As 2019 came to close, the New York metropolitan region recorded extremely high number anti-Semitic incidents. Lawmakers, community leaders, law enforcement and ordinary citizens expressed the importance of tolerance and respect for all people.

It seemed to work for a short time, anyhow. Then the COVID-19 outbreak began, and as fears of the novel coronavirus ramped up, so, too, did anti-Semitism. This time, though, with people locked in their homes, people took to the Internet to spread their hate.

“Since the beginning of March 2020, we have been receiving disturbing information on accusations on Jews, Zionists and Israelis, as individuals and as a collective, for causing and spreading the coronavirus,” noted a report on global anti-Semitism issued Monday by the Kantor Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry at Tel Aviv University and the European Jewish Congress.

Among those charges, many of which are surfacing online, are allegations that Jews have poisoned water wells—an accusation, the report notes, that has been around since Medieval times—that Jews or Israel is using the virus to destabilize the world economy and gain control; Jews or Israelis have already produced a vaccine to the virus and will sell it to the rest of the world for a large profit; the virus is punishment because Jews have not accepted Christ; and that Jews created the virus as a weapon against Muslims and Iran.

“During times of crisis, people too often turn to scapegoats, and such a troubling trend is beginning to emerge with COVID-19,” says Jennifer Rich, executive director of the Rowan Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Rowan University in New Jersey. “Anti-Semitism is up, and we can expect that battles over reopening the country and how the virus spread will conjure up old tropes. As people note that this is the worst international crisis since the Second World War and as we just marked Yom Hashoah, it is a reminder that we need to be especially vigilant in combating anti-Semitism wherever it arises.”

Rich adds that the rise in anti-Semitism related to the virus “seems to be part of a broader trend in this instance. The ‘anti-other’—anti-Semitic, anti-Chinese, racist, xenophobic—rhetoric is everywhere.”

A survey by the Anti-Defamation League, which was taken in January and released earlier this week, had identified online anti-Semitism as an already troubling trend even before the coronavirus outbreak.

It found one in seven Jews have experienced harassment online, and more than one in 10 has experienced a “severe form of harassment such as being physically threatened as a result of the religion.”

Online anti-Semitism has only increased in recent weeks and taken various forms, including “Zoombombing,” where an online programs being conducted by Jewish groups are interrupted by neo-Nazis or white supremacists who managed to log into the virtual program.

White supremacist and hacker Andrew Alan Escher Auernheimer disrupting a Zoom webinar hosted by the Greater Boston NCSY on March 24, 2020. Source: Screenshot.

‘Latent anti-Semitism comes out at this time’

In the heavily Jewish towns of Monsey, N.Y., and Lakewood, N.J., people have taken to Facebook and Twitter almost daily to protest what they believe are mass violations by members of the Jewish community of local stay-at-home orders. Regardless of the original poster’s intentions in these claims, those who comment on these posts often ratchet up the tension.

In some cases, posters have threatened to take matters into their own hands. Just what that means, however, is left up to the imagination and leads to fear and concern among residents.

“We’ve seen this type of veiled threat that walks right up to the line and stops just short, and leaves it up to the interpreter to determine what they mean by that,” says Alexander Rosemberg, deputy regional director New York/ New Jersey region for the Anti-Defamation League. “But many in the community, when they see that, will be afraid and will see it as a direct threat much more than a veiled threat.”

Image of an anti-Semitic Twitter user advocating for the heavily Jewish town of Lakewood, N.J., to be “nuked.” Source: Screenshot.

Rosemberg says that while it is up law enforcement and prosecutors to determine the nature of a criminal offense, the concern centers on “the connection between the things that happen online and eventuality of things we may see expressing themselves in the real world because you may have individuals taking these statements and acting on them.”

In at least two incidents, law enforcement believed the online threats crossed the line of what is acceptable.

  • A 43-year-old man from Howell, N.J., was arrested for making terroristic threats after he sent direct messages threatening to go into Lakewood and assault members of the Jewish community with a baseball bat.
  • A 56-year old-female from Suffern, N.Y., in Rockland County, was arrested and charged with making a terrorist threat. “In this particular case, the arrest was based on a bomb threat,” the Ramapo Police Department said in an online posting.

“No one should use COVID-19 as an excuse to promote anti-Semitic conspiracy theories or stereotypes,” New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal told JNS. “The virus does not discriminate in who it affects, and people must not use the virus as an excuse to discriminate or to foster hate.

While there have certainly been Jews in Monsey and Lakewood who have violated stay-at-home orders—some have even been arrested or issued summons by local authorities—the vast majority of residents have been following mandates and staying home, and have become increasingly concerned about the hate they are seeing being spewed online.

A trailer on the property of a Jewish-owned business in Jackson, N.J., was spray-painted with the words “white power” on Feb. 14, 2020. Credit: The Lakewood Scoop.

Joel Petlin, a resident of Monsey who also serves as the superintendent of the Kiryas Joel School District, a Chassidic town some 25 miles away, says it’s as if someone “set up to play this gotcha game because they think if one Chassidic Jew is doing something, it’s the end of the world. I think it’s latent anti-Semitism that comes out at this time, and it doesn’t reflect that we are all in this together as one county … and we should be helping people rather than using this as an opportunity to attack.”

“There will always be a few outliers who don’t represent the group,” continued Petlin, “and because of those few bad actors, we are attacked online unfairly for those few random acts that don’t represent us.”

‘The best and worst in people’

Rabbi Avi Schnall, the New Jersey director of Agudath Israel of America, agrees.

“To say we are not listening to the rules because 10 people or 20 people got together, what about everyone else? There are 150,000 people [in Lakewood], and everything’s empty. The shopping plazas are shut down the schools are shut down the synagogues are shut down. It shows a certain amount of irresponsibility” to just report on Lakewood and suggests an “underlying bias for people to buy into it.

A view inside Lakewood’s Beth Medrash Govoha. Credit: Matzav.com

“If you’re going to report on Lakewood when 10 people are gathering,” he continued, “then you need to balance it by all the wonderful things are doing.”

Among those initiatives are food drives to minority communities, including Hispanic families, who have been out of work since the outbreak began with no paychecks and no way to feed their families.

“This pandemic has the capacity to bring out the best and the worst in people, and it has done so already,” says N.J. Attorney General Grewal, “but we will get through this if we join together.”

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