A protester at the Stop the Count insurrection, Jan. 6, 2021, with a patch bearing the Punisher skull logo on his vest. (Photo/JTA-Samuel Corum-Getty Images)
A protester at the Stop the Count insurrection, Jan. 6, 2021, with a patch bearing the Punisher skull logo on his vest. (Photo/JTA-Samuel Corum-Getty Images)

American Jews on edge amid warnings of potential Inauguration Day violence

Brad Orsini believes now is the time to run through all the “what if” scenarios, and by that he means asking the hard questions, such as: “What if armed antisemitic mobs storm my city or attack my synagogue?”

As the national security director for the Secure Community Network, Orsini knows that after the Jan. 6 extremist riot at the Capitol, Jews and Jewish institutions are at risk.

While emphasizing that there are presently no known credible and specific threats, Orsini said in a webinar Friday that all Jewish communities need to prepare.

“This is a good chance to break out emergency operations plans, review them and convene security teams,” said Orsini, the former director of community security at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.

The Jan. 15 webinar featured security experts from the Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish Federations of North America in addition to SCN.

Rafael Brinner, the director of the Community Security program for the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, fully agreed with Orsini, saying the posture of the Bay Area Jewish community in the period on and around Inauguration Day should be “watchful.”

“It’s important to be alert, and keep track of local news,” he told J. “It’s a good time to review security plans in general. As we’ve been reminding the community the last few months, if you have an emergency, a hate incident or cyber-crime against you or your organization, there are places to report that.”

During his three years at Federation — following two decades of intelligence experience with the Department of Homeland Security, the Coast Guard and the U.S. Department of Defense — Brinner has been in touch with the FBI, the DHS and local law enforcement. He said that neither the San Francisco or Oakland police departments have detected any threats to specifically Jewish targets between now and Jan. 20.

“We’ve got very good relations between the Jewish community and local law enforcement,” Brinner said. “That’s the starting place.”

Those relationships matter more than ever, given a recent FBI warning about armed extremists planning violent protests in Washington, D.C., and at all 50 state capitol buildings, to take place around the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden.

A flyer cited by the ADL calls for a march in Washington and state capitals on Jan. 17; it reads, in part, “When democracy is destroyed, refuse to be silenced.”

Extremists online — including on the social media platform Parler, before it was shut down — chatted about a “Million Militia March” in the days before the inauguration. Other accounts on that network, popular with extremists, accused Vice President Mike Pence of treason and pedophilia and shared pictures of nooses. Social media users promoting the pro-Trump QAnon conspiracy theory posted in coded language to avoid content moderators.

And on Telegram, a secure messaging app popular with the far right, channels focused on QAnon broadcast their usual confidence that President Donald Trump was about to reveal a massive criminal operation to bring down Biden.

“Rest assured, President Trump won yugely,” read one post from Jan. 13 on a QAnon channel with 25,000 members. “This means we won, together. Now it’s time to clean house and drain the swamp.”

The ongoing far-right chatter comes as large tech companies have taken steps to boot extremists — and the commander in chief that many of them admire — off their platforms. Trump was banned from Facebook, Twitter and other platforms last week, and this week Twitter banned 70,000 accounts promoting the QAnon conspiracy theory. Additionally, Parler was kicked off its web hosting service after being removed from the Google and Apple app stores.

Advocates for combating hate online are split on whether these moves will effectively reduce antisemitism online or in the real world.

Some say the decision to ban Trump and sniff out the conspiracy theorists who admire him is long overdue and insufficient. Others worry that once extremists are off platforms that are accessible to researchers, their organizing will be harder to track.

“A lot of this stuff has gone dark in places very few people can trace it at the worst possible moment,” said Joel Finkelstein, director of the Network Contagion Research Institute, which studies how hate spreads online. “The stage is set. No one can trace these people on these encrypted apps. They’re violent, and [the social media companies] just exiled all of them off the radar.”

For years, the ADL has called on social media giants, particularly Facebook, to do more to fight hate. But while the ADL praised the banning of Trump, it saw the decision as part of a pattern in which social media companies act only after it’s too late.

“I think it is potentially the most extreme example of the crisis PR response to content moderation that we see on most of the major platforms,” said Daniel Kelley, associate director of the ADL’s Center for Technology and Society, which is headquartered in Silicon Valley. “It’s infuriating. Blood is spilled, bodies hit the ground and then suddenly platforms feel motivated to act.”

Kelley said that while removing Trump may lessen incitement to violence, the platforms still need to do a better job tracking, reporting and auditing ground-level extremists. He said that when it comes to deplatforming Parler and taking extremist accounts off mainstream sites, the benefits outweigh the costs.

On Jan. 13, the ADL called on the Justice Department to investigate Gab, another social network popular with extremists, for aiding and abetting the Capitol insurrection.

“The collective good that comes in shutting down these spaces is more powerful than the surveillance element,” he said. “A space that isn’t accessible by the Apple store or the [Google] Play store is no longer accessible to a curious individual who’s on the cusp of being radicalized.”

Those who already have been radicalized are likely to gather in large cities in the states that tipped the 2020 election to Biden, said Finkelstein, based on what his team has been able to monitor. But he said unrest could happen across the country.

“The Jewish community’s level of concern jumped after the Pittsburgh shooting,” Brinner said, referring to the October 2018 massacre of 11 Jews at the Tree of Life Synagogue, “and has stayed high ever since. My concern had already been ratcheted up since Charlottesville.”

In the webinar, Orsini had practical yet chilling advice for Jewish organizations. He urged the updating of emergency vendors, armed guards and contractors; he said to walk around the perimeter of a facility to make sure dumpsters are locked; and he said people should remove various items that others could pick up and use as weapons or to break windows.

“Test your camera systems [and] fire equipment [and] life-saving equipment,” he urged, “and be ready to shut the facility and get people out as quickly as [possible]. What we need to do now is have great situational awareness in our community.”

Suspicious activity should be reported to the Secure Communities Network’s duty desk at [email protected] or by calling (844) SCN-DESK (726-3375). The Anti-Defamation League also accepts information at ADL.org/reportincident.

JTA contributed to this story.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.