With federal authorities’ arrest of 31-year-old Juan Thompson on March 3 in connection with eight bomb threats to Jewish institutions since January, Jewish community professionals can breathe a partial sigh of relief. But true closure, they say, won’t come until the main perpetrator of the more than 100 incidents in that time is apprehended.
Thompson had been a reporter at the Intercept until February 2016, when he was fired for fabricating quotes and sources. He reportedly made the threats in an attempt to stalk and intimidate a former girlfriend.
Based on Thompson’s behavior, Anti-Defamation League Deputy National Director Ken Jacobson said he sees no evidence to suggest anything other than the theory that the St. Louis man acted alone in making the eight threats.
“He clearly was looking to do no good but I don’t know how he decided to pursue this particular path,” he said.
Jacobson said it’s possible that Thompson may be a copycat and if that is the case he thinks last Friday’s arrest may send a message that future copycats will not get away with more crimes.
“One hopes so,” he said of the arrest deterring copycats. “We’re very pleased by the work of the FBI and the arrests because it shows the beginning of solving these threats.”
Jacobson said to address the issue of anti-Semitism in the United States on a long term basis, there needs to be a “multipronged” approach from the White House and from other areas of government. But he said that approach will not be simple.
“If one is serious in dealing with issues of hate or anti-Semitism you have to take a multitude of steps,” he said. “You have to use bully pulpits to speak out to say this is un-American. You have to have investigations by both local and state governments.”
Jacobson applauded New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) for his condemnation of anti-Semitism during a visit last weekend to Israel. Cuomo spoke at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem alongside Israeli President Reuven Rivlin and denounced the recent spate of anti-Semitic acts in the United States as a “social cancer.”
Jacobson said he thinks the United States has “come a long way” in terms of delegitimizing hate but that people “can’t afford to be complacent” in the wake of the threats. Yet this should not mean changing your routine, he said.
“One has to treat these calls seriously,” he said. “On the other hand, none of them so far have turned into action. The main purpose [of the calls] is to intimidate, so you have to find a balance.”
In Washington, where local JCCs and a Jewish day school were evacuated on multiple occasions in recent weeks, Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, urged the community to remain “calm, cool and collected.” But he also said the community won’t be satisfied until the main culprit is “on the other side of a jail cell.”
“The person who’s responsible for most of the calls my guess is probably much more sophisticated than this person,” he said, referring to Thompson. “It wouldn’t surprise me if the person doing this was overseas.”
Thompson’s arrest does calm people’s worries, said Ryan Lenz, a spokesperson for the Southern Poverty Law Center. But it does not lessen the fear of future threats or stop the tide of what he describes as a post-election period when hate speech from “extremists” on the political right has become legitimized.
“Law enforcement has a lot of threats still remaining,” he said. “It doesn’t so much matter where the threats are coming from. People are finding something to do as a form of political expression.”
Lenz, like many, pointed to President Donald Trump’s divisive rhetoric during the campaign and since taking office as a motivating factor for the hate crimes. When asked about Trump’s recent condemnation of the acts during his address to Congress last week, Lenz said, “Words are fine but we’d like to see some action.” For him, that means seeing the White House put together a task force aimed at combatting the hate directed against Jews and other marginalized groups.
“I don’t think that’s going to happen. Look at how he’s going to change the violent extremism problem,” he said, referring to Trump’s executive order banning travel from six Middle Eastern countries. “It’s a shortsighted answer to a very deep-seated problem in this country.”
In Pittsburgh, which has so far been immune to the waves of bomb threats, Cynthia D. Shapira, chair of the board of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, and Jeff Finkelstein, the organization’s president and CEO, issued a joint statement condemning the spate of anti-Semitism. They pointed as “more essential,” though, effective actions to strengthen communal security, such as the hiring earlier this year of Jewish Community Security Director Brad Orsini.
“Our security director’s job is to help build the capacity and knowledge of every single Jewish institution to be prepared for any situation,” they said. “This preparedness will help build resilience, ensuring that hoaxes such as the recent bomb threats will not deter people from participating in Jewish life.”
Since Jan. 3, Shapira and Finkelstein noted, Orsini had reviewed the preparedness of 18 local institutions, planned 14 training sessions, worked with funding partners and coordinated with the Secure Communities Network — a Federation-supported national initiative — as well as with local, state and federal law enforcement agencies. “At the same time,” they said, “our Community Relations Council has been working closely with schools and school districts to bring training to their teachers and students around anti-Semitism and hate.”
They urged community members to similarly take action, primarily by joining in Jewish programs, advocating on the community’s behalf by calling members of Congress and by reporting incidents of anti-Semitism. “Actions,” they said, “always speak louder than words.”
Daniel Schere writes for Washington Jewish Week, an affiliated publication of The Jewish Chronicle.