Rise in antisemitic incidents tied to hate groups

Total of reported incidents in metro Atlanta has nearly doubled this year

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

When antisemitic graffiti was discovered last month just a mile from Congregation Or VeShalom in Brookhaven, Rabbi Joshua Hearshen said the news barely made a ripple among his congregants.

“It’s just business as usual,” he said. “We’ve come to this point now when people are no longer surprised by such awful things.”

Like many cities across the country, metro Atlanta has seen a dramatic increase in antisemitic incidents in 2022. According to researchers with the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), through October there have been 17 reported incidents in the metro area in 2022. That’s nearly double the 2021 total and does not include incidents in the farther-flung suburbs and the rest of the state.

Much of the rise is linked to the coordinated distribution of antisemitic leaflets. And those behind the campaign have seen their message boosted by the controversies of high-profile celebrities, such as rapper Ye (formerly Kanye West), whose social media messages and conspiracy theories about Jews resulted his suspension from Twitter and Instagram last month.

“In regards to Kayne West, his influence on Twitter opened a big door for us as white nationalists,” said Michael Weaver, a Cartersville resident who has conducted most of the leafleting campaigns in northern suburbs by himself. “His 30-plus million followers was the equivalent of distributing millions of flyers therefore red pilling tens of millions of Americans.”

“Red pilling” is internet slang used by far-right extremists for converting people to their ideology. There is no evidence that Ye’s comments converted anyone, but Ben Popp, a researcher with the ADL’s Center on Extremism, said the rapper supercharged an increase in antisemitic incidents that were already on the rise nationwide.

Shortly after the Ye controversy, Carrollton police cited a couple for littering after a resident complained about a car driving through the city tossing baggies with antisemitic flyers weighted down with dried corn into yards. A man in the car estimated he had tossed 600 baggies that night, according to a police report.

Hearshen said such distributions of hate literature are not victimless acts, and they often lead to violence.

“Graffiti hurts, slander hurts, leafleting hurts,” he said. “But they don’t end with slander. They end with dead people.”

Four years ago, a man radicalized by antisemitic propaganda murdered 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. And last year assaults linked to antisemitism rose 167% across the country, according to the ADL.

Popp said much of the activity in Atlanta traces to two relatively new, online racist groups: the Goyim Defense League (GDL) and White Lives Matter. The loosely organized groups use social media, especially the encrypted messaging app, Telegram, and live-streaming platforms, to publicize otherwise relatively low-impact, low-cost activities like putting leaflets on car windshields and placing stickers in public view.

“Their real end goal is to normalize antisemitism,” Popp said. By distributing their literature and boosting it online, the groups hope to make antisemitic language, images and tropes part of normal political discourse, he said. They also make money off their activities by soliciting donations on their streaming platforms and selling merchandise, such as Nazi-themed t-shirts. The GDL even sells its leaflets, pre-folded and bagged for distribution.

While such campaigns can cause Jewish residents to feel under attack, Popp said the extremist groups themselves are very small, disorganized and often represent the actions of just a handful of people.

“That’s why they are interested in working together,” he said of the two hate groups behind much of the activity. “It makes them look bigger than they are.”

Eytan Davidson, the director of the ADL’s Southeast office, said these groups and individuals are trying to harass and intimidate communities. He encouraged Georgians to report them to law enforcement and the ADL.

“Community members, public officials, civic, business, and faith leaders should stand united in condemning these antisemitic, racist, and bigoted expressions, which are intended to create division and fear,” he said. “We applaud all leaders and members of the public who continue to report these acts and speak out against hate.”

There is evidence of public rejection of the messages on the flyers.

Based on his videos, Weaver’s distribution of antisemitic material is largely centered on public streets and parking lots of government buildings in Bartow County. He has posted videos of himself putting flyers on cars parked in front of Cartersville High School and the city police department.

In statements to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Weaver describes the reception he has received as “hit or miss.” Reports filed the Cartersville Police Department show the misses.

In April, Weaver got into a “loud verbal dispute” with a local resident who was removing the flyers and ripping them up. According to the report, Weaver followed the man as he walked away until the man pulled out a Taser. No charges were filed.

In May, the owner of a gym filed a report of alleged harassment after he canceled Weaver’s membership for putting a “white supremacist flyer” on the gym bulletin board. And in September, police issued criminal trespassing warnings to Weaver and an associate after the owner of the Booth Museum in Cartersville complained about flyers being placed on cars in his parking lot.

Weaver has engaged in this type of racist propaganda for years in Georgia, often in association with the neo-Nazi group the National Alliance. In 2011, he was sentenced to a year in prison and nine years on probation after he pepper-sprayed a Black man in the face in Columbus.

When asked what conversations about these campaigns are like inside his congregation, Hearshen said that is not the point.

“Talking antisemitism with a group of Jews is a really pointless thing. We are the targets, not the perpetrators,” he said. “The solutions for antisemitism don’t lie with Jewish people. They lie with non-Jewish people.”