Swastikas, bomb threats and ‘Heil Hitler’: Anti-Semitic incidents jump 50 percent in southern Texas

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The voice was menacing but unidentifiable.

It could have been a man or woman, teenager or prankster.

But the words were unmistakable: “Heil Hitler.”

Then the line went dead.

Rabbi Dan Gordon didn’t hear the muffled voicemail message till he checked his synagogue’s phone the next day. Although such hate incidents have been a rarity in the nearly 20 years he’s headed the Temple Beth Torah synagogue in Humble, Gordon wasn’t afraid.

“I was mostly sad,” he said.

The first thing he did was put in a call to the Anti-Defamation League.

Anti-Semitic hate incidents like the one in Humble have jumped 50 percent this year over all of last year in the southern part of Texas, a “disturbing trend” that includes swastikas, Nazi salutes and even bomb threats, according to a report released this week by the Anti-Defamation League.

The surge in the Lone Star state was part of an 86 percent increase nationwide, compared to last year.

“Clearly, ADL is needed more than ever, and we will redouble our efforts to fight anti-Semitism and all types of discrimination,” said ADL regional Associate Director Dena Marks.

While 2016 saw 16 reported hate incidents in the League’s Houston-based southwest region, the first quarter of this year logged 25 reports, including eight swastikas, one incident of alleged employment discrimination, four anti-Semitic flyers and two reports of Nazi salutes.

At Lanier Middle School last week, students spontaneously sang “Happy Birthday” to Hitler while throwing Nazi salutes.

A Jewish student in the classroom asked them to stop and was met with shocked silence.

“It made me feel really nervous,” the 12-year-old said. “It felt like my insides were really squeezy.”

Days earlier, a gun-toting alt-right group opposing socialist protesters flew a handful of anti-Semitic signs outside the Hilton Americas in downtown Houston just before Gov. Greg Abbott gave his State of the State address.

Although some of the other hate incidents – swastikas in Sienna Plantation, students saluting Hitler at Cy-Ranch High School, American Vanguard flyers at Rice University – have made the news, the most high-profile threats in the Houston area were the pair of bomb scares at the local Jewish Community Center earlier this year.

But the local religious community is pushing back.

“This is the time to double down on respect,” said Martin B. Cominsky, president of Interfaith

Ministries for Greater Houston, who also condemned less overt comments.

“We have to fight casual rhetorical comments and really remember that we have to get to know each other, that words hurt and that we have to be careful about the words we select,” he said.

Although some experts tied the uptick in anti-Semitic incident to heated political rhetoric, regional ADL Director Dayan Gross said this level of hate is not unprecedented in recent history.

“I think we have to view the recent increase of anti-Semitic incidents in perspective,” he said. “We have at other times seen higher numbers of incidents.”

He pointed to a surge in such reportings around 2006, when Israel was involved in war in Lebanon.

“Historically we’ve found that in times of political uncertainty, social unrest and downturns in the economy – or when Israel has been involved in major wars – that’s when incidents have increased exponentially,” he said.

Last year’s reporting saw a post-election spike, though even in the current tense political climate, Gross shied away from predicting a continued upswing. But Rabbi Kenny Weiss of Houston Hillel said it doesn’t look good.

“It’s reasonable to say that the uptick as documented by the ADL is significant and is dramatic and does not portend well for the future,” he said.

Whatever happens, Gross plans to fight hate with education and advocacy.

“We are working hard to ensure we are able to counter anti-Semitism directly and indirectly,” he said, highlighting the ADL’s support for hate crime legislation, anti-bias training in schools and new efforts to partner with internet companies to combat cyber-hate.

But Gordon, the rabbi who got the offensive voice message, said he will focus on the good in life.

“These things ebb and flow,” he said. “If we reported every instance of understanding instead of the hate crimes, then people might get the idea that learning to live together is the norm.”

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