Jewish group aids Biden admin in crafting plan to combat rising antisemitism, surge in conspiracy theories

US President Joe Biden speaks during the League of Conservation Voters (LCV) Capital Dinner in Washington, DC, US, on Wednesday, June 14, 2023. The US Secretary of State will travel to Beijing later this week, becoming the most-senior US official to (Getty Images)

Last summer, virulently antisemitic flyers were distributed across the Twin Cities in a series of disturbing incidents. A Jewish school in St. Paul was targeted at the end of June, and the following month, flyers promoting antisemitic tropes and conspiracy theories appeared in driveways in at least nine cities across the metro.

These flyers included a QR code linking to an online forum where a member of the local group responsible for the leaflets posted a slickly edited promotional video of a man throwing the flyers from a car window. In other posts, around half a dozen of the group's most active members shared their views, congratulated each other, and strategized.

A cursory review of the chat history revealed that this hate group was not just antisemitic, but also propagated conspiracy theories targeting other minority groups. The "great replacement theory"—the idea that immigrants of color are being brought into the United States to replace whites—was a recurrent theme. Posts promoting another conspiracy theory, which misrepresents trans people as "groomers," and the notion prevalent in Minnesota's far-right circles that Muslim immigrants are a sinister force intending to implement Sharia law in Minneapolis, were also common.

The group's decision to begin with antisemitic propaganda through its flyers and then link that to a wider discourse promoting various conspiracy theories portraying other minority groups as powerful "others" is no coincidence, according to Jacob Millner, Director of the American Jewish Committee’s Minneapolis-St. Paul office. As hate crimes against Jewish people and institutions have risen nationally, so to have hate crimes against other groups, adding impetus to the AJC’s long-standing efforts to counter antisemitism.

"Once antisemitism becomes mainstream, it's just the tip of the iceberg. When you look at people that commit hate crimes in this country or worldwide, they often start with antisemitism," Millner said.

Consequences of hate

The rise of antisemitism and its combination with other conspiracy theories can have deadly consequences. This was evident in the manifestos posted by the perpetrators of two hate-motivated mass shootings in recent years—El Paso in 2019, where a shooter targeted Hispanic immigrants, killing 23 people at a Walmart, and the Buffalo shooting in 2022, where a white gunman killed 11 Black people and two white individuals at a grocery store in a predominantly Black neighborhood. Similarly, the man currently on trial for killing 11 people at Pittsburgh synagogue in 2019 frequently posted antisemitic rants on social medial, but also shared conspiracy theories targeting Central American migrants. 

Locally, both mosques and synagogues have been targeted. In September 2021, Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park closed for a day due to a violent threat. In April of this year, another threat forced Temple Israel in South Minneapolis to do the same. That same month, a man set fires in two mosques in the same area of the city. He has since been indicted on federal hate crime and arson charges.

"We've seen an uptick in violence across the spectrum, not just anti-Jewish violence, but certainly violence targeted toward the Islamic community, especially in the Twin Cities... And I think it is important to recognize that all hate is bad. But the unique aspect of antisemitism is that it is often where a lot of these other conspiracy theories originate," Millner said.

The plan

The group's efforts to counter the rise in antisemitism reached an important milestone last month when they assisted the Biden administration in crafting the country’s first comprehensive plan to address the issue.

"I think we just need to be cognizant of this, that the Jewish community as a whole feels these threats. They're aware of these threats and they feel 90% of the Jewish community views antisemitism as a serious issue in this country. And I think we need to listen to the Jewish community. And I was really glad that the White House did, in fact, do that," Millner said.

He says the report relies on the definition of antisemitism established by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, which he believes Minnesota should also adopt. He stressed that criticism of Israel is not necessarily antisemitic, and having a clear definition of antisemitism helps establish a shared understanding of what type of rhetoric goes too far. 

"There can certainly be criticism of Israel like any other government, but that can cross the line into antisemitism because there are so many different ways antisemitism manifests from the right, the left. Having a definition is a way to at least discuss it and put it into context," Millner explained.

The 60-page report outlines over 100 actions the administration plans to take in the next year, based around four pillars: 1) increasing awareness and understanding of antisemitism, 2) improving safety and security for Jewish communities, 3) reversing the normalization of antisemitism and countering antisemitic discrimination, and 4) building cross-community solidarity and collective action to counter hate.

Local impact 

Millner believes federal funding for additional security will have a local impact.

"You can't walk into a Jewish institution in this country, whether it be a JCC, a Jewish day school, or a synagogue without having a security guard at the front or going through a metal detector. And I think that really is a sad state of affairs for our society and for the Jewish community. But the fact that they've put in this plan to bolster funding for security is a major win for the Jewish community and for Jewish community institutions," he said.

Millner says the AJC will focus its efforts on the educational aspects, working with schools, Jewish institutions, and college and university administrators to help them identify and counter antisemitism.

He believes the push against antisemitism requires a collective effort for success. He points to surveys indicating that people who have Jewish friends or know the Jewish community tend to have a better understanding of antisemitism.

"So I would say, get to know your neighbors. It's an easy thing to do. If you have interest in learning more about the Jewish community, reach out to me, reach out to others in the community. I'm sure we would be happy to have you… And I think that is one thing that we can do to really get to know each other and to hopefully mitigate some antisemitism moving forward," Millner said.