By Deepti Govind
Sometime between Friday night and Monday morning over this weekend, the Chabad on River synagogue was vandalized with a swastika and an antisemitic slur. A congregant found the hate symbols at 8 a.m. Monday, June 7, when they arrived early to teach a religion class, tucson.com reported. This is the second vandalism incident in three weeks at a Tucson synagogue in Arizona.
There’s no doubt that, as a whole, hate crimes have been worryingly on the rise in the U.S. In November last year, the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) released a report that showed that in 2019 hate crimes reached the highest level in over a decade in 2019, with 7,314 hate crime incidents reported that year, up from 7,120 in 2018 — and the highest since 7,783 in 2008. Towards the start of this year, it was the Asian American community that seemed to be on the receiving end. That appeared to extend to those in the Sikh community after a mass shooting at a FedEx warehouse in Indianapolis. In terms of race, nearly half of the 3,963 incidents of hate crimes reported in 2019 were directed against those belonging to the Black or African American community, the FBI Hate Crime Statistics report shows.
Now, in the past month or so, a lot of the anger appears to be aimed at the Jewish community. The attacks seem to be a fallout of the most recent outbreak of violence between Israel and Hamas. On May 20, Reuters reported that Israel and Hamas had called a ceasefire across the Gaza Strip border, bringing a potentially tenuous halt to the fiercest fighting the region has seen in years. On the same day, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), an anti-hate organization founded to combat antisemitism in 1913, said preliminary data from its Center on Extremism showed an increase in online and real-world incidents of antisemitism in the United States.
An analysis of Twitter in the days following the recent outbreak of violence showed more than 17,000 tweets that used variations of the phrase, “Hitler was right” between May 7 and May 14, 2021, the ADL said. Extreme antisemitic and anti-Zionist content can be found across a wide variety of channels calling for the destruction of the Jewish state and for a “race war.” The organization said it had also documented dozens of anti-Israel protests in the U.S. since the violence in Israel began, and while a majority of those protests stayed within the lines of free and civil discourse, it has seen some expressions of clear antisemitism too. Those included signs that invoke the age-old antisemitic accusation that Jews are responsible for killing Jesus, as well as Holocaust analogies that demonize Zionists.
The ADL also said it had received more reports of possible antisemitic incidents since the conflict broke out in Israel: 193 reports in the week after the crisis began, up from 131 the previous week. According to an analysis of the FBI’s hate crime data, the number of anti-Jewish hate crime incidents grew over 14% to 953 in 2019. “To those who choose to indulge in age-old antisemitic tropes, exaggerated claims and inflammatory rhetoric, it has consequences: attacks in real life on real people targeted for no other reason than they are Jewish. This is antisemitism, plain and simple. And it’s indisputably inexcusable in any context,” ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said on May 20.
In the latest Tucson synagogue vandalism case, the police said there were no suspects identified or in custody; that was as of the morning of June 8. Whoever committed the act snipped a wire on a gate to gain access to the synagogue, Rabbi Yehuda Ceitlin of Chabad Tucson said, according to an Arizona Republic article. Ceitlin cited recent reports of rising antisemitism across the country, saying that the Tucson incidents reflect a worrying national trend, the article added. Several people, including Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, tweeted about the most recent act of vandalism and the general rise in antisemitic sentiment.
It was just three weeks ago that Congregation Chaverim was vandalized sometime between nightfall on May 18 and around 8 a.m. on May 19. The Tucson Police Department said the synagogue’s front door was damaged, leaving a “rock-size hole not big enough for anyone to enter,” Arizona Republic reported. The incident happened only days after the synagogue welcomed members back inside for the first time since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic.
State Rep. Alma Hernandez, D-Tucson, who is a member of the synagogue, told Arizona Republic that the synagogue was “fairly small” and tucked inside of a community, making it unlikely that the incident was accidental. Hernandez had said back then that she believed the incident was tied to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “A lot” of antisemitic discourse and misinformation regarding the conflict was moving throughout social media and other channels, leading to “more anger and hate” toward Jews, she said. “We shouldn’t have to pay the price here in Arizona, or anywhere, for what’s going on in the Middle East,” the Arizona Republic report quoted Hernandez as saying.
On May 21, five Jewish groups wrote to President Biden expressing concern about the recent surge of antisemitic hate crimes in the U.S. The American Jewish Community, the ADL, the Jewish Federations of North America, Hadassah and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America urged the president to condemn antisemitism and take a number of actions to combat anti-Jewish hate in the country.
There have, indeed, been several other incidents of hate crimes committed against the community over the past month. In mid-May, two people shattered a window at a synagogue in Skokie, Illinois, according to local police. A Jewish family visiting South Florida were harassed by four men in an SUV who hurled insults and garbage at them and even shouted, “Die Jew,” according to a Miami Herald report. On May 21, a Brooklyn man was arrested for setting fire to a yeshiva and synagogue on May 19. Separately, in New York City, over two dozen people were arrested after clashes broke out between pro-Israel and pro-Palestine protesters, after reports of the ceasefire between Israel and Hamas emerged.
This is not the first time in history that there has been a surge in antisemitic hate crimes in the aftermath of conflicts in the Middle East, Arizona Republic said, citing Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. In the 1990s, the month that saw the most antisemitic hate crimes in the U.S. was March 1994, following the Ibrahimi Mosque massacre, when an American-Israeli man fatally shot 29 people and wounded more than a hundred in the West Bank, Levin added. In the 2000s, the worst month for antisemitic hate crimes in the U.S. was October 2000, during the Palestinian uprising against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.
While these crimes have continued to be committed historically, the Jewish community says it is staying strong. After the Congregation Chaverim vandalism, Rep. Hernandez said she and others at the synagogue were not going to let fear win. That sentiment was echoed by Ceitlin of Chabad Tucson after this weekend’s vandalism when he said: “We have to speak in a united front against this. This is not acceptable — not in Tucson and not anywhere in America, not now or not ever.”
Tucson police spokesperson Officer Frank Magos urged anyone with information about the Chabad on River synagogue incident, or who sees similar graffiti in the area, to contact the Pima County Attorney’s Office’s anonymous crime tip line at 520-882-7463.