On Sept. 22, several Montgomery Blair High School students were seen recording a video of themselves performing a Nazi salute during their lunch period. The incident prompted a letter being sent to parents that included a reaffirmation of Montgomery County Public Schools’ zero-tolerance policy on hate speech or gestures and included links to resources relating to combating antisemitism.
The incident is nothing new for Montogomery County schools, as several local high schools have had issues with hate speech over the past few years, with incidents of racist and antisemitic graffiti at Walter Johnson and Walt Whitman High Schools.
The Montgomery Blair High School incident wasn’t violent or directed at a particular person, but it speaks to a larger, more disturbing trend of increasing antisemitic sentiment and behaviors across Maryland and the DMV region.
“This incident stands out somewhat in that it wasn’t just vandalism, which we see a lot of, which has its own harm to the community,” Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington Associate Director Guila Franklin Seigel said.
These incidents in Montgomery County schools are reflective of the Maryland state statistics as well, which have shown a large increase in overall hate incidents and antisemitic crimes.
Antisemitic hate crimes in Maryland increased 60% from 2021 to 2022, from 48 reported incidents to 77, according to the 2022 Maryland Department of State Police Hate Bias Report, which was released on Oct. 1.
The report also revealed that Montogomery County has the highest number of reported hate incidents in the state, with its 159 incidents making up 34.2% of the state’s total. Of those incidents, 47 were motivated by the victim’s religion, though religion-specific breakdowns were not available.
And the number of hate bias incidents at home and across the country are underreported, according to American Jewish Committee Regional Director Alan Ronkin.
“Those statistics are underreported because there are many communities and many police departments that don’t actually report any hate crimes to the FBI. So if the FBI can’t track it, they can’t prosecute it,” Ronkin said.
Ronkin also said that people don’t always report what happened to them out of fear, and they might dismiss crimes like vandalism as “just a swastika” that they can deal with on their own.
“I think that that attitude doesn’t help us. [What will help is] really getting to the root of what’s going on, standing up and really pushing antisemites back to the margins of society,” Ronkin said.
But the issue goes beyond in-person interactions, as the increased reach of hateful rhetoric from these people on “the margins” is something that can be partially traced back to social media and radicalization that can occur from young people being exposed to hateful ideologies, many of which target Jews.
“We know that there is a very serious threat posed by white supremacist organizations that are particularly targeting males who are adolescents and young adults to become swept up in their movements of hate,” Franklin Siegal said. “We also know that the proliferation of social media and especially TikTok has normalized, to a certain extent, hateful symbolism and language and rhetoric, such as Nazi rhetoric and gestures of the kind that we saw in this video.”
Ronkin echoed a similar sentiment and also put some responsibility on social media platforms to make sure their sites don’t “promote and fuel this kind of hatred.”
To combat this threat, the Biden administration released a U.S. National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism this spring. The plan features several important concepts, including educating citizens, publicly condemning antisemitism, preventing antisemitism and increasing citizens’ media literacy.
The White House hopes its plan will help reduce the susceptibility of people to antisemitic conspiracy theories and stereotypes, while making it clear that antisemitic rhetoric and actions are unacceptable.
“The Southern Poverty Law Center studies extremist groups all over the country, and they’ve tracked around 700 different groups that have different focuses … all of them are antisemitic. Antisemitism seems to be like the gateway hatred in this country, and I believe it’s because of conspiracy theories,” Ronkin said.
Unfortunately, while these issues persist, there remains a need for Jews to safeguard their community institutions. And in the context of the recent rise in hate crimes, the state of Maryland and Montgomery County have set aside extra funding in security grants for faith-based organizations.
The Maryland Department of Emergency Management, in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, recently awarded $15.9 million in grants to bolster security measures for nonprofit and faith-based organizations. A large number of local synagogues and Jewish day schools were among the organizations receiving the funds, which are part of the Nonprofit Security Grant Program.
“The threat is obvious. FBI, ADL, and state and local police statistics show a dramatic increase in antisemitic and assessments of threats. So, you give the money where it’s where it’s needed. When antisemitism decreases and Jewish institutions are no longer under threat, I would be happy to advise organizations not to apply,” JCRC of Greater Washington Executive Director Ron Halber said.
But until that point, there has to be a concentrated effort to stand up against and decrease antisemitism. And that starts at every level, according
“Antisemitism is not a Jewish problem. It’s societal. And because of that, every sector of society, whether it is educators, elected officials, anybody like that, particularly people who aren’t Jewish, need to be standing up and condemning antisemitic when they see it,” Ronkin said.