With federal authorities’ arrest of 31-year old Juan Thompson on March 3 in connection with eight bomb threats to Jewish institutions since January, Jewish community professionals can breathe a partial sigh of relief.
But true closure, they say, won’t come until the main perpetrator of the more than 100 incidents in that time is apprehended.
Thompson had been a reporter at The Intercept until February 2016 when he was fired for fabricating quotes and sources. He reportedly made the threats in an attempt to stalk and intimidate a former girlfriend.
Based on Thompson’s behavior, Anti-Defamation League Deputy National Director Ken Jacobson said he sees no evidence to suggest anything other than the theory that the St. Louis man acted alone in making the eight threats.
“He clearly was looking to do no good, but I don’t know how he decided to pursue this particular path,” he said.
Jacobson said it’s possible that Thompson may be a copycat and, if that is the case, he thinks last Friday’s arrest may send a message that future copycats will not get away with more crimes.
“One hopes so,” he said of the arrest’s potential to deter copycats. “We’re very pleased by the work of the FBI and the arrest because it shows the beginning of solving these threats.”
That said, nine new bomb threats were reported March 7 at Jewish institutions across six U.S states and Canada, as well as at several regional offices of the Anti-Defamation League.
Jacobson said to address the issue of anti-Semitism in the United States on a long-term basis, there needs to be “multi-pronged” approach from the White House and from other areas of government. But he said that approach will not be simple.
“If one is serious in dealing with issues of hate or anti-Semitism you have to take a multitude of steps,” he said. “You have to use bully pulpits to speak out to say this is un-American. You have to have investigations by both local and state governments.”
Jacobson applauded New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo for his condemnation of anti-Semitism during a visit last weekend to Israel where he spoke at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem alongside Israeli President Reuven Rivlin and denounced the recent spate of anti-Semitic acts in the United States as a “social cancer.”
Jacobson said the U.S. has “come a long way” in terms of delegitimizing hate but that people “can’t afford to be complacent” in the wake of the threats. Yet this should not mean changing your routine, he said.
“One has to treat these calls seriously,” he said. “On the other hand, none of them so far have turned into action. The main purpose [of the calls] is to intimidate, so you have to find a balance.”
Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington Executive Director Ron Halber echoed that message, urging the community to remain “calm, cool and collected.” But he also thinks the community won’t be satisfied until the main culprit is “on the other side of a jail cell.”
“The person who’s responsible for most of the calls my guess is probably much more sophisticated than this person [Thompson],” he said. “It wouldn’t surprise me if the person doing this was overseas.”
Thompson’s arrest does much to calm people’s worries, said Ryan Lenz, a spokesperson for the Southern Poverty Law Center. But it does not lessen the fear of future threats or stop the tide of what he describes as a postelection period when hate speech from “extremists” on the political right has become legitimized.
“Law enforcement has a lot of threats still remaining,” he said “It doesn’t so much matter where the threats are coming from. People are finding something to do as a form of political expression.”
Lenz, like many, pointed to President Donald Trump’s divisive rhetoric during the campaign and since taking office as a motivating factor for the hate crimes. When asked about Trump’s recent condemnation of the acts during his address to Congress last week, Lenz said, “Words are fine but we’d like to see some action.” For him, that means seeing the White House put together a task force aimed at combatting the hate directed against Jews and other marginalized groups.
“I don’t think that’s going to happen. Look at how he’s going to change the violent extremism problem,” he said referring to Trump’s executive order banning travel from six majority-Muslim countries. “It’s a shortsighted answer to a very deep-seated problem in this country.”
Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) also issued a challenge to Trump during an interview after a rally held at the Bender Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington the same day of Thompson’s arrest.
“If he can set up a unit within the White House to receive reports of crimes by immigrants, he can set up a unit within the White House to receive reports of crimes and incidents against African-Americans, Jews, Muslims and other religious minority groups,” he said.
Dan Schere is a reporter with Washington Jewish Week, an affiliated publication of the Jewish Exponent.