ASBURY PARK, N.J. — The social media comments on Facebook and other sites were raw, hateful.
The outpouring of invectives was sparked by the arrest last week of 14 residents of Lakewood, N.J., including the rabbi of a congregation, on public assistance fraud charges. The early morning raids ignited a firestorm of anti-Semitism against a municipality of 100,000 that has a majority of Orthodox Jewish residents.
“The allegations and the charges levied against (the defendants) have nothing to do with their religion,” said Joshua Cohen, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, New Jersey Region. “That’s why we’re deeply concerned when we see comments online, whether it’s on newspaper websites or social media, that are anti-Semitic.”
The hate speech moved off the Internet and into the streets. Hate fliers spread around the township over the weekend, said residents, who provided photos of the fliers. A white sheet hung over a Holocaust memorial at the Congregation Sons of Israel. Covering the stone memorial, the cloth banner used an anti-Semitic slur and promoted a website for a white supremacy group, authorities said.
Lakewood Police Detective Lt. Gregory Staffordsmith said the incidents were being investigated.
“We do believe that this recent rash of anti-Semitic incidents is directly related to the recent arrests in our town. We have not had any other incidents before,” said Lakewood Police Chief Gregory Meyer. “We will not tolerate this kind of behavior and we are working with (the) state and the Ocean County (N.J.) Prosecutor’s Office in an attempt to make arrests. We will look to prosecute all incidents of bias crimes that take place against our citizens.”
Many of the online comments zeroed in on the religion of the accused and made sweeping, disparaging, even dehumanizing statements about all Jewish people.
Although the primary vehicle for these hateful comments has been social media platforms such as Facebook, some Lakewood residents have experienced it in person.
A driver in Lakewood cut in front of an ambulance and purposely slowed down, giving the ambulance driver — who was Jewish — the finger, said Moshe Zev Weisberg, a member of the Vaad, Lakewood’s voluntary council of Orthodox Jewish leaders and business members.
“Every community has their bad apples,” said Weisberg. “Without prejudging individuals, there are people who cross the line. But to paint over with a broad brush the entire community — it’s unacceptable.”
Weisberg said there’s this idea that members of the Orthodox community are millionaires conspiring to rip off the government, but it’s just not true.
“It’s very painful and hurtful, both personally as someone who has been living in Lakewood for 40 years and as a community leader,” he said. “It tears our hearts out to see people say such things. It reminds us of an era not so long ago in Europe.”
Understanding Orthodox Judaism
The ways of life of various Orthodox groups aren’t necessarily looked upon favorably by modern society, said Jeffrey Alexander, a sociology professor at Yale University and a member of the Yale Program for the Study of Anti-Semitism’s advisory group.
“People have every right to criticize a group who lives in a way that isn’t open and Democratic and tolerant. Those are things we have to defend,” Alexander said. “At the same time, we have to be tolerant of minorities who are different, even if they’re different in ways we don’t approve of.”
The Orthodox subscribe to the idea that they are a separate society, said Samuel Heilman, a sociology professor at the City University of New York whose area of expertise is Orthodox Judaism.
The Orthodox members dress differently, act differently and separate themselves from American laws and societal norms, Heilman said. Orthodox identity is forged in a world where the outside community is seen as hostile, he said.
“It’s hard to persuade them that they’re no longer living in a world where they want all the Jews dead,” he said.
Heilman said 50% to 65% of the Orthodox in Lakewood live below the poverty level. In many ways, the Orthodox are impoverished by choice — many are not college educated, most marry early, have large families and don’t see public assistance as an embarrassment.
“It’s not a matter of political corruption,” Heilman said. “It’s a matter of moral blindness.”
Americans, with all their claims of multiculturalism, don’t like people who are different, Heilman said.
“They don’t like people who don’t speak English. They don’t like people who don’t fit in,” he said. “Many Orthodox Jews recognize this hostility.”
The “cliquishness” of the Orthodox and the fact that they speak Yiddish in America creates xenophobia and prejudice, Heilman said.
“It’s perceived as anti-Semitism by the Semites,” Heilman said. “By outsiders, it’s perceived as a legitimate gripe against people who they see as taking advantage of the system.”
Weisberg said most people don’t understand the lifestyle of observant couples. He said there are thousands of hardworking families juggling multiple jobs, studying and taking care of four to six children.
“It’s not an easy life,” Weisberg said. “It’s not a community of freeloaders. It’s a community that’s trying to make ends meet.”
He said some families do cross the line when it comes to applying for public assistance, but it’s also common for families to get caught in the “gray area” — the process varies from agency to agency and the programs can be overly complicated.
“Overall, the real tragedy here is families get caught up in this and the hate mongers go loose,” he said.
‘Uptick’ in anti-Semitism
Anti-Semitism and negative attitudes toward the Orthodox are nothing new in the communities surrounding Lakewood. As the Orthodox community continues to grow, clashes over changing culture and community identity continue to affect the region.
In 2016, the Anti-Defamation League in New Jersey received 157 anti-Semitic incident reports, a 14% increase from 2015, Cohen said.
According to the organization, there was an 86% increase in total incidents — 541—nationally in the first three months of 2017, compared with 291 in the same period of 2016.
The league’s most recent national poll shows a 14% increase in anti-Semitic attitudes, up from 11% in 2014, Cohen said.
“There are a number of anti-Semites and racists who feel empowered and emboldened by the current political climate to say and do things that they wouldn’t have ordinarily thought to do or say,” Cohen said.