A teen with dual Israeli and American citizenship who lives in Ashkelon in southern Israel was arrested on suspicion of carrying out more than 100 bomb threats on Jewish institutions in the United States. News of his arrest stirred further debate on anti-Semitic hate crimes in the United States, commonly attributed to a white nationalist movement emboldened by the rise and election of President Trump.
Israel’s anti-fraud squad took in the 19-year-old suspect. His home was searched Thursday. The suspect also is accused of making a series of threats in Europe, Australia and New Zealand in the past six months, according to reports in Israel. Israeli police said the teen has been the subject of months-long undercover investigation by the police’s Lahav 433 anti-fraud unit. He is also under investigation by the FBI in the United States, and by law enforcement in other countries.
He appeared in court in Rishon LeZion on Thursday for a remand hearing.
The arrest caps months in which hundreds of Jewish institutions nationwide received bomb threats that led to evacuations, police searches and heightened security concerns. This came on the heels of a spike in hate crime against Jews, mostly in the form of anti-Semitic graffiti and cemetery vandalism.
As the bomb threats rolled in, they eventually won national attention and set pundits to speculating about their source. Many said bigots had been emboldened by Trump’s election, and some conservatives alleged that it was part of a plot from the left to embarrass him. The past month has also seen three Jewish cemeteries in St. Louis; Rochester, Hew York, and Philadelphia vandalized, with the headstones of the dead overturned and defaced.
Initial reaction to the news of the teenager’s arrest intensified the existing debate.
“It is clear that, unlike what many of the pundits said, it was not the work of a Trump-loving white nationalist,” said Morton Klein, head of the right-wing Zionist Organization of America. “As a fellow Jew and Zionist, it deeply pains me that it turns out to be a Jewish teenager. But he is apparently a deeply disturbed individual. It would not be appropriate to smear the Jewish people with this.”
“Apology should be given to the Trump administration,” Klein added.
Jonathan Greenblatt, head of the Anti-Defamation League, didn’t address the political question in his statement but did mention other examples of hate crime, such as numerous incidents of swastika graffiti, that won’t be explained by this arrest.
“While the details of this crime remain unclear, the impact of this individual’s actions is crystal clear: These were acts of anti-Semitism. These threats targeted Jewish institutions, were calculated to sow fear and anxiety, and put the entire Jewish community on high alert,” he wrote. “Even though it appears that the main culprit behind the majority of these attacks has allegedly been identified, anti-Semitism in the U.S. remains a very serious concern.”
The JCC bomb threats may be by some insane Israeli-American teenager, but he didn’t vandalize Jewish cemeteries or paint swastikas in the U.S.— Lahav Harkov (@LahavHarkov) March 23, 2017
The unidentified teen was apparently a troubled individual who has lived in Israel for many years. The army refused to draft him after finding him unfit for service, Haaretz reported. The newspaper also said that was homeschooled by his parents and received education outside the family home.
His father also has been detained, on suspicion that he knew about his son’s activities, according to The Jerusalem Post.
His motives are unknown, according to reports, and police are said to be determining whether he used any of his threats - directed at airports and shopping malls in addition to Jewish community centers - to bring in money. Ha’aretz said that he was refusing to let the police search his computer and was not cooperating with the investigation. He apparently also attempted to grab the firearm of a police officer arresting him.
He reportedly used advanced technology and voice-altering equipment to call in the threats to more than 100 JCCs, Jewish day schools and other Jewish institutions in the United States, according to The Times of Israel.
During the cyber unit’s raid on the teen’s home, police found a computer lab with sophisticated equipment, encryption and transmission systems and a powerful antenna, according to reports.
While he will be indicted in Israel, it is likely that the United States will request his extradition to be tried in court there.
He also is accused of making a threatening call to Delta Airlines, leading to the emergency landing of one of its planes.
Earlier this month, St. Louis resident and former journalist Juan Thompson was arrested and charged for making at least eight bomb threats against JCCs and ADL. Thompson, 31, made some of the threats in the name of a former romantic partner he had been cyberstalking; others he made in his own name in an attempt to portray himself as being framed. He was charged with cyberstalking, which carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison.
Minister of Public Security Gilad Erdan commented on the arrest.
“I congratulate the Israeli police on leading a complex international investigation, together with law enforcement agencies from around the world, which led to the arrest of the suspect,” Erdan said. “We hope that this investigation will help shed light on some of the recent threats against Jewish institutions, which have caused great concern both among Jewish communities and the Israeli government.”
Samantha Shero, a spokeswoman for the FBI, confirmed the arrest to The New York Times and reiterated the government’s commitment to confronting bias incidents.
The institutions most affected, American Jewish community centers, expressed mixed feelings at the news:
“We are gratified by the progress in this investigation, and applaud the commitment and leadership of the FBI and other federal agencies, Israeli law enforcement, and local law enforcement across the United States and Canada,” the group of institutions wrote in a press release. “We are troubled to learn that the individual suspected of making these threats against Jewish community centers — which play a central role in the Jewish community, as well as serve as inclusive and welcoming places for all – is reportedly Jewish.”
Daniel Hoffman and Shira Hanau contributed to this report.
Daniel J. Solomon is the Assistant to the Editor/News Writer at the Forward. Originally from Queens, he attended Harvard as an undergraduate, where he wrote his senior thesis on French-Jewish intellectual history. He is excited to have returned to New York after his time in Massachusetts. Daniel’s passions include folk music, cycling, and pointed argument.