Advertisement

Arrest of Israeli-American for Jewish center bomb threats brings relief — and raises more questions

A 19-year-old Israeli Jewish man is the primary suspect in a string of bomb threats targeting centers in the U.S. (Sign up for our free video newsletter here http://bit.ly/2n6VKPR)

The arrest of a teenage Israeli-American for dozens of bomb threats against American Jewish institutions sent relief through Jewish communities Thursday, but raised new questions about the threats and a broader rise in anti-Semitism.

Israeli police arrested the unidentified man — variously described as 18 or 19 years old — on suspicion of phoning in the bulk of the bomb threats, which have hit more than 100 Jewish centers in the United States since the beginning of the year.

Advertisement

In total, the Anti-Defamation League has counted more than 150 hoaxes, many which hit individual Jewish centers several times, causing shutdowns and evacuations of day schools. The man is also suspected of calling in a bomb threat against Delta Air Lines at New York's John F. Kennedy airport in early 2015.

While it's been praised by U.S. Jewish leaders, the arrest has also perplexed them. Local police said the man, who hid under his shirt when brought into a court south of Tel Aviv on Thursday, is Jewish and holds both Israeli and U.S. citizenship.

His father was also arrested, and will be held for the next week, authorities said. His identity is also under a gag order.

"We are troubled to learn that the individual suspected of making these threats against Jewish Community Centers, which play a central role in the Jewish community, as well as serve as inclusive and welcoming places for all – is reportedly Jewish," said Doron Krakow, CEO of the JCC Assn. of North America, in a statement. The group represents the majority of community centers that have been targeted.

Bomb threats are usually hoaxes, sometimes childish pranks and sometimes carried out to make a political or racist statement.

But "it's not always the stereotypical bigot," said Brian Levin, a hate crimes expert and professor at Cal State San Bernardino. "There are various types of offenders that commit these symbolic high profile acts, including the mentally unstable offender, those seeking personal benefit or revenge, thrill seekers, and those conflicted about their identity," he said.

Levin expressed concern that the arrest of a Jewish suspect would embolden the very people most likely to carry out anti-Semitic acts.

"Racists in the alt-right will play the 'hate hoax' angle of this from here on in," he said.

Over the months, Jewish leaders have pressed President Trump to speak out against the bomb threats, with many suggesting that the president's campaign activities and his initial reluctance to talk about the crimes emboldened extremists.

During the campaign, Trump came under fire for retweeting white supremacists and anti-Semites, earning him support from the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups. The president also was later criticized for purposely leaving any mention of Jews out of a statement observing the Holocaust and brushing off a question about anti-Semitism during a news conference as "insulting."

Under pressure, Trump opened his first speech to a joint session of Congress by denouncing the "hate and evil" of the threats and recent vandalism of Jewish cemeteries, and also earlier spoke about anti-Semitism during a visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Authorities said Israel's special investigations and cyber units had been investigating the threats for the last three months with the FBI and police officials from Australia, New Zealand and Europe. Police said the man, a resident of Ashkelon in southern Israel, used computers and satellite equipment to mask the location from where the calls were being made, and manipulated the calls to disguise the voice behind them.

"We have concrete evidence. It was phone call after phone call," said Micky Rosenfeld, a spokesman for the Israeli police.

Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions praised the FBI and the Israeli police for the arrest, describing it as the culmination of a large-scale investigation spanning multiple continents. "The Department of Justice is committed to protecting the civil rights of all Americans, and we will not tolerate the targeting of any community in this country on the basis of their religious beliefs," Sessions said in a statement.

Advertisement

It's unclear what motivated the man, whom Israeli police said they would be keep in custody until at least March 30.

In a statement sent via the Office of the Israeli Public Defender, his lawyer, Galit Bash, said her client "suffers from a brain tumor that may have had an effect on his cognitive functions."

"He showed irrational behavior during the investigation,'' said Bash. She said he wasn't accepted into the Israeli army and was home schooled instead of attending a high school.

She declined to comment on whether the suspect admitted the accusations against him.

Bash said he was born in Israel to at least one American parent and that the family had spent several years in the U.S. She said she could not be more specific.

At Jewish community centers across the U.S., leaders said the arrest gave them a relative sense of calm after months of tensions.

"We are relieved that progress has been made towards a resolution here, but we're also going to remain vigilant," said Brian Greene, executive director of Westside Jewish Community Center in Los Angeles, whose center had received two bomb threats since February.

Greene did not know if the teen who was arrested is responsible for the threats at his center, and said he would leave extra security measures in place.

"We are hopeful this brings us to a close, but we have to be prepared and ready should there be others, copy cats or otherwise, out there," he said.

Rabbi Yosef Konikov, director of Chabad of South Orlando, said he was relieved but surprised by the teen's identity, which he called a "curveball."

Since January, his religious center had received at least two threats, he said.

"On one hand, it's a bit of a relief because this wave is over," he said. "On the other hand, it's sad and disturbing," he said.

Thursday's arrest was not the first in the bomb threats case.

On March 3, former journalist Juan Thompson was arrested in St. Louis on suspicion of making threats to seven Jewish community centers and threatening the Anti-Defamation League's New York headquarters. Police said Thompson, who they believed made the threats in an attempt to frame an ex-girlfriend, was a copycat and not behind most of the crimes.

The two arrests also don't account for several other incidents targeting Jewish institutions that remain unsolved. Several Jewish cemeteries, including ones in St. Louis, Philadelphia and Rochester, N.Y., were vandalized in recent weeks. In addition, a synagogue in Evansville, Ind., was struck with a bullet in February. Nobody was injured.

Jewish leaders said they remained on alert about other potential crimes against Jewish communities.

"I'm relieved but still highly concerned," said Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League. "The impact of this individual's actions is crystal clear: These were acts of anti-Semitism. These threats targeted Jewish institutions, were calculated to sow fear and anxiety, and put the entire Jewish community on high alert." Greenblatt said he was still hoping for resolution to the "many other threats" Jewish Americans have recently faced.

Advertisement

Jews have regularly been near the top of the FBI's annual list of groups most targeted by hate crimes. Of 1,244 crimes motivated by religious bias in 2015 — the most recent statistics available — 53% were directed at Jewish people. Hate crimes against them rose 9% over the previous year.

"JCCs and other institutions should not relax security measures or become less vigilant," Greenblatt said.

Times staff writer Kaleem reported from Los Angeles and special correspondent Mitnick reported from Tel Aviv. Times staff writer Alene Tchekmedyian contributed reporting.

UPDATES:

3:52 p.m.: This article has been updated throughout with U.S. reaction, details from defense attorney, other details.

This article was originally posted at 1:35 p.m.

Advertisement
Advertisement