When the phone started ringing, at about ten thirty on February 22, more than 150 students inside the Sandra E. Lerner Jewish Community Day School were well into their morning routines.
A staff member answered. “In a short time,” the unidentified voice on the other end of the line said, “a large number of Jews are going to be slaughtered.” They would die, the caller continued, in a “bloodbath” courtesy of “a C-4 bomb with a lot of shrapnel.”
School officials initiated their emergency protocols. The police were called. The building was evacuated. Fortunately, spring had come early to Durham, so it was mild outside and the sun was shining as the children—as young as two and up to to fifth grade—made their way to the school’s designated safe zone. But that was little consolation to the parents on the other end of a robocall alerting them to the situation.
The bomb-sniffing dogs that descended on Lerner that Wednesday morning didn’t find anything. But even after authorities gave the all-clear, Lerner canceled the remainder of the school day. Board president Hollis Gauss noted in a letter to parents that “bomb threats are usually used as a scare tactic [to] cause fear and panic.” But Gauss told the INDY that the disruption had real consequences: parents were forced to leave work and students lost valuable instruction time. Even though no bomb was found, future threats would have to be taken seriously “every single time.”
Additional threats are a very real possibility.
In a trend characterized as disturbing by Jewish leaders, politicians, and social justice activists, more than a hundred bomb threats have been called in to seventy-two Jewish institutions across thirty states so far this year. According to a Jewish Telegraphic Agency report, the most recent of five waves of such threats came on February 27, when twenty-one threats were called in, including one to a Jewish community center in Asheville. (On Friday, federal agents charged Juan Thompson, a former journalist, with making bomb threats against at least eight Jewish centers as part of a bizarre campaign to harass a woman he’d previously dated; it’s unknown whether he’s suspected in similar cases such as the one at Lerner.)
Meanwhile, hundreds of tombstones have been damaged at Jewish cemeteries in Philadelphia and St. Louis, and swastikas have been carved into cars in Miami. And just a few days ago, according to the State Bureau of Investigation, somebody wrote “Jews Must Die” on a blackboard in a Mitchell County school. (The FBI’s Charlotte office declined to comment on the matter.)
“People are thinking about pulling their kids out of schools, quitting [Jewish Community Centers],” says Rabbi Larry Bach of Judea Reform. “That’s all true and measurable. And this sort of thing emboldens others who might take it to the next level.”
Some, including N.C. NAACP leader Rev. William Barber, have blamed the increasing tensions—the Southern Poverty Law Center recently reported that the number of hate groups in the U.S. has tripled in the past year—on President Trump’s rhetoric. Others have suggested that the administration’s crackdown on undocumented immigrants, visitors from some Muslim-majority countries, and the admission of refugees has encouraged xenophobes to act out.
But several leaders of the local Jewish community were careful not to stoke comparisons between Trump and Adolf Hitler. As Rabbi John Friedman, formerly of Judea Reform, puts it, anti-Semitism is “something that is a part of American culture. … Sometimes, there are trends that repress it—make it not stylish to express your hatred or your bigotry or whatever—but I think it’s around all the time.”
However, Friedman and his colleagues have noticed a tangible difference this time around. Jews aren’t the only ones who feel marginalized and under siege. And they—linking arms with members of the LGTBQ community, Muslims, refugees, and immigrants—say they’ll refuse to stay silent in the face of it.
“History has lessons,” Friedman says. “Like silence in the face of the abuse of another person. That’s an important lesson.”
“We’ve been in these fights since long before [Trump] happened,” Bach adds. “But what this moment is allowing for—and not allowing in the sense that we’re grateful for it—in this moment, what is happening is people are noticing. We’re showing up.”
Ties to white nationalism have dogged the Trump camp since before the election. In July, the president’s campaign faced allegations of anti-Semitism when Trump tweeted a graphic of Hillary Clinton that featured a six-pointed star and a pile of cash—an image that had previously been posted on a white supremacist message board. Trump blamed the “dishonest media” for hyping the situation. (Former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke, whom Trump initially refused to disavow, praised the graphic.)
The post-election hiring of former Breitbart executive Steve Bannon—who ran the late stages of Trump’s presidential campaign and whose website explicitly gave a platform to the anti-Semitic alt-right—as a chief White House adviser hasn’t helped either. Add to that reports that the president would rename the Countering Violent Extremism program and focus its resources solely on combatting Islamic extremists (no longer including white supremacists) and Trump’s pointed omission of the Jews in his Holocaust Remembrance Day statement, and critics have only grown more skeptical since he took office.
Jen Feldman, rabbi at Kehillah Synagogue in Chapel Hill, characterizes Trump’s Holocaust statement as “chilling.” Still, her message to her congregation is hopeful. “To be awake to how fear is used is the most important lesson and to fight against fear with solidarity and fierceness,” she says. “I think we need to be very awake to fear. Fear works. We can’t let it work.”
Friedman says triumphing over fear means, in part, refusing to perpetuate it via claims that the president poses a Holocaust-level threat.
“I know we’re all probably thinking about the current administration and the example being set by the president and Bannon and others and whether that’s affecting [the volume of hate speech]. I think it probably is,” he says. “… But it’s quite something else to overlay the Holocaust on the election of Donald Trump. And people who compare Donald Trump to Hitler didn’t know Hitler.”
For Daniel Greyber, rabbi at Durham’s Beth El Synagogue, the recent wave of anti-Semitism is jarring, yet he points out that hate directed at the Jews has existed for more than two thousand years. It’s worth remembering, he says, that Jews carried the label of Christ-killers until 1965, when Pope Paul VI repudiated the claim.
“That was the first time that there was an official expression of Christian doctrine that affirmed that Jews had not killed Jesus,” Greyber says. “So if you’re asking, ‘Where is [anti-Semitism] coming from?’ It has a long history. And history is not easily forgotten, and it’s not easily moved forward from.”
On January 29, about a month before the Lerner bomb scare, Feldman was one of more than fifteen hundred people who converged on Raleigh-Durham International Airport to protest an executive order banning citizens of seven primarily Muslim countries from entering the U.S. (After federal courts struck down the original ban, the Trump administration issued a similar one on Monday.) She knew what it was like to be labeled “the other” and “the stranger,” so she decided to make her voice heard.
Now, when she thinks about how to help members of her congregation move forward amid what many of them perceive as a rising tide of animosity toward Jews here and across the country, she recalls something that unfolded on that Sunday afternoon.
“To see my eight-year-old holding up a sign and saying, ‘No ban. No wall. America is for us all,’ that’s how I deal with it,” Feldman says. “You show the strength. You show the power that we have together. You give them hope. You give them a voice. You teach them what’s right. Honestly, right after the election, I did ask myself, ‘How can I raise my children in this world?’ Now I know how.”
Moving forward, she says, means joining forces with those outside the Jewish community who face their own risks under the Trump administration. “This is something impacting religious and ethnic minorities, immigrants, refugees,” she says.
“This is a very important moment for us to live our Jewish values in the community—to live them by standing up to anti-Semitism and hate, to live them by standing up to anti-gay, anti-woman, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, anti-refugee,” Feldman adds. “‘You shall not oppress a stranger’ is [noted] thirty-six times in the Torah. So, this is what our experience teaches us.”
Bach has participated in recent protests as well. He was one of several hundred Durham residents who attended a pro-refugee rally just hours before Trump signed the travel ban. He says the way to fight back against white nationalism and xenophobia is to mobilize.
“I hope that we don’t raise a generation of kids that are just in a crouch, thinking the world is out to get them,” Bach says. “To be aware of it? To learn about history? Yes. But the main thing I want my kids to understand is that the best antidote is not getting into a crouch. It’s getting out there with other people.”
He continues: “There isn’t silence right now. People are coming together. We know what silence breeds, and so no one is being silent right now.”
This article appeared in print with the headline ” We Know What Silence Breeds.”