Congress offers blunt message on antisemitism, hate: 'We're losing'

WASHINGTON — Jill Gordon was coming out of a bathroom at a pediatrician’s office in Teaneck, N.J., when she was confronted by a man holding a hammer and covered in blood.

“Are you Jewish?”

He had already smashed windows at the medical office where he now confronted Gordon. After she and her daughter locked themselves in the bathroom, he went down the street and smashed the windows of a dry cleaning business too.

The assailant was not charged with a hate crime in the 2021 attack; law enforcement authorities determined that he was likely in the midst of a mental health crisis. But his attack came in an area populated by religious Jews, who had increasingly been the targets of enmity in recent years.

In 2019, worshippers en route to services at a local synagogue were shot with water guns and verbally harassed. Later that year, customers at a Teaneck bagel store were harangued by a suspect who authorities described as having mental health issues. He was not charged with a hate crime.

The following year, local Democratic Party leader Alexandra Soriano-Taveras called for a boycott of local businesses in a heavily Jewish area of town and faced blowback for alleged antisemitism. In response, she said the reference was to businesses “owned by town leadership.”

On Monday, the House Homeland Security came to Teaneck to hold a hearing on how to combat antisemitism and other forms of hate across the country. Given the prevalence of antisemitism, the proceedings could have just as easily been conducted in Boise, Idaho, or Cleveland.

A woman pauses at a memorial outside of the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, where a gunman killed 11 congregants there in 2018
A woman pauses at a memorial outside of the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, where a gunman killed 11 congregants there in 2018. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)

The hearing comes at a time when the isolation of the pandemic, political division and demographic change have led to troubling breakdowns in the social order, providing an opening for hateful and conspiratorial ideas to flourish.

“Antisemitism and extremism in America are at historic highs,” Rep. Ritchie Torres, D-N.Y., who chaired the hearing, wrote in a text message to Yahoo News. “We are fighting the war against antisemitism from multiple directions (the right and the left) and on multiple fronts (on college campuses, on social media, and on the streets).”

Torres, who has emerged as a rare pro-Israel progressive in the House, offered blunt assessment of those efforts against hate and extremism: “So far, we are losing.”

According to the Anti-Defamation League, antisemitic incidents have spiked sharply since 2016, rising to a record high of 2,717 antisemitic incidents across the country nationwide last year. Some of those incidents included harassment of overtly religious Jews in communities like Teaneck, but there have also been deadly attacks, like the one on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018, during which 11 people died.

The hearing on Monday took place during the High Holy Days, a period during which Jews celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the new year, and then mark Yom Kippur, the annual day of atonement. The ADL’s Scott Richman testified at the hearing that during recent Rosh Hashanah services, he wore a “panic button” with which he could alert law enforcement authorities in case the synagogue came under attack.

“Like so many worshippers, I spent the service distracted by the fear that our synagogue could be next,” Richman told lawmakers.

President Joe Biden
President Biden speaks during the recent United We Stand summit, aimed at combating violent hate. (Susan Walsh/AP)

At a recent summit of faith and community leaders, the White House pledged to bolster security at synagogues and other houses of worship. Monday’s witnesses praised those efforts, but also sought for deeper ways to repair broken social connections that could ameliorate the demonization of Jews, Blacks and other groups.

High school seniors from different backgrounds could be encouraged to perform a year of national service, suggested Kenneth Stern of the Center for the Study of Hate at Bard College, so that the cruel caricatures of social media and popular culture could be dispelled by the reality of human contact.

“How about a Latinx person from Texas, and a Jewish person from New York, and Black person from L.A.,” Stern mused at the House field hearing, dispatched “to work for an organization that builds homes for American Indian people in South Dakota, for example?”

Holly Huffnagle, U.S director for combating antisemitism at the American Jewish Committee, said that as distrust grows within American society, it will fall to messengers within specific ethnic, political and religious communities to speak to their adherents about antisemitism and other forms of hatred. Otherwise, the very notion of tolerance will be warped by competing ideological forces.

“Speaking up in general is not enough,” she said.

None of the committee’s Republican members attended the hearing, which was conducted in a Teaneck municipal building. They also had the option to attend via video link. (A spokesperson for Republican committee members did not respond to a Yahoo News request for comment.) Rep. Al Green, D-Texas, offered a sweeping warning to his GOP colleagues in Washington.

“Your failure to speak up and speak out is putting your brand at risk, because conservatism is being conflated with racism, sexism, antisemitism, and all of the invidious phobias,” Green said in what he described as an “admonition” to Republicans.

“I would encourage you to have the courage to speak out, to protect the conservative brand, which is a legitimate brand.”

Anti-racism demonstrators
Antiracism demonstrators at a 2017 rally in Atlanta to denounce white supremacy. (Todd Kirkland/AP)

Domestic white nationalists, who are increasingly seen as a top national security threat by experts, often use antisemitism as a springboard for other forms of animosity, placing Jews at the center of conspiracy theories regarding demographic change, racial justice, economic downturns and even scientific advancements like the coronavirus vaccine. During the social justice protests that took place across the country in the summer of 2020, a Southern California man was arrested for hanging a banner from a Los Angeles area freeway declaring that “the Jews want a race war.”

The witnesses on Monday agreed that extremism has been enabled by the increasing reliance on digital communication. The AJC’s Huffnagle warned against the “algorithmic amplification” of extremism that takes place on social media platforms. Rep. Tom Malinowksi, D-N.J., lamented that “tech companies have created literally the perfect machine for spreading hatred.”

Those companies have broad legal immunity over the content users publish because of a provision known as Section 230 in the Communications Decency Act, passed in 1996. Malinowski has introduced legislation, Protecting Americans from Dangerous Algorithms Act, which would remove some of the protections offered by Section 230. (When he was president, Donald Trump was also a committed opponent of Section 230, though his opposition stemmed not from a concern about extremism but a conviction, widely shared by conservatives, that Silicon Valley discriminates against them and their ideas.)

“Their algorithms are based on exploiting primal human emotions — fear, anger and anxiety — to keep users glued to their screens, and thus regularly promote and recommend white supremacist, antisemitic and other forms of conspiracy-oriented content,” Malinowski said when introducing the measure last year.

On Monday, the Supreme Court indicated that it would hear arguments in Gonzalez vs. Google, which concerns extremist videos posted on YouTube, the Google-owned video service. If the justices rule against Google and social media platforms suddenly face the prospect of lawsuits, their resistance to policing antisemitic, racist and other extremist content could quickly diminish.