had directly addressed recent incidents of anti-Semitism and followed a more general White House denouncement of “hatred and hate-motivated violence.”

That statement, earlier Tuesday, did not mention the community center incidents or Jews. Trump “has made it abundantly clear that these actions are unacceptable,” that statement said.

The FBI said it is joining with the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division to investigate “possible civil rights violations in connection with threats.”

On Monday, Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump wrote on Twitter, “We must protect our houses of worship & religious centers,” and used the hashtag #JCC. She converted to Judaism ahead of her 2009 marriage to Jared Kushner. She joined her father at the African American museum tour.

Throughout his campaign, Trump was criticized for what some saw as belated and inadequately forceful denunciations of hateful rhetoric by supporters.

Early Tuesday, former presidential rival Hillary Clinton pressured Trump to speak out. “JCC threats, cemetery desecration & online attacks are so troubling & they need to be stopped. Everyone must speak out, starting w/ POTUS,” she said on Twitter.

The White House was also criticized by Jewish groups last month after issuing an International Holocaust Remembrance Day statement that did not mention Jews.

Trump’s latest remarks came as he paid a visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture with a group that included Ben Carson, his rival-turned-Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

The museum includes an exhibit dedicated to Carson’s rise from poverty to prominent pediatric neurosurgeon, which the group stopped to admire and pose for photos in front of.

“Honestly, it’s fantastic,” Trump said during the tour. “I’ve learned and I’ve seen and they’ve done an incredible job.”

Trump’s wife Melania Trump visited the museum last week with Sara Netanyahu, wife of the Israeli prime minister.

The perpetrators of the cemetery vandalism and their motives were not yet established. Police in University City, an inner-ring suburb of St. Louis, were just launching an investigation, reviewing video surveillance at the cemetery, operated on a not-for-profit basis by The Chesed Shel Emeth Society and calling on anyone with information to come forward.

Because of the Sabbath, the cemetery does not operate on Saturday, Anita Feigenbaum, director of the Chesed Shel Emeth Society told The Washington Post in a phone interview.

A groundskeeper arrived Monday morning to find gravestones overturned across a wide section of the cemetery, the oldest section as it happens, bearing the remains of Jews who died between the late 1800s and the mid-20th century.

She called it a “horrific act of cowardice,” beyond anything the cemetery had experienced in the past.

The cemetery was founded in 1888 by the Russian Jewish community in St. Louis “to aid all Jews who needed burial whether they had the money or not. They started with the burial society and then extended to hospitals and houses that help the poor and the sick. To this day that’s what we do. We are not for profit. We help in this horrible time in a person’s life.”

Feigenbaum had walked through the cemetery during the day and had not yet completed counting the number of damaged stones, most of them pushed over, off their bases. So far she said she had found than 170. Feigenbaum said she was starting to hear from families of people buried there. “We will reach out to the families that are affected,” she said.

The cemetery holds the remains of more than 20,000, she estimated.

She said she was getting an “outpouring of support from across the United States” with people volunteering to help with repairs and was deeply appreciative.

Separately on Monday, the Anti-Defamation League reported a wave of bomb threats directed against Jewish Community Centers in multiple states, the fourth series of such threats since the beginning of the year, it said.

“While ADL does not have any information at this time to indicate the presence of any actual bombs at the institutions threatened, the threats themselves are alarming, disruptive and must always be taken seriously.”

Bomb threats were called in at Jewish Community Centers in 11 cities across the U.S.: Albuquerque, Amherst, Birmingham, Chicago, Cleveland, Houston, Milwaukee, Nashville, St. Paul, Tampa and Whitefish Bay, Wis. Since January, there have been 69 bomb threat calls targeting 54 centers in 27 different states, according to the Jewish Community Center Association.

In Amherst and Buffalo, the community centers were briefly closed after a threat was phoned to the Amherst center. Disruption was the goal, said Richard A. Zakalik, the local New York JCC executive director, to the Buffalo News on Monday. “They accomplished what they wanted,” Zakalik said to the Buffalo News. “The whole point was to scare and disrupt.”

No devices or bombs were found in connection with the threats; the Jewish Community Center Association described all of Monday’s incidents as “hoaxes.” The FBI and the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department will probe the series of calls for federal violations, according to the Star Tribune.

Paul Goldenberg, the director of Secure Community Network, the security affiliate of Jewish Federations of North America, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that the bomb threats appeared to originate from the “same serial caller.” Noting that not every building which received a call decided to evacuate, he said that the community centers were “very well-equipped to handle this.” The centers also increased their security measures after the threats, the JCCA noted.

The weekend spate of anti-Semitic threats were not limited to the U.S. In Canada, a 70-year-old Toronto woman named Helen Chaiton said that her mezuza, the case containing Hebrew verse traditionally affixed to a doorpost, had been vandalized twice over the weekend. Chaiton and her neighbors also found that the vandals had left behind sticky notes with swastikas, the CBC reported.

Responding to an inquiry from NBC News about the threats, the White House tweeted back: “Hatred and hate-motivated violence of any kind have no place in a country founded on the promise of individual freedom. The President has made it abundantly clear that these actions are unacceptable.”

The tweet from Ivanka Trump, a convert to Judaism, appeared to be unsolicited and drew generally favorable reaction, but also questions about why her father, the president, seemed reluctant to speak out.

The ADL issued a statement on Feb. 16, characterizing Trump’s news conference reaction as “mind-boggling.”

“On two separate occasions over the past two days, President Trump has refused to say what he is going to do about rising anti-Semitism or to even condemn it,” the ADL said in the statement. “This is not a partisan issue. It’s a potentially lethal problem – and it’s growing.”

And after the new rash of phoned-in threats Monday, the organization’s chief executive drew a connection between the incidents and the presidential silence. “A lack of attention to this from the president creates an environment in which the bigots feel empowered,” the ADL’s Jonathan Greenblatt told Haaretz. “They feel like their intolerance is being tolerated.”

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