The Anti-Defamation League's Weekend of Fear

The Anti-Defamation League's Weekend of Fear

You may have noticed a panic brewing across hashtags and trending Twitter topics last week, one echoed in endless emails from the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). “White supremacist groups are trying to organize antisemitic activities as a ‘National Day of Hate’ throughout this coming weekend and especially this Saturday,” read one ADL email, a fundraising request at the bottom.

The ADL was referencing two incredibly marginal Telegram chats. One was called "Crew 319," a neo-Nazi gang, which posted that a "NATIONAL DAY OF HATE" was planned where neo-Nazi activists would "[shock] the masses with banner drops, stickers, fliers, and graffiti." They then tagged a series of groups like the Empire State Stormers and the National Socialist Movement (NSM), fringe actors in the already fringe world of white nationalism. The NSM had recently been staging its own protests on Broadway in New York City, where they leafleted a new play about the lynching of Leo Frank, suggesting that Frank was, in fact, a pedophile and presumably had it coming. This is the level of organizing these groups are prepared to engage in, and their reach is microscopic.

Regardless, the ADL picked up on this Telegram thread and began pumping out communications warning Jewish communities about the impending threat (though they admitted that they were “not aware of any specific threats”). Part of what they pointed to was that two neo-Nazi groups, the National Socialist Movement (NSM) and the Goyim Defense League, had “signed on.” The problem here is that there was little to no evidence of this: neither group posted about the “day of hate” on their Telegram channels or websites.

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The Network Contagion Research Institute (NCRI), which itself is a part of the Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) world the ADL is a player in, put out a report criticizing the response to the "Day of Hate" by the ADL and others. The Iowa-based far-right group who originally posted about the “day of hate” was largely unknown and their “call for action” went mostly unheard until the ADL and, subsequently, lawmakers and influencers, raised its profile. The NCRI noted that a "[disproportionate] outcry about imminent threats absent substantive evidence of reach and extent can also lead to the spread of distrust and conspiracy theories," such as claims of a "Jewish false flag," the idea that Jewish organizations are trumping up claims about antisemitism's prevalence to gain power. NCRI’s research shows the “Day of Hate” did not become prevalent on 4Chan, where real racist threats often percolate, until it was first trending on Twitter, led largely by political leaders and groups like the ADL. This effectively means that the ADL is part of what gave the “Day of Hate” visibility across the hatesphere since the group who originally conjured the idea were largely unknown.

"White supremacists often have outsized estimations of their organizing reach and potential, and as anti-hate researchers we need to make sure to be more accurate and reliable in our own assessments," says Alexander Reid Ross, one of the co-authors of the NCRI's report. "If we see that there is a group trying to call for a mass action, we need to carefully gage the real potential before ringing alarm bells, or we risk playing into their propaganda campaigns, elevating their clout, and becoming the 'boy who cried wolf.'"

There are two things that are wrong with the ADL’s response, and they are a symptom of the brokenness of the anti-antisemitism infrastructure that most Jewish organizations are forced to rely on. The first is that in an effort to sound the alarm, they amplified something that was likely not a material threat and abandoned all proportionality. We should always be prepared because even small white nationalist groups can engage in devastating levels of violence, and there is no question that statements like those found on Telegram are frightening. But without a reasonable sense of scale or an understanding of the threat level, what was a concerning message was quickly transmuted into a nationwide antisemitic threat. The ADL issued warnings to synagogues around the U.S. to increase security and many did, some going as far as to limit access to services or move them online. It’s better to be safe than sorry, but what this frantic response from the ADL generated was an unwarranted feeling of unsafety in the American Jewish community. While the ADL advocated for Jews to participate in a “Shabbat of Peace,” this amounted to little more than using the ADL’s hashtags. What this does is create an overwhelming sense of fear across the Jewish community with no way to neutralize it, except for turning to police and militarized security.

And this reveals the second issue with the ADL’s response. Their solution to this threat was, and usually is, to essentially dispatch law enforcement and collaborating security agencies, subsequently validating the inflated threat level. This is not a bug of the ADL’s system of community-alerts, it's a feature. The ADL is the most relied upon Jewish organization for monitoring and managing antisemitism, so when the ADL issues a warning, people listen. ADL communications usually frame antisemitism as an immediate threat to Jewish safety, lacking in nuance, collapsing various political conflicts into a singular narrative about Jewish vulnerability. This means that the ADL’s warning system generally frames these moments in desperate terms, making antisemitism appear statistically outsized and as so severe that only the most extreme solutions are acceptable.

The ADL often coordinates trainings for clergy and synagogue leaders with the FBI, and the Secure Communities Network has become a popular solution pushed by the Jewish Federations of North America, which, as the Network puts it, “provides timely, credible threat and incident information to both law enforcement and community partners, serves as the community’s formal liaison with federal law enforcement.” The ADL does not offer training on how to coordinate with Muslim communities on joint safety plans, despite both communities facing threats from white nationalists. They do not offer resources for building up community mutual aid networks to support those affected by hate crimes. This is, simply, not the ADL’s model: they are there to warn you that an armed neo-Nazi is headed to your shul and that you need to stand behind a well armed cop. If this is the only situation the ADL seems ready to respond to then it's easy to reframe every incident in only the most dire of terms. When you’re a hammer, everything suddenly looks like a nail.

The irony is that the ADL’s threat-response system is so sensitive that it makes it functionally useless, further discrediting its alerts. Across white nationalist social media accounts, “calls for action” happen almost constantly. It is up to researchers in the field to parse through those and to provide reasoned responses so that affected communities can act appropriately. But without this, and with a constant message of fear generated by organizations like the ADL, partnering with law enforcement seems like the only logical solution. As many progressive activists, Jews of color, and other marginalized communities have pointed out, this increasing reliance on law enforcement brings with it the same issues we see around increased policing generally. This means further marginalizing Jews who feel unsafe by an increased police presence, the increased surveillance on Muslim communities, and the transformation of our synagogues into impenetrable fortresses. The ADL’s disproportionate focus on alleged “Muslim antisemitism” is also a part of this problem, leading to the further marginalization of Muslim communities under the banner of Jewish safety and dispelling any possible community alliance against a shared white supremacist threat. Peak panic is part of what is pushing Jewish communities to accept guns and badges, further alienating them from the community-partnerships that could create dependable long-term safety.

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“The nationwide panic benefited law enforcement, who got to look useful. I heard many synagogues had an increased police presence on Shabbat-- scaring folks unnecessarily, & making our spaces less safe for Jews of Color,” wrote far-right researcher Ben Lorber, in a tweet-thread criticizing the ADL’s response. Lorber points out that, just as troubling, the ADL immediately “repurposed” the panic over the “Day of Hate” to target Nation of Islam minister Louis Farrakhan's yearly Saviour's Day speech, something that was entirely unexceptional, known in advance, and does not pose a distinct and temporally specific threat to Jews.

Responsibility for this debacle also extends to a media ecosystem that echoed these claims without any curiosity to their veracity. Yet once it was shown to be a nothing burger, there was absolutely no coverage about why the “day of hate” failed to materialize. This echoes some of the issues that Mari Cohen wrote about in her recent Jewish Currents piece about the problems of journalistic coverage of antisemitism, which often relies both on faulty data, repeats hyperbolic claims, and will cite commentators who lack the necessary expertise. I created a Google News Alert for “weekend of hate” when it was first trending. What I found is that it was a popular news item up until the weekend itself, but after the weekend passed and it was clear that no incidents occurred, there was no follow up reporting. The topic just died with no question raised as to why our attention was captured by something that had little evidence and no consequence.

It would be easy to say that the trouble here was just sensationalism and panic over online hate, but the problem runs much deeper. Inside of the ADL, and the Countering Violence Extremism world more broadly, the reliance on law enforcement models for safety requires each situation to be seen as a potentially earth shattering moment of violence. The only alternative to this is to bring synagogue safety back to the community, to train synagogue members on both how to understand the potential risks of antisemitic violence and how to deal with it as a long-term issue rather than handing over the keys to the police with every scary Telegram message.

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