ADL: In 2017, anti-Semitic incidents surged nationally

The St. Louis Jewish community was in the national spotlight after more than 150 headstones were overturned at Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery in  University City in February. Photo: James Griesedieck

By Eric Berger, Staff Writer

The national Anti-Defamation League office listed the vandalism at Chesed Shel Emeth cemetery as an anti-Semitic incident in its recent annual audit, which marks a departure from the way the local ADL office and local police have characterized the crime. 

Since the 150 headstones were knocked over in February 2017 at the Jewish cemetery in University City, local officials have not classified it as anti-Semitism or a hate crime because they have not made any arrests or been able to determine the motivation for the crime, they have said. 

“Nothing has indicated that this is any kind of anti-Semitic attack or any kind of hate crime,” Lt. Fred Lemons said after the vandalism. “And there’s nothing to indicate that it’s not. We just haven’t gotten information that it is. We continue to investigate all possibilities.”

The cemetery vandalism, according to the national ADL audit, is part of a larger increase in anti-Semitism. 

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There were 1,986 acts of anti-Semitism in the United States last year, according to the audit released Tuesday. That is more than double the total from 2015, which was 942. It’s also a 57 percent increase over the 2016 total of 1,267. The audit said that the rise is due in part to an increase in people reporting incidents of anti-Semitism.

The 2017 number includes more than 160 bomb threats sent to Jewish community centers and other institutions early that year. A Jewish teen from Israel has been arrested for making the vast majority of those threats, which were all not credible.

In Missouri, the local ADL office reported that there were 10 acts of harassment and four acts of vandalism — not including the Chesed Shel Emeth incident. In 2016, Missouri had eight incidents. 

In reporting on the audit, news organizations such as the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times used photos from the Chesed Shel Emeth vandalism to illustrate the stories.

Karen Aroesty, regional ADL director, said after questions from the Jewish Light that the national office had evaluated and reevaluated incidents over the last year and “given all the circumstances around it, they put it formally in the audit.”

She mentioned the “intensity of the damage” and the fact that a similar vandalism took place at a Jewish cemetery in Pennsylvania less than a week later as reasons for the inclusion in the national audit.

“It certainly felt that way from their perspective, and if it turns out that the perpetrators are identified and motive is determined and it’s not anti-Semitism, then we will reevaluate,” said Aroesty, whose ADL chapter covers Missouri, eastern Kansas and southern Illinois.

Still, the local ADL director had previously cautioned against labeling the incident a hate crime — because the agency had not been able to determine the “motivating behavior” — and said she had not changed her position.

The ADL audit also included the vandalism at the Pennsylvania cemetery — where more than 275 headstones were damaged — despite a similar difference with its office in Philadelphia. 

“Since the individual(s) have not been caught, we have not yet been able to characterize the vandalism as either a hate crime or anti-Semitism,” Nancy Baron-Baer, ADL regional director for eastern Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey and Delaware stated in an email to the Light.

Intent aside, Aroesty said, the impact in St. Louis “was as if it had been anti-Semitism, no question.”

Discounting the JCC bomb threats, reported incidents still increased by 43 percent over 2016. Anti-Semitic incidents on schools and college campuses also doubled in 2017 for the second year in a row. Non-Jewish elementary and high schools experienced 457 anti-Semitic incidents, compared to 235 in 2016 and 114 in 2015.

Almost all of the instances were either harassment — including the bomb threats — or vandalism, including seven instances of Jewish cemeteries being desecrated. There were also 19 anti-Semitic physical assaults, a decline of 47 percent from 2016.

“A confluence of events in 2017 led to a surge in attacks on our community — from bomb threats, cemetery desecrations, white supremacists marching in Charlottesville, and children harassing children at school,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, the ADL’s CEO and national director, in a statement. “These incidents came at a time when we saw a rising climate of incivility, the emboldening of hate groups and widening divisions in society.”

The states that saw the most anti-Semitic incidents were those with large Jewish populations. New York had 380 incidents of anti-Semitism, while California had 268 and New Jersey had 208.

JTA contributed information to this story.