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One Week, Two Cemeteries: Will the Scars Heal?

Omri Nahmias, Philadelphia

Wave of American Anti-Semitism Targets Jewish Communities

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

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DAMAGE CONTROL Volunteers brave the cold to hoist and restore vandalized monuments in Philadelphia. “I’m a Holocaust survivor, so it’s not only sad, but it’s scary to see such things here. You never know what’s good for the Jews and what’s not. We’ll just have to wait and see,” says local community member Natalie Hess (Photos: AFP/Imagebank)

T he first sign that something was amiss was the police helicopter hovering over the Mount Carmel Cemetery in northeastern Philadelphia. On the ground, two police cars were patrolling the perimeter of the second US cemetery to be struck by vandals in the past week.

On the cemetery grounds, some thirty members of the Philadelphia Jewish community gathered for a spontaneous maariv minyan, standing in the freezing cold near a cluster of marble headstones that the vandals upended. They davened quietly, recited Kaddish and concluded their tefillos with a song.

Community members brought thermoses of hot coffee and baked goods for weary volunteers who had been there since the early afternoon to try and raise the heavy monument stones with their bare hands. There is hardly a row in the cemetery that did not have at least one vandalized headstone.

“I’m a Holocaust survivor, so it’s not only sad, but it’s scary to see such things here,” said Natalie Hess. Mrs. Hess came to the US at age 16, moved to Israel in 1964 where she worked as an English teacher before moved back to the US and settling in Philadelphia. “In America, I never felt anti-Semitism, but apparently it exists. It is always offensive and hurtful when you see it for yourself.

Asked if this stirs her worst memories, she replied: “It’s hard to say. I have no expectations. The political situation is strange. It’s hard to sum it up in one sentence. You never know what’s good for the Jews and what’s not. We’ll just have to wait and see.”

America’s political system was jolted into action a few days earlier, when Vice President Mike Pence paid an unscheduled visit to the Chesed Shel Emeth Jewish Cemetery in St. Louis, after vandals desecrated and upended some 200 headstones. Pence rolled up his sleeves, donned gloves, and picked up a rake to join the clean-up efforts and in a display of empathy and solidarity from an administration criticized for both silence and inaction after a series of anti-Semitic incidents that has picked up pace since President Trump took office.

Karen Aroesti, regional director of the Missouri/Southern Illinois office of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), had a chance to exchange a few words with Pence. “I told him I appreciate his statements and his coming to the cemetery, but we very much look forward to the White House backing up their words with substantive action on policy, education, and law enforcement,” Aroesti said.

While numbers don’t tell the whole story, the ADL has been compiling statistics on anti-Semitic incidents in the US since 1979.

Its 2015 report, released in June 2016, showed 941 anti-Semitic incidents in a 3% rise from 2014. Some 56 of those incidents were assaults compared to 36 the year prior. And anti-Semitic incidents at colleges and universities nearly doubled during the same period. The ADL report noted that overall, anti-Semitic incident totals in the US are historically low, and have declined since the 2006 peak of 1,551.

While that peak year is a decade before Donald Trump captured the White House, fear among various ethnic groups has risen palpably after the major deterioration in public discourse that rose to a crescendo in last year’s presidential campaign and shows no signs of abating.

In St. Louis, Vice President Pence is asked to back up his words with strong action

Dozens of bomb threats have been telephoned into Jewish Community Centers across America over the past several weeks. Authorities have yet to find the perpetrators, nor have they tracked down the criminals who have scrawled anti-Jewish graffiti on New York City subway cars or drew a swastika with human waste at the Rhode Island School of Design located in Providence.

After weeks of criticism for failing to openly denounce the phenomenon, President Trump issued his first major public pronouncement on the topic last week: “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’s press secretary Sean Spicer rejected all attempts to place blame on Trump. “It’s ironic that no matter how many times he talks about this, it’s never good enough,” said Sean Spicer. “I wish they would praise the president for leadership on this area.”

On Friday, it was New York governor Andrew Cuomo who drew widespread praise from Jewish groups for showing leadership on this issue; offering a $5,000 reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction of a hate crime. Cuomo also asked the state legislature to appropriate an additional $25 million in grants so that private and religious schools across the state can enhance security.

Heightened security and tighter surveillance measures may prevent future incidents of this nature, but the scars from the past week will not be easily healed, even after Trump and Pence’s unequivocal condemnations of anti-Semitism.

“It’s too little too late,” says Becky Hess, who accompanied her mother Natalie to the Philadelphia cemetery. “It’s impossible to hate so many people and expect that hatred to remain focused only on the people you targeted and not others.”

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