Anti-Semites adopted a new tactic for spewing their hate when the COVID-19 pandemic closed synagogues and Jewish schools and community centers: hijacking videoconferences.
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) counted 196 cases of anti-Semitic “Zoom bombing” attacks in the US last year, including 114 against Jewish institutions, an annual report that the organization released yesterday said.
The Jewish civil rights group found that the overall number of anti-Semitic incidents dropped by 4 percent last year after reaching a record high in 2019. The decrease in incidents — from 2,107 in 2019 to 2,024 last year — included a 49 percent decline in assaults, an 18 percent drop in vandalism cases and a 61 percent reduction in incidents at non-Jewish K-12 schools.
Nonetheless, the total was the third-highest tally since the ADL began tracking anti-Semitic incidents in 1979. Intruders disrupting videoconferences on Zoom and other platforms offset a dramatic drop in anti-Semitic incidents in more traditional settings, the group said.
Many synagogues used videoconferences to hold prayer services, classes and other virtual programming, as COVID-19 pandemic lockdown orders ruled out large indoors gatherings.
“But these platforms quickly revealed security vulnerabilities, and many individuals took it upon themselves to access these events, and perpetuate hate and anti-Semitism by harassing participants,” the report said.
On the morning of June 27 last year, Rabbi Shai Cherry was leading a Shabbat service on Zoom for his congregation in a Philadelphia suburb when several guests with suspicious usernames began posting pornographic images and anti-Semitic messages, such as “Hitler should have finished the job.”
One of them posted Cherry’s home address near the synagogue for Congregation Adath Jeshurun in Elkins, Pennsylvania.
“It didn’t take us more than 90 seconds to just end the meeting and then be more selective about who we let in,” he said. “But it was unsettling. It did feel like we were violated.”
Authorities did not identify any suspects, and it has not happened again. The congregation’s online services are now protected by a password.
ADL CEO and national director Jonathan Greenblatt said that white supremacists and other far-right extremists tend to be among the earliest to embrace and employ new technologies to spread hate.
“Anti-Semitism is a virus. It adapts, it mutates and it resists efforts to fight it,” he said. “The extremists who traffic in it, they are innovative and they will exploit opportunities, because they often can’t penetrate the public conversation in typical ways.”
Zoom says it recently updated default settings, and added features to make it easier for meeting hosts to control screen sharing, remove and report abusive participants, and lock meetings.
The company recommends keeping private meeting links and passwords off social media or other public forums.
“We take meeting disruptions extremely seriously and where appropriate, we work closely with law enforcement authorities,” company lawyer Lynn Haaland said in a statement on Monday.
In March last year, the FBI said that it was receiving reports of online hijackers disrupting videoconferences with pornographic and hateful images, and threatening messages.
The ADL flagged the security problem for Zoom early in the pandemic, Greenblatt said, adding that the company responded quickly and thoroughly to protect users.
“That’s a lot different than what we’ve seen from some of the long-standing social media companies,” he said.
Congregation Etz Chaim in Marietta, Georgia, was the target of a Zoom bombing attack in April last year, but executive director Marty Gilbert said that synagogue leaders decided against locking down its online services with a password.
“We had enough issues with people figuring out Zoom to begin with, and we also wanted people to be able to join regardless of whether they were members or not,” he said.
In February, several intruders disrupted a service with anti-
Police determined that a group of teenagers from Nevada and Europe were responsible, but could not identify them by name or bring any charges, Gilbert said.
“It’s unfortunate that it has become the world we live in,” he said. “I wish we didn’t have to have somebody manage every Zoom meeting or service that we have. It’s very upsetting.”
The New York City-based ADL attributed several Zoom bombing incidents to Andrew Auernheimer, a notorious hacker known as “weev.”
Auernheimer has written for The Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi Web site, and he stirred up outrage for sending flyers adorned with swastikas to Internet-connected fax machines on college campuses across the US.
“In these incidents, participants reported Auernheimer joined the Zoom calls and pulled his shirt collar down to reveal a swastika tattoo on his chest,” the ADL report said.
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