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In wake of attempted firebombing in Longmeadow, concern about white supremacists online grows

By Stacey Dresner

WESTERN MASS. – John Rathburn, the East Longmeadow man who has been charged with the April 2 attempted firebombing of Ruth’s House in Longmeadow, allegedly concocted his failed attack while participating in white supremacist Internet chat rooms that foment anti-Semitism and racist hate.

According to the criminal complaint filed against Rathburn by the U.S. Attorney’s office in the District of Massachusetts, discussions on the chat rooms promoted mass killings “directed against religious, racial and ethnic minorities; discussed plans to engage in these crimes themselves; discussed using various explosive and incendiary devices, including improvised devices commonly known as “Molotov cocktails”; and identified targets, such as mosques and synagogues.” Chatter by one user, alleged to be Rathburn, discussed “that Jew nursing home in longmeadow Massachusetts” as a location for a mass killing and April 3 as “jew killing day.” 

Jewish officials who track anti-Semitism are concerned that “a more captive audience, more people spending time online, the ability for these messages to resonate with certain people” could increase, said Oren Segal, the vice president of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism.

“What led up to Longmeadow is a longstanding concern where people engage in discussion and then it jumps from the internet to real life, and that’s what happened,” said Robert Trestan, executive director of the ADL’s Boston office. “There was an online discussion amongst likeminded people to target and participate in violence, and this particular guy went out and did it based on the discussion. That’s a 2020 version of people who get radicalized and then decide to go out and commit a violent act.”

Now with everyone staying in their homes due to the coronavirus, virtual meetings and religious services on platforms like Zoom are another target for these hate groups.  

White supremacists have interrupted online Jewish get-togethers. On Sunday, May 11, a Talmud class taught online by Rabbi Shlomo Yaffe of Congregation B’nai Torah in Longmeadow, was zoom-bombed.

“A stranger entered the class and shared something in the most vile way I could ever imagine,” Rabbi Yaffe said in a letter to his students and friend. “This depicted the worst possible felony and I have contacted law enforcement.”

All of Yaffe’s classes will now be password protected and Zoom classes will no longer be posted on B’nai Torah’s blog or Facebook. 

Trestan said there are two very important things to consider when it comes to these virtual attacks, know as Zoom-blombing.

“One is that, in the same way we now take security measures in the physical sense, we now need to be taking the same measures in the virtual sense. A religious institution needs to be protecting its religious services virtually, the same way that they protect their physical building.

“And the other question is — and I don’t pretend to know the answer to this – but, if you interfere with a religious service online, should you be subject to the same kind of punishment as if you did it in person?” Trestan asked. “If somebody walks into a place of worship and disrupts a service with hatred, someone would call 911 and the police would come and the person might be arrested. So how do we now deal with that kind of act in 2020 when people are actually creating the same kind of disruption, but they are just doing it from their homes instead of being there in person. I think poses a challenge for law enforcement and prosecutors.”

In the meantime, national and local Jewish organizations and synagogues have held webinars instructing constituents and congregants on how to set up barriers to the intruders. The ADL has consulted with Zoom, which has added protections.

Michael Masters, who directs the Secure Community Network, the security arm of national Jewish groups, said the April 15 arrest of Rathburn for his attack on Ruth’s House made concrete the worries his group had been relaying to its constituents across the United States since January, when SCN started considering the pandemic in its bulletins.

“This incident goes exactly to our short- and long-term concerns: the increased anti-Semitism, fomenting hatred and incitement to violence in online forums and on platforms that motivates, encourages or supports individuals to potentially take action against our community,” he said. “This is not conceptual.”

Ancient theories of Jewish responsibility for plagues are resurfacing and gaining wider exposure, Masters said.

Accusations that Jews are profiting from the pandemic have been circulating for months on social media favored by white supremacists, like Telegram and Gab, and then breaking through to mainstream platforms like Instagram and Twitter. Rick Wiles, a Christian pastor who runs a far-right news site, TruNews, said last month that the pandemic was simultaneously God’s means of punishing the Jews and spread by them.

Accusations that Jews spread contagion date to the centuries before Christ and flourished throughout the Black Plague in the 14th century.

The preeminent targets of bias attacks during the pandemic have been Asians. Early on, an array of Jewish groups condemned the phenomenon.

Even before the pandemic, the American Jewish community had been experiencing a huge increase in anti-Semitism and violence.

This includes the attacks on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and the Poway synagogue shooting in California, and threats to Jewish community centers around North America.

The social upheaval that undergirded those attacks could manifest at exponentially greater levels as we get out of the pandemic, Masters said, with massive increases in unemployment creating more alienation and people who may look for scapegoats for their misfortune. 

“As we reconstitute services and open the doors to congregants and JCC members, and students get back on campuses, with that increase in online hate speech as an excuse to spread anti-Semitism and hatred, there is a real concern that the individuals susceptible to that message will see our community get back to work, and they will pick up that call to violence and take action,” Masters said.

JTA contributed to this story.

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