Anti-Semitic vandalism catches El Cerrito off guard

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Living north of the Mason-Dixon line in a metropolis blessed with traffic lights and paved roads is no guarantee of avoiding anti-Semitic activity, says the Anti-Defamation League's regional director.

Responding to a recent incident of hate-based vandalism in El Cerrito, Jonathan Bernstein emphasized that the Bay Area is by no means immune to such activities.

"El Cerrito is not a place where we typically get a lot of calls about these things, but the truth is these incidents occur everywhere," said Bernstein. "It's a misconception that they just happen in remote, rural areas. That's not the case at all.

"If you look at where anti-Semitic incidents occur, plotted out on a map," he added, "you'll see they spread pretty evenly all over the Bay Area, all over the state."

Heading out of her El Cerrito driveway on an early December morning, Lori Schweitzer noticed a message on the mailbox that disturbed her profoundly.

"I was pulling out of the driveway to take the kids to school and I looked over at the mailbox, which my husband had just made," recalled Schweitzer, a lawyer who works in Emeryville. "It was covered with paint, and I thought, 'That's odd.'

"Then I pulled back and saw what was a 4-by-4-foot swastika painted in white paint on top of our driveway by the street. I was horrified — my parents are Holocaust survivors."

A smaller swastika was also painted on the mailbox with what police described as latex house paint. Of the several homes on the small, El Cerrito hills cul-de-sac, only Schweitzer's had been smeared with the Nazi-emblem graffiti.

"I recall that when that report came across my desk, I was somewhat surprised by it. That doesn't happen here very often," said Sgt. Wayne Mann, a detective wtih El Cerrito Police Department. "The swastika is such an international symbol of hatred; it kind of jumped out at me."

Mann described Schweitzer's El Cerrito hills neighborhood as "a very nice area of town, but lots of kids congregate there because it's kind of secluded."

After the Dec. 6 incident, he said police officers walked through the surrounding neighborhood and parks interviewing residents, but did not turn up any eyewitnesses or leads. Mann added that police continue to "keep an eye" on the area, and have reported no further incidents or developments.

"We're hoping it's an isolated incident," said Mann.

Schweitzer could not think of anyone with reason to deface her house. Her husband is not Jewish, and, with no external symbols of Judaism in, on or around the home, a random anti-Semitic vandal would not have known a Jew lived within.

"I'd like to believe it was an isolated, random act…maybe some kids thought this was funny," said Schweitzer. "It's very disturbing, but we're trying to minimize it because of my two young children. It's been a very stressful year for them; I just finished going through treatment for breast cancer. I didn't think they needed more stress.

"It blows my mind that this could happen in the year 2000 in the Bay Area."

Yet, according to ADL statistics, while reported instances of anti-Semitic activity are down in most parts of the nation, Northern California is experiencing a two-year upward trend.

Bernstein speculates that high-profile instances of anti-Semitic behavior — such as the Sacramento synagogue arsons in June 1999 — may be partly responsible for the augmented numbers, as more people have been spurred to report incidents.

In addition to calling the police, Schweitzer reported the vandalism to the FBI as a hate crime. Should the vandal or vandals be caught, the categorization of the incident as a hate crime could seriously alter the gravity of the charge.

"The charge would be vandalism, but obviously in a situation like this, we'd attempt to get the hate-crime enhancement," said Mann. "That makes the charge a lot more severe."

Schweitzer, for her part, is still a bit rattled by the incident.

"This was a big issue, and I've been discussing it with my family and friends," she said. "What's troublesome is it happened in an environment not where I thought it couldn't happen — I'm not that naive — but I really wouldn't expect it to happen."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.