The images could have just as easily come from Europe: tombstone after tombstone, adorned with Stars of David and Hebrew letters, toppled en masse. But instead of happening over there, it’s happened right here in the United States — first in St. Louis and, on Feb. 26, in our own backyard.
People were right to react with horror at what, given the sheer number of toppled markers, could only have been the intentional vandalizing of Jewish graves in the City of Brotherly Love. They were also likely correct in identifying anti-Semitism as the culprit (although at least one Jewish undertaker has noted that drunk hooligans with no other motive than to cause havoc, no matter the ethnicity of the deceased, have been known to topple tombstones).
Coming so soon after the exact same thing happened last week at the Chesed Shel Emeth Society cemetery, what took place at the Mount Carmel cemetery in Northeast Philadelphia is shocking not only because of its imagery, but because it appears in the context of a rising tide of anti-Semitism gripping our country.
Bomb threats have targeted schools and JCCs coast to coast, including at our own Perelman Jewish Day School in Wynnewood, which was evacuated on Feb. 27. Storefronts have been defaced with swastikas. And according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, this is no statistical blip. Acts of hatred against the Jewish community, as well as against other ethnic minorities, is at a level unseen in recent memory.
Now is the time for action to defeat this scourge we all thought had long ago been relegated to the periphery of society. And that is why blaming the newest occupant of the White House and his administration for attacks against our community is ridiculous.
It is true that the rise in anti-Semitism has been most pronounced in the days following the Jan. 20 inauguration of President Trump, but that is merely correlative. “Your presidency has given the oxygen of incitement to some of the most viciously hateful elements of our society,” the Anne Frank Center said in a statement addressing Trump in the wake of the Mount Carmel vandalism. That’s like blaming President Obama for fueling the high-profile killings of unarmed black men by police during his second term.
Besides being wrong in its logic, accusing the president above all others for energizing the efforts of those who hate us is strategically misguided. If the end goal is the eradication of anti-Semitism — or, at the very least, its containment — we do no one any favors by using it as a political football. It’s as abhorrent when done by those on the left as it is when those on the right — as Breitbart News Senior Editor-at-Large Joel Pollak did on ABC’s The View recently — blame the language of anti-Israel and Islamist voices for the brand of anti-Semitism we see in cemetery desecrations.
The fact is neither side has a monopoly on purity. Blaming one side over the other merely whitewashes the sins of the other and, in the last presidential campaign, there were plenty of sins to go around.
Trump’s brand of populism is just as dangerous as that practiced by the Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party; both embrace the notion of victimhood and the idea that whatever problems you may have, whether it’s economic, religious, social or political, it’s the other guy’s fault. That’s the kind of thinking that has historically left marginalized groups, such as ethnic minorities and immigrants, in the crosshairs of those nursing legitimate grievances and hungry for a scapegoat.
That’s not to say that the White House doesn’t have the responsibility to combat anti-Semitism. Now that he’s president, Trump — as all presidents must — needs to appeal to the better angels of our country’s character. But so does the opposition.
For that matter, so do we. If we want our country to be a place that, in the words of George Washington, “gives bigotry no sanction,” we must look to the center and away from the extreme edges of whatever ideologies we embrace.
Otherwise, life under the next administration is likely to look a lot like the current one, with no real safe haven for those of us in the Jewish community. If we’re not careful, picking up tombstones might then be the least of our problems.
Joshua Runyan is the editor-in-chief of the Jewish Exponent. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.