Over the Rosh Hashanah Holiday weekend, multiple synagogues in northern New Jersey fell victim to “swatting” events. On Friday, Sept. 15, Temple B’nai Jeshurun in Millburn was evacuated nine minutes into a live-streamed service after reports of a bomb threat. On Thursday, Sept. 14, Congregation Ahavat Achim in Fair Lawn was searched after a call reported a backpack with two pipe bombs was in the synagogue.
Swatting, according to the FBI, is defined as making a hoax call to 911 to draw a response from law enforcement, usually a SWAT team. In New Jersey, swatting can carry a sentence of between five and 10 years in prison.
After both Temple B’nai Jeshurun and Congregation Ahavat Achim were searched by law enforcement, no evidence crediting the threats were found. In response to the swatting events, New Jersey Rep. Josh Gottheimer said in a thread of tweets, “I ask everyone to please stay vigilant and look out for one another… To those who made these antisemitic terroristic threats: You are cowards, and we will not back down.”
Despite the threats, the holidays continued in both affected communities without any further interruption. However, swatting has become far too common in the Jewish community, with the Anti-Defamation League reporting at least 49 reports of threatening calls at different synagogues since mid-July.
“There has been an uptick [in antisemitism] and importantly, the Jewish community feels increasingly under assault,” Dr. Jacob Ari Labendz, director of the Gross Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, said in an interview. “This is the sort of thing that is generated in online forums… the rise of the alt-right movement has been particularly terrifying.”
Labendz worries that events like what happened in Fair Lawn and Millburn last week will desensitize people and become more like annual fire drills than what they actually are. “Then one day, someone is going to die,” he said. “And it bothers me because… that would imply Jews need to live in fear, which is exactly what [the perpetrators] want.”
Despite the uptick in antisemitism, Labendz doesn’t think it’s time for panic. “It’s not like [the Jewish community] is facing any major structural oppression… We certainly have the support for the most part,” he said. “I’m not trying to downplay it, I’m just trying to keep everything in perspective.”
As for what the Ramapo community can do to combat the uptick in antisemitism, Labendz says to treat it like any other sort of racism or bigotry and approach it with zero tolerance. “There needs to be equal pressure not to engage in these activities, equal pressure to stigmatize being a part of these discussions. There needs to be a response where we educate ourselves,” he said.
In terms of what that could look like, Labendz uses the success of the Black Lives Matter movement that gained traction in 2013 as an example. “There [was] an amazing attempt by many people in white America to learn more about anti-Black racism, and that hasn’t been without stumbles, but I think that is something we can and should bring to antisemitism and other forms of racism,” he said.
Specifically at Ramapo, Labendz points to the public aspect of Ramapo being a public college. “There’s a role for students to educate themselves… and be active in their communities,” he said. “[The Gross Center] is educating people and providing skills to express themselves to think through problems,” Labendz continued. “Ramapo can be a tremendous resource for affected communities.”
For students and faculty interested in learning more about antisemitism and being active in the community, the Gross Center is located on the second floor of the Learning Commons.
Featured photo courtesy of Congregation Ahavat Achim Community, Facebook