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Covid quarantine didn't stop antisemitic attacks from rising to near-historic highs

As the medical community raced to create vaccines and places of business adapted to remote work, bigots innovated, as well.
Image: Poway Synagogue shooting
Mourners leave flowers and signs at a memorial across the street from the Chabad of Poway synagogue in Poway, Calif., on April 28, 2019, following a deadly shooting.Sandy Huffaker / AFP via Getty Images file

Even in a year when people were mostly quarantined, hate found a way. As the medical community raced to create vaccines and places of business adapted to remote work, bigots innovated, as well. One of the painful side effects of the pandemic that raged across America was the emergence of new uses of technology to weaponize harassment and new conspiracy theories to promote hate.

A high school’s online class was disrupted by an unknown participant who bombarded the teacher with messages in the comments section that read, “Burn like a Jew.”

In our annual Anti-Defamation League Audit of Antisemitic Incidents for the 2020 calendar year, released Tuesday, we found that Jews in the U.S. reported a disturbing 2,024 incidents of antisemitism last year, a rate of harassment 10 percent higher than in the year before and one of the highest overall in the last five years. Many of the incidents featured these technological and conspiratorial innovations.

Our audit paid particular attention to the emergence of Zoombombing, the grotesque practice of disrupting Zoom meetings or other online video events with antisemitic bile, racism or the display of swastikas. We found 196 antisemitic attacks in which racists intentionally disrupted live videoconferences. Of those incidents, 114 targeted Jewish institutions, such as schools or synagogues.

In one instance last April, a high school's online class was disrupted by an unknown participant who bombarded the teacher with messages in the comments section that read, "Burn like a Jew." In October, someone barged into a virtual class at a school in New York City and posted messages that read, "Kill all Jews, Gas them all." And in another of the frightening trends last year, a known white supremacist hacker tuned in to five Zoom sessions, in one case pulling up his shirt in front of a meeting of a Jewish youth group to reveal a swastika tattoo.

Covid-19 times also inspired some unique twists on the world's oldest hatred. For example, we witnessed the germination and growth of online conspiracy theories blaming Jews and other minorities for spreading the coronavirus itself. While some of these conspiracies are likely to have originated in online white supremacist forums, they quickly infected mainstream discussions, as people tried to find outlets for their anger over the lockdowns, mask requirements and other restrictions on their daily lives and livelihoods.

Indeed, antisemitism thrives at times of uncertainty or unrest, which explains why Covid-19 fueled and fed into age-old antisemitic stereotypes about Jews' spreading disease. The turbulent election year provided further fodder, as QAnon conspiracies reached a fever pitch, tinged with long-standing antisemitic tropes. The QAnon belief that a global "cabal" is involved in rituals of child sacrifice has its roots in the antisemitic trope of blood libel, the smear that Jews murder Christian children for ritualistic purposes. In addition, QAnon has a deep-seated hatred for George Soros, whose name has become synonymous with perceived Jewish meddling in global affairs. And QAnon's obsession with a global elite of bankers also has deeply antisemitic undertones.

It's also not surprising the QAnon followers embrace other bizarre theories, such as the member of Congress who spouts antisemitic accusations about Jewish "space lasers" — the bizarre notion that the Rothschilds, a famous family of Jewish bankers, used a secret, powerful space laser to intentionally set wildfires in California. Though QAnon was mostly identified with the right, slander was generated from both ends of the ideological spectrum last year — a reminder that no political persuasion is immune to intolerance.

As these hateful notions cross-pollinated, they also moved to platforms beyond Zoom. Since it was launched last April, the social media app Clubhouse — an audio-only platform that allows users to listen in on podcast-like presentations, as well as conversations more akin to conference calls — has exploded in popularity, adding millions of users as people sought an outlet from pandemic doldrums. Antisemitic content has exploded along with it. As an early adopter of the invitation-only platform, I joined in a Clubhouse room just last week to discuss the blatant antisemitism users were hearing in clubroom discussions.

The data are stark, especially when you consider that the ADL Audit focuses on strict criteria for historical context: It doesn't attempt to quantify the total amount of antisemitism online, where the hatred swirls like a tsunami. We don't count the thousands of antisemitic websites and bile spewed almost daily in white supremacist chat rooms, for example, while we do count cyberattacks against Jewish institutions.

Of course, in the last year, Jews were threatened and intimidated in more traditional ways, too. Nazi swastikas were used in 517 acts of vandalism. There were 331 antisemitic incidents attributed to known extremist groups or people inspired by extremist ideology. White supremacist groups carried out 277 antisemitic propaganda distributions, such as leafleting or unfurling large banners over highway overpasses, affecting both small towns and large metropolitan areas. These incidents affected not just Jews but all people living in the affected communities, as fears rose about the presence of hate groups in those areas.

Moreover, because antisemitism so often has been the canary in the coal mine of hatred, the historic high of antisemitic incidents of the past several years should alarm far more than Jewish people. Though no other minority group in the U.S. faces the same rate of hate crimes as Jewish Americans, we know from recent FBI data that the numbers of incidents are up for communities across the board. Black, Latinx, Asian and Muslim Americans are all being increasingly targeted. As communities reopen and people return to the real world, the message of our data is clear: We must remain vigilant.

Two years ago Tuesday, a white supremacist opened fire on the last day of Passover at the Chabad of Poway synagogue in California, an attempted act of widespread slaughter that resulted in one death and many injuries. Nearly four months ago, white supremacists and other extremists led an insurrection at our nation's capital that featured antisemitic and other hate symbols. Mass shooting incidents are tragically returning to form as regular occurrences, including attacks that have left deep wounds in the Sikh and the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities. Given the rise in AAPI hate this past year, the ugly open wound of racism against the Black community and vile conspiracy theories targeting immigrants, the odds of a large-scale, hate-fueled tragedy loom large.

In the face of the evidence and considering the consequences, let's make 2021 the year we turned the corner on Covid-19 — and also mounted an Operation Warp Speed to stop the virus of hate once and for all.