Juan Thompson's Arrest Shows We Can't Make Assumptions About Anti-Semitism & Liberalism
On Friday, a man was arrested and charged with making at least some of the recent bomb threats against Jewish Community Centers (JCC) and other Jewish institutions. Juan Thompson was charged with making anti-Semitic threats against at least eight Jewish Community Centers throughout the country, according to the FBI complaint. While the recent spate of threats against Jewish institutions and the vandalism against Jewish cemeteries (which Thompson has not been charged with), were often linked to Donald Trump, his rhetoric, or his supporters, Thompson — who threatened a "Jewish Newtown" against a Jewish school in Manhattan, according to the federal complaint — is not a white supremacist, an alt-right diehard, or even a fan of the Donald.
Instead, Thompson, 31, is a millennial reporter who used to work for The Intercept, a news site that is considered left-leaning and is "dedicated to producing fearless, adversarial journalism," as the website states.
Thompson was fired from The Intercept in January 2016 because, according to a note from editor-in-chief Betsy Reed, he "fabricated several quotes in his stories and created fake email accounts that he used to impersonate people, one of which was a Gmail account in my name." The Intercept also posted a statement Friday, saying:
We were horrified to learn this morning that Juan Thompson, a former employee of The Intercept, has been arrested in connection with bomb threats against the ADL and multiple Jewish Community Centers in addition to cyberstalking.
According to the federal complaint, Thompson's alleged anti-Semitic threats against Jewish institutions and centers were part of a desire to frame a woman with whom he was formerly in a relationship. "Thompson began making threats to Jewish Community Centers, sometimes in the woman’s name and sometimes in his own, though he claimed the woman was trying to frame him, according to authorities," the Washington Post reported.
Johnson's Twitter feed includes tweets expressing concern about the bomb threats being called into Jewish centers, raising more questions about his motives. According to the Washington Post, when asked about Thompson's motivation for the alleged threats, the ADL’s Center on Extremism director, Oren Segal simply told reporters “threatening Jewish institutions is an anti-Semitic act.”
Based on his social media presence, Thompson appears to fall somewhere on the progressive left. He devoted a chunk of his Twitter feed to denouncing Trump — though he is also quite critical of Hilary Clinton for not being progressive enough. Last week, over Twitter, he accused Clinton of "having lunch in Mahattan [sic], attending swanky fashion events" instead of being involved in politics, adding "You have no room to talk. Go away."
He expressed concern in another tweet that Tom Perez would not be a strong enough leader of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), saying "Trump will roll over him like one of those old cartoons."
Thompson flies in the face of our preconceptions about who would be charged as responsible for anti-Semitic threats (not least of which because his alleged desire to frame an ex complicates things). We may not know why Thompson would have made these alleged threats, but his arrest undermines the assumption that anti-Semitism is a problem that exclusively resides in the far-right.
There's a reason that assumption is prevalent — and it may ultimately prove to have truth to it. After all, Thompson is charged with what are a relative handful of the threats to Jewish centers; more than 100 others remain unsolved. Moreover, the Southern Poverty Law Center's Mark Potok went so far as to say, "People feel the Trump campaign has brought their ideas into the mainstream.... This surge of anti-Semitic incidents reflects the normalization of these ideas."
Furthermore, considering how disappointing Trump's response when questioned about anti-Semitism has been — not to mention the Pennsylvania Attorney General's recent claim that Trump suggested the anti-Semitic threats were "to make others look bad" — it is not irrational and, in fact, quite tempting to assume all anti-Semitism is linked to people who support him.
No wonder a number of articles and pundits have tied Trump and/or his supporters to the anti-Semitic incidences. "The spike in anti-Semitic vandalism and threats comes amid a global trend of racist, xenophobic, and Islamophobic rhetoric, and amid the rise of populist political leaders who espouse such thinking," Sarah Wildman wrote for Vox "From Brexit to the election of Donald Trump... there is a new permissiveness displayed toward populist speech that highlights nationalism over globalization while shunning immigration and outsiders, especially Muslims and other non-Christians."
Wildman's characterization of anti-Semitism in 2017 is not unusual; in fact tying anti-Semitism to Trump and the far-right has become the norm. Just this week, Bernie Sanders, while not directly blaming Trump, noted there has been "a significant outbreak of anti-Semitism in our country” since Trump was elected, as Politico reporter.
A ThinkProgress article ran a story with a headline referring to the "Surge of Trump-Fueled Anti-Semitism." David Leonhardt wrote in the New York Times that, "Social media was filled with anti-Semitism last year: Journalists who said they had never been subject to bigotry before came to expect it, usually from Trump supporters." However, the articles he links to are mostly focused on the attacks against Julia Ioffe, who faced a stream of revolting anti-Semitic attacks after her GQ profile of Melania Trump. The threats and harassment she received were nothing short of horrifying — and Trump's inability to condemn this was even more horrifying — but the chilling case of Ioffe does not prove all or even the majority of anti-Semitic threats come from Trump supporters.
This publication has also used language that, while not explicitly blaming Trump or Trump supporters for anti-Semitism, has tied them together. One of our stories on the vandalism to a Jewish cemetery stated, "This will undoubtedly cast a new shadow on Donald Trump's administration." This assessment of the vandalism implies Trump or Trump supporters were somehow involved in the act, or that the public will perceive them to have been. The former is not necessarily true, while the latter probably is.
I see clear problems with such assessments of anti-Semitism in America. For one, as Mark Oppenheimer pointed out in the Washington Post, "it is not clear that we can accuse the president of ushering in a new era of heightened anti-Semitism. While there is real anti-Semitism, we have no reliable statistics available to show there’s been a rise in anti-Semitism since Trump’s election."
Moreover, that there's an implicit assumption that anti-Semitic threats are from the worst of the right, not the worst of the left. As I have written for Bustle before, anti-Semitism does not have a partisan culprit in America — and Thompson's arrest is a reminder of that.