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From swastikas to bomb threats, anti-Jewish incidents on record-setting track

Toppled headstones at Mount Carmel Cemetery in Philadelphia in February. Jacqueline Larma/Associated Press/Associated Press

Anti-Semitic incidents in Massachusetts — swastikas scrawled in middle schools, hateful fliers papering college campuses, threats phoned into community centers — jumped dramatically from 2015 to 2016, new data from the Anti-Defamation League show.

Massachusetts witnessed the fifth-highest number of anti-Semitic incidents in the nation in 2016, with 125 episodes, up from 50 the year before. California, with 211, experienced the most, followed by New York, New Jersey, and Florida. The increases coincide with the divisive campaign for president.

“What is particularly concerning is the escalating number of harassment incidents, because they are a warning sign,” said Robert Trestan, executive director of the Anti-Defamation League’s New England office. “We need to pay close attention to these because we don’t want to see an escalation to violence.”


The Anti-Defamation League — a nonprofit organization that fights anti-Semitism and other expressions of hate — tracks criminal and noncriminal acts against Jews. The information for its report comes from victims, law enforcement officials, and community leaders.

The increase mirrors what is happening nationwide: Acts targeting the Jewish community rose sharply during the first three months of this year.

Since the presidential election in November, the league found, one particular anti-Semitic act has surged: harassment of Jews. Nationwide, the number of reported acts of harassment — including distribution of hateful fliers, threats, and slurs — more than doubled in the first three months of this year, compared to the same stretch in 2016, the data show.

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey said the report’s findings are troubling.

“These incidents are hurtful, cause significant harm to individuals and families, and threaten the fabric of our communities,” Healey said in a statement. “Even a single incident of hate or bias is one too many. We will continue to work with the [Anti-Defamation League] and other partners to root out bias and hate, and foster respect and inclusion within our communities.”


Jack McDevitt, director of the Institute on Race and Justice at Northeastern University, said the report documents what he, too, has been finding.

“There has been a rebirth of anti-Semitism associated with electoral politics, both in Europe and in hate groups in the United States,” he said.

McDevitt said traffickers in hate focus on any target that is available, including people of color, Muslims, and those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender. But Jewish people and organizations may bear a larger brunt of the offenses because synagogues and Jewish cemeteries are easy to find, and Swastikas easy to paint, he said.

“I don’t find it surprising, but I do find it incredibly depressing,” McDevitt said. “This is something that will call for major action from political leaders, community leaders, and law enforcement.”

The report noted a significant increase in anti-Semitic episodes in schools, something the league’s office in New England knows all too well. The office has been flooded with calls from school leaders asking for educational programs to help turn the tide.

“There was an incident behind each one of those calls,” Trestan, the league’s New England director, said. The office has been working with 57 schools this year and received requests from 16 additional schools for the fall, he said.

Reported incidents nationwide in elementary, middle, and high schools more than doubled from 2015 to 2016. And that increase has accelerated this year, the numbers show.


That trend worries Jewish leaders, who say schools are a microcosm of the country, with children absorbing messages from their parents and the media, and bringing them into their schools and playgrounds.

“Mainstream media, which kids have access to, are quoting extremists in many ways they never did before,” Trestan said. “Kids who are in middle schools are reading the same content their parents are reading from their phones.”

Among the anti-Semitic acts in Massachusetts schools:

In November, two swastika incidents attributed to students at Stoughton High School prompted an outcry from teachers, who blasted administrators for their handling of the episodes.

In December, three swastikas were found in boys’ bathrooms at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School.

In February, Newton North High School’s principal asked for assistance from the Anti-Defamation League after a series of incidents involving swastikas and offensive posts were reported at the school.

In March, Milton school officials pledged an investigation after swastikas were found at Pierce Middle School for the second time since December.

Now, a group of residents is organizing a “Rally against Hate” at the school to demonstrate, they say, that Milton is a town “where all are welcome and celebrated.”

McDevitt, the Northeastern University researcher, said that type of response is among the most effective in helping victims of hate and bigotry to heal.

“Victims tell us the most important thing is when a community member comes to them and says we don’t share this feeling, and we want you to be part of this community,” he said.


Kay Lazar can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKayLazar.