Who Benefits When Jews Are Afraid?

In the lead-up to the recent Day of Hate, national Jewish defense organizations—along with media and law enforcement—played right into white supremacists’ strategy.

Ben Lorber
March 2, 2023

Police officers stand watch outside a synagogue of Hoboken, New Jersey, November 2022.

Ryan Kryska/AP Photo

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Last Thursday, an alarming email landed in my inbox from the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). “The shadow of antisemitic extremism threatens the Jewish community,” it read, warning that white supremacists were gearing up for a “National Day of Hate” targeting Jews that coming Shabbat, February 25th. As a senior researcher with Political Research Associates, a movement think tank that monitors the right, I was confused. I hadn’t seen any mention of this Day of Hate in the white supremacist online channels I track every day. I reached out to other researchers who study the far right, and they all agreed: Considering the limited reach and near-total lack of momentum, this Day of Hate was unlikely to amount to much.

But the warnings continued to roll in. The ADL repeatedly broadcast concern about the Day of Hate through their social media channels and in outreach to Jewish communal institutions nationwide. Other national anti-antisemitism organizations amplified the story, such as the American Jewish Committee as well as the right-wing watchdog StopAntisemitism, which “strongly urge[d] everyone to be vigilant.” National law enforcement soon joined the fray: Florida police commissioner Mark Glass promised to oppose “violence, threats of violence and physical intimidation” against Jews; police departments in cities like Chicago issued community alerts, urging Jews to “keep situationally aware” and report incidents to officers. Law enforcement reportedly increased patrols in multiple states, including Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Florida, California, and New Hampshire. A flood of articles appeared in Jewish and national media; headlines announcing law enforcement’s calls for “vigilance” obscured the fact that the articles themselves could scarcely back up the need for such calls.

While many of these actors acknowledged that there was no actionable intelligence regarding specific threats and that violence was unlikely, this moderating context was drowned out in the general atmosphere of alarm, which understandably left many Jews unnerved. Expressions of fear, pride, and grievance flooded social media. “How can it be,” lamented Israeli ambassador to the US Michael Herzog, “that less than a century after the Holocaust, a Neo-Nazi group in the US calls for a National Day of Hate against the Jews—and there’s no uproar?” On the supposed Day of Hate, synagogues adopted increased security measures in St. Louis, Chicago, New York City, and elsewhere, and police reportedly heightened their presence near many synagogues and in Jewish neighborhoods. One large Manhattan synagogue held an outdoor “day of resolve” Shabbat service, and according to The Forward, at least one synagogue canceled services.

And yet, Shabbat passed largely without incident. Now that it’s in the rearview mirror, this entire episode presents as a striking illustration of the brokenness of much contemporary anti-antisemitism discourse in America, where too often, national Jewish defense organizations bypass sober assessment of antisemitic threats in favor of self-serving fearmongering.

The original call for a National Day of Hate came from Crew 319, a tiny, Iowa-based neo-Nazi group, which posted the announcement to its 750 subscribers on the alternative social media site Telegram on January 4th. The goal, as they put it, was to “shock the masses with banner drops, stickers, fliers, and graffiti” on February 25th; they asked their followers to “make your voices heard loud and clear, that the one true enemy of the American people is the Jew.” In the following weeks, one neo-Nazi Telegram channel with fewer than 300 subscribers expressed enthusiasm, while the Empire State Stormers, a New York-based account with only 140 subscribers, shared the call without comment. Beyond these two reposts, the larger white nationalist online ecosystem remained silent.

The bread and butter actions of small groups like these typically involve two or three white men pasting a sticker or flier, graffitiing a swastika or slogan, or hanging a banner in a public place, and then posting a selfie or video—usually while masked—to win praise from their online community. The Iowa-based group, for example, kept busy in late 2022 by pasting “Keep America White” stickers and distributing “Kanye West is Right About the Jews” flyers around eastern Iowa. Occasionally, these groups dabble in louder stunts. Last fall, for example, the Iowa group drove a U-Haul decorated with swastikas and antisemitic slogans around Des Moines, while last week, the Empire State Stormers harassed attendees outside a Broadway production of Parade, a musical about the 1915 lynching of American Jew Leo Frank. These actions are disturbing, to be sure, and can rattle their targets, but they are also relatively manageable. Indeed, these groups have announced multiple national days of action in the last couple years, which have proven to be disorganized and insignificant.

The goal of these stunts is to shock and scare Jews and to generate media attention, which these groups use to project an outsized sense of their own prominence. With the Day of Hate, national groups dedicated to anti-antisemitism, along with police and the media, played right into that strategy. According to the Network Contagion Research Institute (NCRI), which tracks online extremist activity, the ADL was the first to tweet about the event on February 9th, and the group played a key role in driving Twitter mentions of the event up through the weekend itself, when references to Day of Hate garnered over 100,000 tweets and retweets and millions of impressions.

Most white supremacist groups, meanwhile, remained unaware of the event until the media frenzy was well underway. At that point, they disavowed it: Alt-right leader Mike Peinovich dismissed the stunt as “obviously fake from the beginning,” while a popular anonymous account called it a “psy op by the federal government to keep pushing the scary White Male narrative.” For their part, the group that put out the call was jubilant at the national attention it generated. “The National Day of Hate is already an overwhelming success before it’s even occurred,” they declared on February 24th, sharing screenshots of condemnations from pundits and celebrities in a post that received exactly 11 likes from their tiny audience. The day itself was a nonevent: Two tiny neo-Nazi cells in Ohio and Alabama posted grainy photos of swastika graffiti scrawled in nondescript industrial settings.

Even though nothing happened, that didn’t stop the Day of Hate from being useful to the establishment anti-antisemitism machine. In anticipation of the 25th, the ADL circulated a call to action two days prior, gathering signatures for its long-standing demand that Congress increase funding to the Nonprofit Security Grant Program. The program, a source of funds for nonprofit and religious organizations facing security threats, is housed under the Department of Homeland Security and has been criticized for its close connections to counterterrorism efforts—surveillance-based security approaches which, critics argue, bolster state repression against Muslim, immigrant, and activist communities. (“We all deserve to feel safe in our communities,” the ADL’s call ironically read.) The day after the Day of Hate, the ADL repurposed the moniker to bash a familiar target: reactionary Black nationalist leader Louis Farrakhan. “Some might call [Farrakhan’s rally] a Day of Hate,” they tweeted, harnessing the fear they had generated to go after a symbol of so-called Black antisemitism. On February 28th, the Jewish United Fund, the fundraising and charity arm of the Chicago Jewish Federation, sent an email soliciting donations from supporters boasting of their “robust” security response to the Day of Hate and their close connections with law enforcement.

It seems that many people benefited from the weekend’s tragicomic hall of mirrors. The ADL positioned itself, once again, as the dogged defender of the Jews, even ludicrously suggesting that their awareness-raising efforts and partnership with law enforcement helped deter attacks. (Experts say the opposite is true: “To sound an undue or outsized alarm,” wrote NCRI, “amplifies extremist causes with unnecessary attention, potentially elevating risks of acceleration.”) Law enforcement, too, relished the opportunity to appear useful in the fight against “extremism,” to burnish their reputation as minority defenders amidst recent protests against racist police murders nationwide. Media outlets generated clicks and ad revenue, selling the perennial product of panic. In many ways, the neo-Nazis were the biggest winners of all: The machine broadcast their irrelevant stunt to an audience of millions, allowing them to strike fear into the hearts of Jews across the country without needing to leave the couch. As the dust cleared, they boasted that “our movement can learn a lot from this event, and its effectiveness to exploit” media attention.

This isn’t the first time the anti-antisemitism machine and white supremacist groups seemed to mutually reinforce each other’s goals, amplifying one another’s content to elicit outrage and demonstrate their own relevance to their respective constituencies. Seemingly the only ones who did not benefit from this frenzy are the American Jewish community, who found themselves unsettled and anxious. What becomes clear is that outsourcing our communal threat assessment to unaccountable leaders of legacy organizations and their law enforcement partners is not only politically suspect—it’s an unwieldy strategy to actually fight the right and protect our communities.

A better strategy for local Jewish communities might involve building closer relationships with other targeted groups, developing community safety practices together and working in tandem to monitor local threats in an ongoing way. It made sense for Jewish congregations in Iowa and New York, where there were groups engaging with the call, to be informed and prepared, but the scale of the response should depend on a grounded assessment of the danger. By cultivating a deeper understanding of the threats in our own backyard, and the political forces propelling them, we can tailor our response to meet the provocation. Media outlets should recognize that reporting on white supremacist campaigns can contribute to what the research group Data & Society calls the “oxygen of amplification”; while such reporting can be vital, media scholar Joan Donovan argues that at times, a “strategic silence” is more appropriate. Generally, the Jewish community would have more effectively fought the antisemitic right on February 25th by supporting those defending Drag Queen Story Hour from Proud Boys in Washington, DC, or protesting far-right activist Charlie Kirk’s speech to Republicans in Lincoln, Nebraska.

I don’t need convincing that the rising far right represents a real threat to Jewish safety in the US—I see that in my work every day. But we need a sober analysis of that threat in order to meet it appropriately.

Ben Lorber works as senior research analyst at the social justice think tank Political Research Associates, researching antisemitism and white nationalism. He is the co-author of Safety through Solidarity: A Radical Guide to Fighting Antisemitism, forthcoming from Melville House.