Pandemic and right-wing extremism create perfect storm of hate

Jan. 22, 2021
Jewish communities in New York City and across the country tighten security protocols as threats mount

As if the affirmation was truly needed. The grotesque image of a bearded Virginia man using his cell phone near the steps of the United States Capitol on January 6 sporting a sweatshirt with the words “Camp Auschwitz” across the top and below the infamous slogan that greeted Jewish prisoners arriving at the Nazi death camp, “Work Brings Freedom” while doubling down with the word “Staff” stamped on his back, more than emphasized the state of hate in the U.S. and its exponential rise in recent years. In fact, 2019 witnessed the highest level of anti-Semitic incidents since the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) began tracking data 40 years ago, with more than 2,100 acts of assault, vandalism and harassment reported across the United States against American Jewish communities.

Threats of Anti-Semitism Explode

Issued in May of 2020, the 2019 ADL Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents, reported that the total number of anti-Semitic incidents in 2019 increased 12% over the previous year, with a disturbing 56% increase in assaults and on average, as many as six anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. for each day in the calendar year – the highest level of antisemitic activity ever recorded by ADL. There were also five fatalities directly linked to anti-Semitic violence and another 91 individuals targeted in physical assaults. The ADL report states that every one of the 48 contiguous United States and Washington, D.C. reported incidents, with more than half of the assaults nationwide taking place in the five boroughs of New York City, including 25 in Brooklyn alone. 

“It's definitely concerning, and I think there are a few ways that I look at it differently having grown up in Amsterdam and given our history during World War II and with the Holocaust. My grandparents went through it and it was a very traumatizing experience for the whole Jewish community here,” says Richard Priem, who began as the Director of Security Operations for Security for Community Security Service (CSS) and was recently promoted to Deputy National Director serving alongside CSS CEO Evan Bernstein. CSS is an organization based in New York City and serving several other U.S. cities in the strategic protection, security training and security services for the Jewish community.

“I grew up thinking there are two places in the world where Jews are safe. One of them is Israel because Jews take the initiative in their own hands to protect themselves and the other one in the United States. But now that I moved here a few years ago and I've worked in this space, I've seen these numbers creep up year after year. It's disturbing and definitely alarming. As someone who's worked in the security space and has been focused on understanding the root cause of antisemitism and hate crimes, and now at CSS, protecting synagogues and Jewish communities, this all affects me very personally.”

The rise of far right-wing extremist organizations such as The Three Percenters, The Oath Keepers, Proud Boys, Texas Freedom Force, and other self-described Nazis and white supremacists were among the mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol building three weeks ago, according to federal investigators. The FBI describes several of these groups as a "large but loosely organized collection of militias who believe that the federal government has been co-opted by a shadowy conspiracy that is trying to strip American citizens of their rights." Add to the mix the scourge of COVID-19 and the present pandemic is just the excuse many extremists needed to exploit their anti-Semitic agendas.

Synagogues, Jewish day schools and other institutions have been tightening their security protocols since the October 2018 shooting massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Since then, there were three major attacks on the Jewish community in 2019: A white supremacist opened fire at the Chabad of Poway, California, on April 27, killing one. Two individuals, at least one of whom was associated with an anti-Semitic Black Hebrew Israelite sect, attacked a Jewish grocery store in Jersey City, New Jersey, on December 10, killing three. On December 28, an individual attacked a Hanukkah party at the home of a rabbi in Monsey, New York, with a knife, resulting in four injuries and one fatality.

With this rise in hate crimes in general and anti-Semitic violence in particular, organizations like CSS have been more aggressive in expanding their efforts to meet the unique security and safety needs of Jewish communities across the country, soliciting community-based volunteers and partnering with other inter-faith organizations and local law enforcement to create security strategies that will provide best-in-practice training.

In a recent op-ed in a Jewish periodical, Bernstein states: “the security challenges we face are daunting, and are so massive that no one individual, organization or governmental body can tackle them alone,” and “given the manner in which extremist ideology is rearing its ugly head, with an increase in violent anti-Semitic acts as a consequence, it is incumbent upon us as a leading Jewish security body to foster partnerships that seek to produce an even bigger shield.” 

COVID-19 Conspiracies: An Age-Old Trope

For Priem, the realization that the COVID-19 era has provided the spark for many extremist groups to pool their efforts to intimidate and commit acts of violence on the Jewish community makes his efforts with CSS even more critical, not only in New York but across the nation. While he wants to wait for a more complete picture from data not yet in about the relationship of the pandemic and the spread of anti-Semitic actions, he admits that the number of COVID-related conspiracy theories attacking the Jewish community is undeniable.

“You have seen a high number of COVID-related realities allow for anti-Semitic incidents. For example, the fact that so many synagogues have been threatened and have had to move to the virtual space, it has subsequently produced this whole new concept of Zoom-bombing to the Jewish community where right-wing extremists and other extremists are trying to hijack these meetings. These incidents have introduced a new need for virtual meeting security based on the increase of cyber harassment,” Priem says. “I think it's hard to make such a hard comparison between previous years and now without having the data being finalized, but you can definitely see that, as part of this pandemic, there have been a number of new anti-Semitic conspiracy theories that have gained prominence online. You have had a number of COVID-related or indirectly COVID-related anti-Semitic incidents that have occurred, including in New Jersey a few months ago where there was someone arrested on a terrorism charge for threatening to drive out to a town that had a high proportion of the Jewish population to physically assault a member of the Jewish community because of their perceived role in spreading COVID. So, absolutely there is an interaction between the pandemic and anti-Semitism, which I think goes back to the age-old tendencies during times of crisis, whether it's a financial crisis or in this case, the health crisis, some people always find Jews a convenient scapegoat for their own hardships.” 

The hard facts are that the lack of attention in quelling the rising tide of homegrown extremists by state and federal law enforcement agencies can be linked to a lack of strategic policy by the U.S. government. In a New York Times opinion piece, Bernstein wrote with Mitchell Silber, they acknowledge that even though Congress appropriated $90 million for the Non-Profit Security Grant Program for the fiscal year 2020 and a number of states have established similar programs., the federal government and states should significantly increase this funding, institutional security training and outreach. They added that New York State’s security grant program for nonprofits should serve as a model that other states should follow.

How To Build Jewish Security Awareness

In his new role with CSS, it is Priem’s intention to build security awareness among the Jewish community in the vulnerable New York City area and then take that message to the masses by partnering with other cities in the U.S.; not only enforcing common-sense security measures but tactical and technical safeguards as well.

“Situational awareness is very important. Very basic security awareness can save lives. If you have a community that is sensitized about the threat that is out there, and are willing to invest, not just in physical protection measures such as cameras, but also in things such as a reinforced door and having a mindset where people all believe that it's important that when they go into the building that they close the door behind them. In Halle, the Yom Kippur attack in Germany, the attack failed because there were a reinforced door and people in the synagogue knew that when they go in, they close the door behind them. Everybody in that congregation understood that security is important,” Priem relates.

“I think educating our community on the importance of situational awareness, of preventative security, is crucial. If you have measures in place, if you have volunteers that are trained in doing security, or if you have an arrangement with law enforcement, you might be able to prevent attacks from ever taking place or harming our community, and that is why we are advocating with our community, and at the same time, training volunteers across the country to protect their institutions.”

About the Author:

Steve Lasky is the Editorial Director of the Endeavor Media Security Group and is a 34-year veteran of the security industry. He can be reached at [email protected].