FOX 29 Philadelphia ran a story about antisemitic harassment in Center City on May 29, with news spreading quickly after the story was posted, shared in a popular local Jewish Facebook group and picked up by a Twitter account run by StopAntisemitism.org, an online antisemitism monitor.
“ALERT Philadelphia,” read a May 29 tweet from the account to its 21,000-plus followers. “- antisemites dressing up as Orthodox Jews are wishing women a ‘Shabbat Shalom’.” The tweet was liked more than 500 times and retweeted 349 times.
Two weeks later, the original claim was retracted, but the story remains posted without a correction. FOX 29 did not respond to a request for comment.
The affair tells a story about the current climate around antisemitism, one that Anti-Defamation League Philadelphia Regional Director Shira Goodman said is emblematic of the “whisper-down-the-lane” problems that can be created by social media furor.
“There’s clearly a heightened sense of anxiety and fear right now,” Goodman said.
According to the police report cited in the article, a Jewish woman was walking in the area of 21st and Sansom streets on May 28 when she was approached by “three Middle Eastern males dressed as Orthodox Jewish men.” They greeted the woman by wishing her Shabbat Shalom, a greeting that she returned. “When the complainant returned the greeting, the males stopped and said ‘Oh, you’re Jewish,’” the report reads. They began to ask her if she “had Shabbat candles for them.”
The woman walked away as the men continued to speak to her. She then ran into a nail salon and called the Philadelphia Police Department, who noted her claims that the offenders were “3 Middle Eastern males, 20s, dressed in all black Orthodox Jewish attire.”
On May 30, the woman issued a statement from her Instagram account, which was once again posted by the StopAntisemitism.org Twitter account. The three men, she’d been made aware, had actually been Jewish, not non-Jews dressed up as Orthodox Jewish men. According to several people familiar with the situation, they were local yeshiva students whose weekly Shabbat afternoon rounds frequently take them to the area where the incident occurred.
“With the massive rise in antisemitism happening in America these past few weeks, my body and mind understandably went into fight vs. flight mode as I, along with many others, have been traumatically affected by current events in the Jewish community,” the woman’s statement read. “Word of advice,” she added. “Not the best time to approach and follow women walking alone inquiring if they’re Jewish.”
Preliminary data from the national office of the ADL’s Center on Extremism does indeed show “about a 75% increase” in national antisemitic incidents in the two weeks since the most recent Israel-Hamas conflict began, compared to the two weeks before, according to Goodman. And locally, the Israeli flag on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway was defaced on May 16, as reported by NBC 10 Philadelphia.
But preliminary data represents reports of antisemitic incidents that have not yet been verified, or at the very least, properly understood. When tensions are high, as they have been in recent weeks, easily sharable, unverified reports of antisemitism can spread quickly on social media, regardless of their veracity.
Goodman cited an October 2020 incident where three Orthodox Jewish men at a Black Lives Matter rally appeared to have been harassed in an antisemitic fashion by BLM protesters. Before the facts could be verified, news outlets across the country ran with stories that mischaracterized the event; in fact, the Jewish men, who had come to observe the rally, but not to march in it, were harassed by Black Hebrew Israelites, not BLM protesters. To the ADL, false reports can represent misplaced fear and a waste of law enforcement resources.
“We don’t want to heighten anxiety if we don’t need to,” Goodman said. In an op-ed for the Jewish Exponent (See Combating Surging Antisemitism Demands Both Vigilance and Fearlessness, page 16), Goodman expanded on the danger of such reports.
“Law enforcement, government agencies, civil rights organizations and community leaders must trust us when we sound the alarm about antisemitism,” she wrote. “If they cannot, then we will have fewer allies and tools to fight anti-Jewish hate, which will only lead to more fear and refresh the vicious cycle.”
Yehudah Mirsky, a professor of Near Eastern and Judaic studies as well as Israel studies at Brandeis University, said that Jewish people play a complicated symbolic role for Americans of vastly different political ideologies. During a volatile period, it can be difficult to quickly and accurately identify which of their expressions are indeed antisemitic.
“Antisemitism is clearly a more salient force in American society than we’ve seen in a long time,” Mirsky said. The widespread proliferation of conspiracy theories, hitched to the incentive structure of social media — share-ability and incendiary content — combine to create an environment where paranoia and anxiety regarding antisemitism reign.
People are “very not used to it and that’s why, understandably, it’s very, very rattling,” Mirsky said.
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