Millions breathed a deep sigh of relief last week, when it was announced that the FBI, in coordination with police forces in New Zealand, Australia, and Israel, arrested Michael Kaydar, a 19-year old man with dual Israeli-American citizenship, who was behind the majority of the bomb threats made to Jewish community centers around the U.S. The threats were a hoax and, in typical official lingo, the “motive remains unclear.”
To most Americans, however, Jewish and otherwise, the motive, as well as the actual effect of those threats, were very clear: this was intimidation, a message to American Jews that they are not, and should not feel safe in the country they call home. In a lengthy Op-Ed, David Shasha proposes that Kaydar, who lives in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, identifies with Israelis, the “Macho Jews who fearlessly call the shots,” as distinct from, and superior to, “the weak and pusillanimous Diaspora Jews.” Kaydar’s “Zionist sadism is a product of an internal Israeli Jewish hatred and contempt for those who are viewed as weak and unable to defend themselves,” Shasha writes.
I am in no position to debate internal Jewish differences, but can certainly understand and empathize with the terror Jewish-Americans felt as the threats were issued, reminding them that this is now a nation where white nationalists are once again empowered to openly unleash their hatred of all non-whites and non-Christians. The hoaxes, by resurfacing and foregrounding anti-Semitism, widened the net of those caught in the justified fear of white nationalism. They also had a totally unintended effect, as they brought threatened and marginalized communities closer together, to face the greater enemy.
I refer to Kaydar as a “man,” by the way, rather than a “teen,” as most media do, because even though he is 18 or 19, he would certainly not be referred to as a “teenager” if he were Arab. We can and must play a part in ending linguistic apartheid.
There are multiple layers to this still-developing story, that must be parsed and analyzed critically.
First, we must keep in mind that the man who was arrested was responsible for most, but not all, the threats that were issued. Were the others also strictly hoaxes, copy cats, or real threats that somehow, thankfully, were not carried out? There have been over 100 bomb threats against Jewish schools, community centers, and synagogues since Trump’s presidency began on January 9, 2017. And while no Jewish Community Center has been attacked since the threats were made, the calls have nevertheless shattered the Jewish communities’ sense of safety, and can thus be termed psychological terrorism.
And, even though no Jewish center or school was bombed, Jewish cemeteries have been vandalized in St Louis, MI, Fort Wayne, IN, and Philadelphia, PA. These were real hate crimes, that must not be ignored, as most people focus on the fact that the hundreds of threats to Jewish community centers were made by a young Israeli-American, a mere “teenager.” And despite attempts to describe that Kaydar as mentally ill, we should insist that mental illness does not necessarily translate into hateful behavior, and that he was not acting alone. His father, with no reported brain tumor, was also arrested. And we can say with confidence that neither son nor father, who live in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, toppled the headstones in Jewish cemeteries across the US. The hoaxes, then, should not distract from the reality of increased anti-Semitic actions.
At about the same time Kaydar was making his hoax calls, initially attributed, albeit wrongly, to white nationalists, a string of hateful anti-Semitic posters appeared on a number of campuses in the US, that pointed the finger at completely different groups, namely Blacks and Muslims. Some such posters were plastered on walls at the University of Illinois in Chicago, leading a coalition of groups affiliated with the university to issue an Open Letter stating that “the damaging and hurtful nature of these posters is that they seek to malign and divide some of the very groups that are fighting injustice and xenophobia in the first place. They erroneously depict the groups “Black Lives Matter” and “We are Muslims” as authors of the anti-Semitic hateful flyers.”
These posters, the Open Letter continues, “are consistent with a long history whereby hate groups have cited marginalized communities as authors of hate speech to smear them and incite mistrust between them. They serve the goals of both provoking anti-Semitic hatred and justifying the targeting of Palestine solidarity and Black Lives Matter movements, wrongly indicting them as purveyors of hate.”
We must also acknowledge that such hoaxes have historically come from communities that are indeed vulnerable, yet still benefit from some social privilege: when Jewish community centers receive threats, the FBI mobilizes; when white women claim they have been raped by black men, police and vigilante mobilize. Case in point: when the bomb threats against Jewish Community Centers peaked, President Trump was chastised into ultimately denouncing anti-Semitism. However, there was no sustained and successful pressure to have him denounce the hateful killings of Sikhs and Hindus (mistaken for Muslims), and the torching of at least three mosques since his election. Whether his denunciation of the anti-Semitic threats was sincere or not is irrelevant, (and of course there is every indication it was not sincere), he was successfully pressured to denounce anti-Semitism, but not Islamophobia. And the case of the threats to Jewish community centers, which had been active for close to two years, was only finally cracked after Trump prioritized it, sending twelve FBI agents to Israel to work on it. Trump will certainly not prioritize Islamophobic crimes, and while the FBI claims it investigates all hate crimes, in reality, it only considers some crimes as hate crimes, while most are viewed as “lone wolf” attacks. Even the recent burning down of a mosque in Bellevue, a suburb of Seattle, has not been investigated as a hate crime. With the renewed empowerment of white supremacy, however, these distinctions between various marginalized communities are now eroding fast.
Ultimately, whatever the twists of this still developing story, the impulse behind these hoaxes, just like the impulse behind the posters, and the vandalism at the Jewish cemeteries, is fundamentally racist. These hateful incidents revive valid fears of anti-Semitic attacks in the U.S. at a time when this country is actively, officially, promoting white nationalism. And as these fears peak, they can reinforce in Zionists the need for potentially extreme means of security. The “security” that Israel takes very seriously. As Israel promotes itself as a safe haven for Jews from all parts of the world, the hoaxes contribute to a false sense that “the Jewish state” is justified in the horrors it commits against Palestinians, for supposed security reasons. The need for “extreme measures” thus distracts from the real purpose of Israel’s brutal and illegal practices, its apartheid wall, the genocidal siege and regular attacks on Gaza, the occupation of the West Bank, the checkpoints, the administrative detentions and torture of thousands of Palestinian civilians.
Yet as we look for some solace in these otherwise scary times, we can take comfort in the fact that the communities that would otherwise be pitted against each other are actually coming together, to confront the greater evil, racism in its various manifestations, including its Zionist guise. New alliances, formed over the past few years, are getting stronger. Jewish Voice for Peace “is honored” to have Palestinian activist Rasmea Odeh speak at their National Membership Meeting, Muslim-American organizers Linda Sarsour and Tarek El Messidi are raising funds to repair vandalized Jewish cemeteries, and multiple campus groups representing Blacks, [email protected], LGBTQI, Asian, Muslim, and Jewish communities are mobilizing together to denounce the anti-Semitic posters on campuses.
In this increasingly hostile climate, every threat to non-whites, non-Christians, and gender non-conforming individuals and communities reveals the unadulterated racism, sexism, and overall violent hatred of empowered white nationalism, and threatens us all. And today, more than ever before, we have each other’s backs. The calls may have been hoaxes, the solidarity is real.