PROVIDENCE — It was disturbing enough when there was a handful of neo-Nazis showing up about once a month somewhere in New England, holding banners on overpasses, doing flash demonstrations, and tossing antisemitic or racist leaflets onto people’s lawns.
Now though, the Anti Defamation League is seeing an acceleration of hate group activity in the region, said Peggy Shukur, the ADL’s interim regional director. At least twice a month, sometimes more, there is some kind of demonstration, often involving dozens of men, wearing masks to conceal their identities. These more frequent appearances show how they’ve become emboldened and, perhaps, that their efforts to recruit in New England are having an impact, she said.
But it’s not just the demonstrations of white supremacists — it’s also an environment where antisemitic remarks and incidents are becoming normalized, and the targets are becoming afraid.
“All of this in a backdrop of increasing concern and vulnerability in the Jewish community is resulting in many communities ... making antisemitism and confronting it a top priority,” Shukur said.
More than a hundred people came to hear Shukur speak Wednesday at the Jewish Community Center about rising incidents of antisemitism and how to combat hate. The discussion, called “The State of Hate: Antisemitism & Your Role in the Good Fight,” was also hosted by the Bristol Community College Holocaust and Genocide Center, and the Sandra Bornstein Holocaust Education Center.
“The impact of those acts on a community or individual is enormous,” she said, “and whether it’s a crime or not, it’s important for the greater community to respond to that impact.”
The ADL has seen a climate of antisemitic activity and incidents across the country that’s become unprecedented. Last year, the ADL logged 2,717 antisemitic incidents, a marked increase from 2020 and part of a five-year trend that shows the highest numbers on record.
New England had 155 antisemitic incidents, a 42 percent increase overall, with 108 incidents in Massachusetts and 17 in Rhode Island, mostly harassment and vandalism.
Part of what’s feeding the atmosphere are white supremacist groups that have taken hold since the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017. Three that have made their presence known in New England are the Nationalist Social Club-131, the Texas-based Patriot Front, and the California-based Goyim Defense League.
The groups appear to be decentralized, she said. And, they are operating in an environment where some celebrities and social media are normalizing antisemitism.
The ADL looked at what was happening on Twitter after Elon Musk purchased the social media platform and found a 61 percent increase in volume of tweets about Jews or Judaism with some antisemitism.
Shukur also pointed to rapper Kanye West’s recent antisemitic remarks and former President Donald Trump hosting West and white supremacist Nick Fuentes for dinner at Mar-A-Lago.
“A celebrity who has more followers than there are Jews in the world makes statements denouncing the Holocaust and makes statements calling for violence against Jews that are pretty unprecedented,” said Shukur. “And we’ve seen that trickle down and manifest in graffiti in schools and freeway overpasses, professing that ‘Kanye was right,’ and a normalization of antisemitism.
Things had escalated enough that President Joseph Biden spoke out last week against the antisemitic remarks.
I just want to make a few things clear:— President Biden (@POTUS) December 2, 2022
The Holocaust happened.
Hitler was a demonic figure.
And instead of giving it a platform, our political leaders should be calling out and rejecting antisemitism wherever it hides.
Silence is complicity.
The fact that the president felt the need to declare that the Holocaust was real and that “Hitler was a demonic figure” was stunning, Shukur said.
There are things that ordinary people can do to combat hate, Shukur said. “Speak up, make your voice heard, interrupt hate when you hear it, report the incident,” she said. And, she said, ask elected officials to take action and take a stand against hateful incidents. Speak up, not just for the Jewish community, but be an ally for all communities,” she said. “Shut down the rumors, the tropes, and the lies.”
In the audience were prosecutor Keith Hoffman, the chief of the civil and community rights unit at the attorney general’s office, and Providence Police Chief Hugh T. Clements Jr., Major Kevin Lanni, and Major David Lapatin, head of the investigative bureau. A police sergeant greeted people at the door.
Lapatin, who is Jewish, said later that investigators work to identify members of hate groups through social media and working with the state police fusion center. Not all incidents arise from groups, though.
After an antisemitic note was found at the Brown RISD Hillel in late October, Lapatin assigned a squad to determine who wrote it. A former security officer, Tanyalee Lugo, was charged with disorderly conduct, and the attorney general’s office is reviewing whether the note was also a hate crime.
The ongoing presence of law enforcement has been reassuring, said Wendy Joering, the executive director of the Sandra Bornstein Holocaust Education Center.
“People are scared, sometimes nervous to go to synagogue,” Joering said. “We’ve worked hard, though, and all of our buildings are safe. It’s just jarring when you hear things.”