Last year saw the highest number of antisemitic incidents against Jewish Americans ever recorded by the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish civil rights group that has been tallying attacks on the Jewish community since 1979.
The year 2021 saw a record 2,717 antisemitic incidents across the United States, up 34% from 2020 according to the ADL’s annual audit. Most of these were incidents of harassment against Jewish Americans, but assaults and antisemitic vandalism also spiked last year.
“It’s obviously disturbing that antisemitic incidents have reached historic levels after a relatively modest decline,” said Oren Segal, vice president of the Center on Extremism at the ADL. “It serves as a reminder that antisemitism from across the ideological spectrum is a danger in America, and it requires that people take the threat against the Jewish community very seriously.”
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No casualties in antisemitic attacks
There were no casualties from violent antisemitic attacks in 2021, despite a more than 160% increase in such incidents from the year before.
Last year also did not see any mass attacks like the 2018 Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, which claimed the lives of 11 people.
In recent years, Jewish institutions, educational facilities and places of worship have been steadily ramping up security.
The number of professional security directors working in the Jewish community has more than doubled in the last four years, said Michael Masters, CEO of the Secure Community Network, the official homeland security and safety initiative of the organized Jewish community in North America.
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The Secure Community Network works with law enforcement and the Jewish community to set up training and security plans for places of worship and Jewish institutions and schools. Masters said these efforts have helped make such spaces safer in recent years, but that security threats are still a very real concern.
“We will not choose the time in place of the next incident, but we can choose our preparedness,” he said.
The fact that nobody was killed an antisemitic attack last years also does not reflect a reduction in the number or scope of threats to Jewish lives, Masters said.
“We should not accept the lack of casualties as a lack of intent on the part of those who hate and are committed to violence,” he said. “The number of threats that we see from people who are intending to kill Jews, intending to target the faith based community, intending to target people of color in this country, has increased dramatically.”
Israeli military conflict drives hate attacks
The ADL recorded a significant spike in antisemitic incidents in May 2021, which coincided with a military conflict between Israel and the militant group Hamas.
As has historically happened when Israel engages in military conflict, the American Jewish community is targeted with increased levels of abuse, assault and vandalism, Segal said.
The incidents involved perpetrators who “blame all Jews for what the state is engaging in,” Segal said. “Essentially ascribing them – Jews, all Jews, whether they support the State of Israel or not – with being somehow responsible.”
The May incidents included an attack on a man wearing a yarmulke in Times Square during a protest, in which the victim was pepper sprayed, punched, kicked and hit with crutches. Across the country in Los Angeles, an anti-Israel protest erupted into a violent brawl outside a restaurant. Both incidents resulted in hate crime charges.
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Not just extremist incidents
One of the most disturbing findings from the ADL’s 2021 audit was that only 18% of the antisemitic incidents reported were carried out by individuals known to be extremists or affiliated with extremist groups, Segal said.
Most of the almost 500 antisemitic incidents carried out by known extremist groups were propaganda distributions. White supremacist and other groups passed out antisemitic flyers, waved racist banners or posted stickers or other antisemitic written messages, the report found.
But more than 80% of the incidents in 2021 were carried out by people not known to be affiliated with extremist groups, and that worries Segal.
“That means that the majority of incidents this represents are either unknown perpetrators are average Joes and Janes and that speaks to the normalization of antisemitism as a tactic,” he said. “There’s a lot of people who have engaged in anti-semitism that we wouldn’t necessarily connect to any organized group, and that’s a concern.”