After historic surge in 2019, ADL says anti-Semitism now spreading amid pandemic

Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt urges leaders to forcefully confront anti-Jewish attacks as new report finds 2019 brought record high

Signs showing Gov. Gretchen Whitmer are taped to vehicles during a protest in Lansing, Michigan, April 15, 2020 (AP/Paul Sancya)
Signs showing Gov. Gretchen Whitmer are taped to vehicles during a protest in Lansing, Michigan, April 15, 2020 (AP/Paul Sancya)

WASHINGTON — Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt urged public leaders to speak out forcefully against anti-Semitism and warned of extremists exploiting the COVID-19 pandemic to target Jews and spread hateful ideologies, after data released Tuesday that showed more anti-Semitic incidents in 2019 than any other year over the last four decades.

In a virtual press conference with reporters, Greenblatt cast a sobering message that “violent anti-Semitism has become all too commonplace,” noting new statistics compiled by the New York-based organization that found 2,107 anti-Semitic incidents in 2019, including 61 physical assault cases, 1,127 instances of harassment and 919 acts of vandalism.

That’s the highest annual tally of anti-Semitic incidents since the Jewish civil rights group began tracking them in 1979, marking a 12 percent increase from the 1,879 incidents it counted in 2018.

Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO and National Director of the Anti-Defamation League, speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington, May 2, 2017. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

“If we hope to put the lid back on the sewers of hate, we must not only fight criminal activity, but the apathy that comes when anti-Semitism is normalized,” Greenblatt said. “That’s why we insist that our leaders at all levels actually lead and speak out to clearly denounce anti-Semitism and hate, whatever the source and whenever it arises.”

“This is all too important in an environment where anti-Semitism has all too often been politicized,” Greenblatt added. “The problem isn’t going to fix itself.”

Calendar year 2019 was scarred by a number of high-profile anti-Jewish attacks, including when a gunman, armed with an AR-15 assault style rifle, opened fire on a synagogue in Poway, California, killing one woman and injuring three others.

Mourners and well wishers leave flowers and signs at a make-shift memorial across the street from the Chabad of Poway Synagogue on April 28, 2019. (SANDY HUFFAKER / AFP)

Then, in December 2019, two gunmen targeted a Jersey City kosher supermarket, killing four people, including a police officer and two members of the Jewish community.

That same month, a 37-year-old man stabbed five people with a machete outside a Hannukah celebration at a rabbi’s home in Monsey, New York, an Orthodox community outside of New York City.

One of the victims died three months later. Federal prosecutors said the assailant had handwritten journals containing anti-Semitic comments and a swastika.

New York also saw a sharp rise in assaults on Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn throughout the year.

While the ADL attributed 270 anti-Semitic incidents to extremist groups or individuals, most of the episodes documented came from non-extremists, the organization said.

“The vast majority of anti-Semitic incidents that we have documented in our report are not committed by extremists,” said Oren Segal, who heads the ADL’s Center on Extremism.

“The perpetrators that we know of are often your Average Janes, your Average Joes,” he continued. “They are kids, they are adults; they’re in poor areas, they come from more affluent areas; it’s online, it’s offline. These incidents are not constrained by politics or even ideology. This report, which comes out every year, shows how anti-Semitism can be found in pretty much all segments in society.”

People hold signs of support near the house of Rabbi Chaim Rottenberg on December 29, 2019 in Monsey, New York. (Photo by Kena Betancur / AFP)

Disconcertingly, the ADL noted that anti-Semitic incidents were still happening regularly despite social distancing measures imposed throughout the United States in response to the novel coronavirus outbreak.

The incidents have taken new forms, Greenblatt said, such as through “Zoombombings” of virtual Jewish gatherings, often using graphic images and anti-Semitic language to harass and intimidate Jewish communities. At the same time, conspiracy theories have spread on the web that Jews manufactured the coronavirus.

In April, authorities arrested and charged a man who allegedly attempted an arson attack at a Jewish nursing home, near three Jewish temples, a Jewish day school and a Jewish community center.

“All the data we released today only looks at 2019,” Greenblatt said during the press conference. “But there is no doubt we are continuing to see new manifestations of anti-Semitism in this current climate. Despite social distancing and stay-at-home orders, some extremists continue to hold rallies to distribute white-supremacist propaganda, to try to exploit this moment, to subvert the conversation, and unfortunately they continue to seed hate into the atmosphere.”

In Michigan, for instance, far-right protesters have held demonstrations outside the state capitol donning swastikas and other Nazi insignia and hoisting confederate flags and nooses. Some wielded automatic assault weapons.

Many rally-goers have also compared Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who enacted a shelter-in-place order to stop the spread of the virus, to Adolf Hitler.

The ADL has not yet quantified the anti-Semitic incidents that have transpired relating to the COVID-19 pandemic, but Greenblatt said the group is following the trends closely and will issue a report when it has aggregated more definitive data.

In the meantime, however, he issued a stark warning about how anti-Semitism historically emerges most ferociously during crises.

Notably, Jews were blamed for the Black Plague, leading to scores of persecutions and massacres of Jewish communities from 1348 to 1351.

“As with any public health crisis, we’re deeply concerned that as things get harder for folks economically, there’s a real risk of Jews being blamed and scapegoated,” Greenblatt said. “We’ve already seen manifestations of this, and if you look to Jewish history, we clearly have good reason for concern in these hateful times.”

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