Antisemitic flyers were distributed throughout Palo Alto neighborhoods Feb. 22, listing hate-based COVID-19 misinformation.
The flyers listed various federal officials and healthcare professionals and their titles, identifying them as Jewish and blaming the COVID-19 pandemic on them.
Encased in plastic bags and weighed down with rice to protect them from the elements, these flyers were thrown into the front sections of private properties in Palo Alto, a Palo Alto Police Department press release said.
City officials classified the distribution of these flyers as a hate crime.
“These types of acts are a reminder to all of us that hate crimes and hate incidents are serious and are taken seriously by the personnel of the Palo Alto Police Department,” Palo Alto Police Chief Robert Jonsen said. “We will continue to review information as it becomes available to determine if criminal charges needs to be brought forward to the District Attorney for review.”
While the flyers did not appear to be targeting specific individuals, a PAPD press release said they raise concerns about further hate crimes.
In response to the flyers, Palo Alto Mayor Patrick Burt said the city is strengthened by its diversity.
“We call on all of us to stand together in support of our neighbors and our community values,” Burt said. “Together, we can overpower individuals who would try to undermine our goodwill.”
Jeff Schwarz, the Mitzvah Director and a teacher at the Jewish Congregation Kol Emeth said he was disappointed by the antisemitic language in the flyers but not entirely surprised.
“It seems that, sadly, antisemitism is always there,” Schwarz said. “But when you see a swastika on a building, or something similar, it just hits you right in the heart. We know (antisemitism) is always there, but you don’t really believe it until you see something like this.”
While self-identifying Jews make up less than 2% of the population in the United States, more than 60% of faith-based hate crimes logged are against Jews, according to the Anti-Defamation League. In 2019, the number of logged antisemitic attacks increased by 12% from the last year, up to more than 2,100, the ADL said.
Senior Dana Toussieh, who is Jewish, said she was shocked when she learned about the distribution of these pamphlets in Palo Alto, even though she has noticed the increase in antisemitism nationally.
“There’s definitely been an increase in antisemitism lately nationally and abroad, although until recently I was lucky enough to not really feel it here in the Bay Area,” Toussieh said. “I just thought that in our Palo Alto, with its reputation for technology and being informed, would not suffer from misinformation campaigns.”
Toussieh attributes the increase in antisemitism to multiple factors.
“In the past few years we’ve seen (antisemitic sentiment) worsen, and I think that political and ideological polarization when it comes to major issues like the Israeli-Palestinian crisis worsens the perception of Jews,” Toussieh said. “There is no separation between Zionism and Judaism, and people feel they can be antisemitic and just call it a political belief.”
Toussieh said she thinks the recent events in Palo Alto follow a historic precedent when it comes to scapegoating Jews.
“There is so much misinformation protected by free speech,” Toussieh said, “Some of it even spread by politicians and people in power. It’s important to become educated on scapegoating as a trend through history — in the past two years alone with COVID-19 the blame has been shifted around to different groups, starting with the Chinese community and now with us.”
Schwarz said this incident in Palo Alto reminds him that battling prejudice is like fighting a a war.
“I think this saying really applies: They came for the socialists and I didn’t stand up. They came for the political rivals and I didn’t stand up. By the time they came for me, there was no one to stand up. They had taken everyone,” Schwarz said. “We need to be vigilant at all times, and we need to fight for peace, for equality. For everyone. And not because we’re thinking about ourselves, but because it is the right thing to do.”