Anyone attempting to dismiss or ignore the growing wave of anti-Semitism that has swept across the country in recent months as empty threats or manufactured stories must first recognize that no community is removed from this brand of terrorism. Since Jan. 4, the Anti-Defamation League has tracked almost 150 bomb threats made against Jewish institutions all across America. In an effort to chronicle the surge in bigotry, Propublica has collected reports of more than 330 anti-Semitic incidents taking place between November and early February. These are threats to homes, community centers, schools, and synagogues — and spread out across cities and small towns throughout the nation, Charleston has not gone untouched.
According to the Charleston Police Department, the Federal Bureau of Investigations is currently looking into hate mail received by the Brith Sholom Beth Israel Synagogue on Jan. 23. Opening up the day’s mail, an employee at the synagogue found a threatening message that included the cryptic phrase “My six blades shall be used three times to avenge the great one.” Photographs of the document were taken and officers wore gloves as they sealed the evidence into a manilla envelope for further inspection. Representatives at the synagogue did not return requests for an interview.
An incident report filed by Charleston police states that the woman who opened the letter was the only person to touch the document located inside the envelope aside from the suspect.
This letter was uncovered just weeks after the Katie and Irwin Kahn Jewish Community Center in Columbia received a bomb threat that would cause the building to be evacuated. A bomb squad searched the community center, but found nothing.
The scene of one of the most vicious hate crimes in recent history, Charleston has been the target of threats related to the trial of Dylann Roof over recent months. Last November, on the eve of Roof’s federal death penalty trial, multiple businesses throughout the city received letters mentioning Roof or Hilter directly and including threats toward Muslim and Jewish people. While Roof was found guilty of murdering nine black parishioners during Bible study at Emanuel AME Church and sentenced to death, his actions continue to influence others.
Also under investigation by the FBI are threatening messages received by the Post and Courier and Emanuel AME that include references to the “The Dylann Roof Appreciation Society.” Just days after police were notified of the letter at Brith Sholom Beth Israel Synagogue, a reporter with the Post and Courier was checking mail to find a threatening letter citing Roof. The next day police responded to Emanuel AME to find an eerily similar message had been delivered. One month later, South Carolina residents would be reminded of why threats and messages such as these can never be taken lightly.
On Feb. 16, federal agents announced the arrest of Benjamin McDowell, the Conway man who investigators claim had hopes of carrying out a large-scale attack “In the spirit of Dylann Roof.”
According to a court affidavit from FBI Special Agent Grant Lowe, McDowell established White Supremacy Extremist connections while serving prison sentences in South Carolina for various criminal offenses. On the day after Christmas, McDowell stated through a Facebook account that “I love love to act what you think,” followed by the web address of a synagogue and the name “Temple Emanu-El,” a synagogue in Myrtle Beach. According to investigators, McDowell expressed his reverence for Roof’s crimes and shared in the personal philosophy of the avowed white supremacist.
“Dylann Roof did what these tattoos wearing so badass is supposed to be doing they don’t give a fuck about their white race,” McDowell reportedly wrote on Facebook in early January. “All they [want to] do is stay loaded on drugs the Jews put here to destroy white man and they feast on the drugs. They should be feasting on the enemy that stole their heritage and their bloodline and trying to run us off of this earth …”
During later meetings with an undercover agent with the FBI, McDowell allegedly requested a .40 caliber handgun, which was later purchased for $109. The affidavit states that the firing pin of the weapon had been shaved down, unbeknownst to McDowell. On Feb. 15, after completing the purchase of the weapon, McDowell was arrested outside of a Myrtle Beach hotel. At the time, he was charged with unlawful possession of a firearm.
In the early days of March, former journalist Juan Thompson was arrested for allegedly threatening several Jewish Community Centers in an effort to harass a woman, according to the FBI. Also sharing a peculiar tie to Dylann Roof, Thompson was fired from his position as a reporter with The Intercept after it was revealed that he had fabricated multiple sources, most notably a fictional cousin of Roof’s. While this explains at least eight of the threats received across the country, there remains a great concern over the safety and piece of mind of the nation’s Jewish citizens.
In response to continuing nationwide threats, all 100 members of the United States Senate joined together to call on the Trump administration to take action. Addressed to Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and FBI Director James Comey, the bipartisan coalition declared that they are “concerned that the number of incidents is accelerating and failure to address and deter these threats will place innocent people at risk and threaten the financial viability” of Jewish Community Centers.
“Your departments can provide crucial assistance by helping JCCs, Jewish day schools, and synagogues improve their physical security, deterring threats from being made, and investigating and prosecuting those making these threats or who may seek to act on these threats in the future,” the senators wrote, adding that victim assistance, grant opportunities, and other forms of federal assistance may be available to enhance security measures.
The letter concludes by stating, “We also recognize the anti-Semitic sentiment behind this spate of threats and encourage your departments to continue to inform state and local law enforcement organizations of their obligations under the Hate Crime Statistics Act and other federal laws. We are ready to work with you to address this pressing issue, and we look forward to your responses about the actions you intend to take to address, deter, and prevent this threat.”
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