The writer is CEO of the Jewish Federation of Omaha.
After an Omaha Jewish cemetery recently fell victim to extreme vandalism, it is natural to think it was a targeted attack on the Jewish community. As such, it can be called an anti-Semitic act, whether the perpetrator knew it was a Jewish institution or not. Criminal acts are considered anti-Semitic when the targets, whether they are people or property — such as buildings, schools, places of worship or cemeteries — are selected because they are or are perceived to be Jewish or linked to Jews.
According to the FBI, a hate crime is a traditional offense like murder, arson or vandalism, with the added element of bias. For the purpose of collecting statistics, the FBI has defined a hate crime as a “criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender or gender identity.” What is the difference between a hate crime and a hate incident? A hate incident is an action that is motivated by hate but does not rise to the level of a crime, such as name calling, insults and offensive jokes, distributing hate material in public or displaying hate material on your property. In short, hate itself is not a crime.
Incidents like the cemetery vandalism are highly emotional. Certainly so for our community members with family members buried in the cemetery. The trauma of experiencing or witnessing an act of desecration or hate cannot be discounted. One might not be the intended target, but it can trigger a memory or feeling which escalates emotions. This is personal for our community.
I appreciated Harl Dahlstrom’s recent letter to the Public Pulse. I wholeheartedly agree with his thought — this is not just an issue for the Jewish community but for all of Omaha. Acts of hatred, anti-Semitism, racism and bigotry hurt more than those targeted. And Omaha should be outraged to be included in the ranks of other cities experiencing cemetery vandalism and anti-Semitism. Erin Grace reported the number of headstones in the cemetery that were toppled — more than 80, by her count. She also reported Omaha has not seen cemetery vandalism in more than 20 years and none to the extent of this occurrence.
A quick search on the web shows that cemeteries across the country and of all faiths have been vandalized over the past few months. Some had headstones toppled, some had graffiti and swastikas spray-painted over them. It is a sad commentary when individuals find their way into a sacred space only to vandalize.
What motivated this person or persons to commit this destruction in Omaha? What benefit could possibly be gained? This was truly an act of cowardice on holy ground. And how have those responsible not been caught yet?
One would think those who had knocked over more than 80 headstones would be bragging about it, looking for justification for their actions — if so, others know who did this. I’m not sure which bothers me more — the vandalism or those not sharing what they know with law enforcement. We won’t know the intent or the motivation of these cowards until they come forward or are caught. When they are, as a community, let’s find a way to educate them.
This is also an opportunity to bring the community together — let’s learn from one another how to address issues respectfully and civilly. As a community, we have the opportunity to educate and respond to these types of incidents — to use the simple and appropriate phrase, “if you see something, say something.” Don’t be a bystander; be part of making a difference.
When vandalism at a cemetery occurs, it is an attack on the community, no matter the religious or ethnic identity of that sacred place.