Combating anti-Semitism in the Age of Pandemic

These are trying and uncertain times, with so many members of our community and so many of our neighbors in the tri-state area sickened, some even dying from the coronavirus pandemic. On top of that, we are in lockdown, bereft of our schools, shuls, and JCCs, and virtually every business and worker has been suddenly, unexpectedly, and negatively impacted.

Such an environment breeds fear, anger, and sometimes scapegoating. Historically, we as Jews know what has happened when a new epidemic and history’s oldest hate intersect.
All this means that the Simon Wiesenthal Center and other NGOs devoted to combatting anti-Semitism unfortunately are busier than ever.

It was in this context, that even on the day before Passover, I represented the Simon Wiesenthal Center on a socially distanced tour of the Englewood, Teaneck, and Bergenfield Jewish communities with one of Northern New Jersey’s key governmental officials, Bergen County Clerk John Hogan.

The exponential growth in the numbers of coronavirus’ victims every day has been paralleled by daily vitriolic social media postings demonizing our communities—going so far as to blame Jews for the spiking disaster. That’s when a trusted leader stepped up to debunk the rumors, fears, and yes hate.

John Hogan went out to see for himself; to witness the closure personally, to see the padlocks on our schools and shuls and to read the notices of the full closures of our communal life.
The online threats of scapegoating and real time hate crimes against at least four synagogues in the last week, and also and particularly against Asian Americans, are cause for alarm. It has led the Wiesenthal Center to keep regional and national law enforcement apprised of our findings. Indeed, just last week, the assistant director for infrastructure security for the Federal Emergency Management Agency — that’s FEMA — sent a special message to faith leaders warning of “an increase in online hate speech intended to encourage violence or use the ongoing situation as an excuse to spread hatred.”

The Simon Wiesenthal Center’s work in monitoring such activity throughout the pandemic extends to the largest social media platforms, including Facebook and Twitter. This already has resulted in taking down New Jersey hate-based sites, such as Rise Up Ocean County.
Additionally, we are constantly working with political leaders throughout our state, including those who were prepared to embrace biased charges that could be extremely harmful to the Jewish community.

A few weeks ago, we reached out to Edison Councilmember Sam Joshi, who made unfortunate statements based on unreliable and incendiary sources. Mr. Joshi not only publicly apologized but went to Lakewood, toured it with Jewish leaders, and has emerged as an advocate for New Jersey’s Jews.

We also have been outspoken in our criticism of those few who have violated the rules set down by our federal, state, and local governments. Such people put their own families, community, and the general public in harm’s way. There can be no excuse for such behavior.
Finally, we commend our political leaders, including County Clerk Hogan and Englewood’s Mayor Michael Wildes, for their forthright and straight-talking leadership. We commend our spiritual leaders, led by Rabbi Chaim Poupko of Congregation Ahavath Torah and countless other rabbis and teachers, for taking the lead in keeping us together even as we must continue to separate. We join with you in lauding our heroes, the first responders, the medical personnel, and our neighbors who have kept the food chain functioning amazingly throughout the crisis. To all of them we say thank you. To all our brothers and sisters, we say chazak v’ematz.

Please report anti- Semitic activity on social media to us at As the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s dean and founder, Rabbi Marvin Hier, has said, “Together, even apart we can make a difference.”

About the Author
Michael Cohen currently serves as Eastern Director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Mr. Cohen additionally serves on the Englewood, NJ City Council where he was recently elected to his third term. Mr. Cohen has previously held senior staff positions on Capitol Hill and in NYC and NYS governments for over 15 years. Mr. Cohen has also served as Director of Political and Strategic Affairs for a top NY lobbying firm.
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