Evelyn Gordon

Analysis from Israel

The arrest of a Jewish American-Israeli teen for making hundreds of bomb threats against American Jewish institutions in recent months seems to put paid to the favorite explanation advanced by both American Jews and the broader American left–i.e., that Donald Trump’s election empowered right-wing anti-Semites, leading to an upsurge in anti-Semitic acts. Yet the fact remains that the number of threats did jump dramatically following Trump’s election, to a degree that seems hard to attribute to mere coincidence. Now, new disclosures by the Israeli police provide a way to square that circle. It turns out the sudden increase was, in fact, connected to Trump’s election–not because of anything Trump did or didn’t do, but because of media’s hysterical reaction to it.

Police sources told Haaretz that the teen’s main goal appears to have been obtaining media coverage. He had been making bomb threats for at least two years, against a wide variety of targets in several different countries, and after every such threat, he would monitor the media. If the threat didn’t provoke much response, he would lose interest in that target and try again somewhere else. But if the threat did create a media stir, he’d start targeting similar institutions in the same general locale in the hope of producing a similar media buzz.

For most of the last two years–during which he threatened targets like shopping malls and airlines, as well as Jewish institutions in countries like Australia, New Zealand, and America–his threats produced little media coverage, so he didn’t repeat them. But after Trump’s election, he suddenly hit pay dirt. Threats against U.S. Jewish institutions fit right into the American Jewish community’s loudly proclaimed narrative that the election had empowered right-wing anti-Semites, epitomized by Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt’s ludicrous assertion that U.S. anti-Semitism was now at a level unseen since 1930s Germany. Moreover, such threats fit right into the broader left-wing narrative that Trump’s election had empowered white supremacists, racists and other right-wing hate groups.

Consequently, whereas anti-Semitic acts received little media coverage during President Barack Obama’s tenure, they suddenly began receiving massive media attention following Trump’s election–not just in America, but worldwide. The result, given the teen’s longstanding modus operandi, was inevitable: For the past few months, the Israeli police sources said, he has focused all his energy on threatening Jewish institutions in the U.S., because he knew that would create the media outcry he wanted.

There’s also a second Trump angle to this story, and it, too, contradicts the accepted narrative. The Israeli police sources told Haaretz that even though the bomb threats had gone on for two years and several different countries were involved in the investigation, until recently, capturing the perpetrator wasn’t considered high priority. What changed that, they said, was Donald Trump.

A few weeks ago, he ordered the FBI to make nailing the suspect high priority. The FBI consequently sent 12 cyber crime experts to Israel, and with their help, the Israeli police managed to track down and collect evidence against the teen (Start-Up Nation has bypassed Israel’s police force; the country’s top geeks go into either business, the army, or the intelligence agencies).

In short, for all the criticism he justly earned for his belated and reluctant condemnations of anti-Semitism, Trump took action to stop it in a way his predecessor never did–a point to remember for anyone who believes that actions speak louder than words.

Many commentators have already noted that by rushing to blame Trump and his supporters for the bomb threats despite the complete absence of any evidence, the U.S. Jewish community has made the fight against anti-Semitism more difficult, because next time, its claims are liable to be met with considerable skepticism. But the new police information indicates that the damage was even worse than that: The anti-Trump hysteria actually encouraged the very attacks it was meant to combat.

The lesson here obviously isn’t that Jews shouldn’t react to anti-Semitic acts. But by tying the bomb threats into a broader anti-Trump narrative for their own political purposes, American Jewish leaders and their non-Jewish left-wing allies generated a degree of media hysteria that the acts on their own would not have produced. And that is precisely the type of hysteria that attracts copycats–in this case, not just the original perpetrator (who copycatted his own attacks once he saw they produced the desired media attention), but also the only other person arrested to date.

Absent this media hype, it seems unlikely that Juan Thompson, a black, left-wing radical who was stalking his girlfriend, would have come up with the idea of making trouble for her by phoning bomb threats into Jewish community centers and trying to make them look as if they were coming from her, instead of choosing any number of other possible targets.

In short, by making the bomb threats part of a broader anti-Trump narrative without a shred of evidence, American Jewish leaders discredited both themselves and the battle against anti-Semitism while also actively encouraging copycat attacks. Obviously, they didn’t mean to do any of those things. But there’s a lesson that needs to be learned here, and it goes way beyond the narrow issue of Donald Trump:  Jewish interests aren’t identical to those of any political ideology, either liberal or conservative. And when you conflate Jewish interests with political ones, Jews are usually the ones who end up the losers.

Originally published in Commentary on March 28, 2017

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Your ‘Historical Detail,’ Our Real Life

A review of a comedy of manners set in England in the 1920s wouldn’t seem the obvious place to look to understand why the average Westerner really has no business trying to tell Israelis how to run their country. But two sentences in this New York Times book review encapsulate the problem perfectly: “Historical details, which abound, are often fascinating. (Who knew that beards interfere with gas masks?)”

I’m sure most New York Times readers don’t know that. But virtually every adult Israeli does, other than a few recent immigrants. That’s because almost every adult Israeli either has a gas mask or did at one time (mine still lives in my closet), and many of us have actually worn them. They were distributed nationwide before the 1991 Gulf War, out of fear that Saddam Hussein would put chemical warheads on the missiles he launched at Israel during the war. Israel, incidentally, was one of only two countries Saddam launched missiles at, even though it wasn’t one of the 39 countries actually waging war on Iraq at the time.

Since then, Israel has run several nationwide campaigns to get people to exchange their old gas masks for new ones. That gas masks have an expiration date is another fascinating “historical” detail most Westerners probably don’t know (the campaigns ended a few years ago, after the implosion of both Iraq and Syria reduced the risk of a chemical attack). Israel also passed a law requiring every new house to include a bomb shelter capable of doubling as a sealed room, since ordinary bomb shelters offer no protection against chemical attacks (yet another little-known “historical” detail). That’s one of many factors contributing to the country’s sky-high housing costs, but not one Israelis complain about. In-house bomb shelters are even more necessary today, given the thousands of rockets launched at Israel by both Hezbollah and Hamas over the last 10 to 15 years.

Even Israelis who were children in 1991 undoubtedly remember being woken by sirens in the middle of the night, rushing to makeshift sealed rooms (heavy-duty plastic wrap, tape and damp towels), putting on their masks and sitting for hours waiting for the all-clear. The adults also remember being unable to fall asleep at night while awaiting that siren. The chronic sleep deprivation experienced by people under missile bombardment is another little-known historical detail (somehow, it never seems to interest human rights organizations as much as the sleep deprivation of captured terrorists during interrogations).

As for beards, this being Israel, a public battle raged for months in 1990-91 over whether Haredi men, who normally don’t shave for religious reasons, should be given special, more expensive masks that can accommodate beards, or whether they could reasonably be expected to shave, given that in Jewish law, saving a life trumps most other religious precepts. There was even a high-profile court case by a secular bearded man charging discrimination because Haredim got the special masks while he did not (he won).

Of course, there’s no reason why reviewer Susan Coll or any other Westerner should know any of these “historical details.” Thankfully, no Western country has faced the threat of bombardment with chemical warheads, or even conventional rockets, in more than 70 years. The problem is that so many Westerners who share her ignorance feel fully qualified to tell Israel what it should do, despite not knowing the most basic facts about the security challenges it faces.

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