The Anti-Defamation League released an audit showing a 42 percent rise in reported anti-Semitic incidents in Massachusetts from 2016 to 2017, with a nearly 60 percent rise nationwide. The report shows that the Commonwealth had one of the highest nationwide counts of incidents with 177 reports filed.
The ADL has been tracking anti-Semitic incidents in the United States since the 1970s. Robert Trestan, the ADL’s New England Regional Director, said 2017 was the first year that anti-Semitic incidents were reported in all 50 states.
Trestan said he believes four main contributing factors were behind the increase of reported incidents, with the first being a divisive national discourse.
“People and leaders are using language to characterize and target people like we’ve never seen before,” Trestan said. “This is significantly contributing to the lowering of civility in society.”
Amanda Lewis, 32, of East Boston, said she was shocked to see a rise in hateful acts against Jewish people in modern society.
“It’s so scary that hate is back on the rise for Jewish people in this country,” Lewis said. “I thought this wouldn’t happen again after the Holocaust and all but it seems American society hasn’t progressed as much as I hoped. I just never want to see this hate blow out of proportion ever again for Jews or any group.”
Trestan said he believes the second contributing factor to the increase of reported incidents is a heightened awareness to not only anti-Semitism, but hate and bigotry in general.
“People are aware and they’re standing up, they’re raising their hands, and they’re saying this is wrong,” Trestan said.
States with the highest Jewish populations were found to be those with the highest increase in incidents, including Massachusetts, the ADL report found. Almost a quarter of the Commonwealth — 79 of the 351 cities — reported anti-Semitic crimes.
Of the 177 reported incidents, 93 occurred at schools in grades K–12, an 86 percent increase from 2016. Trestan explained that the ADL had reached out to each of these schools and their local communities to ensure they have the educational resources to raise awareness and facilitate a response.
“We use the incident as a learning opportunity to prevent anything similar from happening in the future,” Trestan said.
Although awareness has been increasing, Trestan said he believes an emboldening of extremists is another contributing factor to the increase in hate crimes.
“Issues of bigotry have become part of the mainstream,” Trestan said. “Two years ago, extremists were in the corner, but when leaders don’t call these people out or their issues, they start to feel pretty powerful and that’s why 2017 has been a conducive year for hate and bigotry to spread.”
The number of hate groups in the United States overall has risen from 917 in 2016 to 954 last year, according to an analysis released in February by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Trestan said he believes anti-Semitism is an enduring issue that can be contributed to hateful conspiracy theories spread about the Jewish people.
“Historically speaking, anti-Semitism is really rooted in conspiracy theories,” Trestan said. “The idea that Jews plan to overtake the world is just an example, and it’s been circulating for decades, for centuries.”
Jeff Levin, 34, of South Boston, said as a Jewish person, he has encountered many people who developed biases because of all the hate that is spread about Israel without ever meeting actual Jewish people.
“There are a lot of countries with biases against the Jewish people for religious reasons or land conflicts and those countries propagate all these idea of anti-Semitism and make us out to be bad people just because we exist in the same spaces as them,” Levin said. “We don’t have some big agenda like people seem to think. We are just here fighting for our right to exist — in Israel, in America, anywhere we can have a place.”
According to the ADL’s report records, 109 of the reported incidents in Massachusetts were cases of vandalism and 68 were cases of harassment. The report said vandalism was up 86 percent from 2016 — the category that saw the highest increase.
“People feel emboldened enough to actually break the law in order to spread a hateful message,” Trestan said. “They’re not just going on their phones, they’re actually doing something criminal because they think it’s okay to do it. And they’re getting away with it.”
But phones can also be a platform for countering the message of hate, specifically on social media, Trestan said. Social media companies are starting to take cyberhate very seriously, he said.
“Even you look at the leading Twitter accounts in the last few months, they are increasingly becoming more responsive when people report threats or hate or bigotry on their platforms,” Trestan said. “We need to put that pressure on them do so because that can have a significant impact in reducing hate online.”
FBI statistics show that among religious hate crimes, Jewish people are the most frequently targeted religious group.
“In many ways, anti-Semitism is one of the world’s oldest forms of hatred,” Trestan said.
Jacob Nelson, 66, of South Boston, said he thought Boston was a safe place for Jewish people until he heard about the report.
“Massachusetts, and especially Boston, seems like such a safe place for Jewish people and all people to live happily and openly but I guess that’s not as true as it appears,” Nelson said.