published Thursday, April 17th, 2014

Nerves on edge in Chattanooga as mystery box stirs fear

Reported instances of anti-Semitism per year, 1989-2012

U.S.: 33 percent decrease

Worldwide: 780 percent increase

Sources: Anti-Defamation League, Tel Aviv University

When Rabbi Bill Tepper arrived at the Mizpah Congregation on Wednesday morning, he found a cardboard box near the entrance, wedged between a brick column and a brick wall.

From where he stood, Tepper could not see any stamps or writing on the box, any signs of its origins. He called another leader at Mizpah. The leader told him to call the cops.

And so Tepper did. Around 7:30 a.m., Chattanooga police spokesman Tim McFarland said, members of the bomb squad, the fire department and Hamilton County Emergency Medical Services showed up at Mizpah Congregation on McCallie Avenue.

For two hours, officers treated the box as if it contained a bomb. Angela Smith, an office manager at Mizpah, said the police detonated the package -- something McFarland declined to confirm. Around 9:30 a.m., officers cleared the scene.

The box was not dangerous. All it held were two books. Smith said a U.S. Postal Service employee left the box there Monday after no one answered the door because the office was closed for Passover. The books were mailed from out of town, a donation to Mizpah's library in honor of someone who had been sick.

The books were about healing. One of them, Smith said, did not survive the detonation. But another book -- "Not Dead Yet," by Phil Southerland and John Hanc -- remained intact.

Overall, the ordeal was swift and relatively uneventful. Nobody got hurt.

"All is well," McFarland said afterward.

But the event is significant for its timing, for what happened three days before and what will happen 10 days from now.

On Sunday, police in Kansas City say Frazier Glenn Cross opened fire outside a Jewish community center and killed two people, then drove to a nearby retirement center and killed one more person. Though Cross has publicly voiced anti-Semitic beliefs, the three victims were Christians.

And on April 26, the United States' largest neo-Nazi group will descend on Chattanooga to host a rally and celebrate its 40th anniversary.

McFarland said Wednesday the Kansas City shooting did not affect how police responded to the rabbi's call. The upcoming neo-Nazi rally didn't either. Smith said those two events have nothing to do with why members of Mizpah thought the package might contain a bomb.

  • photo
    Officer William Curvin, of the Chattanooga Police Bomb Squad, packs his gear following the discovery of a suspicious package at Mizpah Congregation on McCallie Avenue early Wednesday. The package contained books inside cardboard and was wrapped in packing tape, then wedged between columns on the exterior of the building, according to the officer.
    Photo by Tim Barber.
    enlarge photo

The leader of the neo-Nazi group coming to town said in a telephone interview that his group did not condone the Kansas attack. The National Socialist Movement believes Jewish people should leave America, Commander Jeff Schoep said, but the group's desired change will not come from any shootings.

"I understand why people don't like Jews," he said. "But going and killing people for no reason doesn't solve anything. That kind of violent activity is not something our party endorses. We're not going to solve our problems in this country by killing people."

Still, Cross' alleged attack in Kansas City has led some academics to speculate about whether this shooting could lead to an increase in copycat anti-Semitic violence across the United States.

Consider Toulouse, France, where in March 2012 a gunman killed a rabbi and three children. Researchers at Tel Aviv University argued that this shooting triggered the 58 percent increase in anti-Semitic activity in France from 2011 to 2012. Hate toward Jews breeds more hate toward Jews, the researchers concluded.

On Wednesday, Yale sociology professor Jeffrey Alexander said it is too early to know whether the theory will prove true in the United States. He pointed to studies by the Anti-Defamation League, which in October released a poll revealing that 14 percent of Americans believe Jews have too much power in the United States.

Could the Kansas City violence inspire any of those 14 percent of Americans -- about 40 million, based on U.S. Census figures -- to violence? Alexander said academics will have to wait.

"If two or three other buildings catch fire in a certain area, you might conclude there is a problem with the fire department or the structure of the buildings," he said. "Then we know something must be done. We can't tell that at the current time."

But Mark Potok, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center, doesn't foresee a wave aof nti-Semitic violence.

"I don't think there is a latent core of millions of Americans who have violent feelings toward Jews," said Potok.

An Anti-Defamation League study showed anti-Semitic incidents decreased in this country by 33 percent from 1989 to 2012, even as a Tel Aviv University study found such violence increased throughout the world by about 780 percent.

Why such a dramatic difference? Alvin Rosenfeld, the director of Indiana University's Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism, said one key factor is that the United States is relatively young at 237 years old.

Rosenfeld said anti-Semitic roots in other countries date back to medieval times, and a deep-seated hatred of Jews can carry quite the legacy. For example, a town in northern Spain is still named Castrillo Matajudios -- Spanish for "kill Jews."

In addition, European nations have seen an influx of Muslim immigrants in the last 20 years, spreading the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to other regions. This is what motivated the shooter in Toulouse in 2012, said Maurice Samuels, the director of the Yale Program for the Study of Antisemitism. Some academics call this type of violence "new" anti-Semitism -- as opposed to violence motivated by a belief in racial superiority and myths about Jews.

Also, Rosenfeld said, recent anti-Semitic violence has arisen in some countries where the economy is considerably worse than it is in the United States. A bad economy has often been linked to discrimination against Jews, as anti-Semitism is frequently driven by a myth that Jewish people control the world's banks.

For example, neo-Nazi parties have seen political success in Greece and Hungary in the past year. No such parties have succeeded on the national stage in the United States.

"When we do see incidents [like in Kansas City], we don't like it," said Rosenfeld. "Most Americans oppose it. They don't like the KKK. They don't like the neo-Nazi."

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at tjett@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6476.

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