NEW YORK — When more than 100 car tires belonging to Jews were slashed in Lakewood, New Jersey, last week, no one in the community was particularly surprised.
The township is home to a large Orthodox Jewish community, and its Beth Medrash Govoha yeshiva is the biggest in the United States. Lakewood has seen the population boom in recent decades, from around 60,000 in 2000 to more than 100,000 as of 2017. According to a recent article in the Ashbury Park Press, “Officials and community leaders say Lakewood’s Orthodox Jewish residents, who are estimated to be about 70 percent of the population, are driving population growth.”
As Lakewood has grown, Orthodox Jewish families seeking more space have moved to neighboring towns like Toms River or Jackson. This expansion has created a backlash from some of their non-Orthodox neighbors, who say that it is causing overdevelopment and is a strain on local resources, like schools.
The Lakewood police department said anti-Semitic incidents of such a scale do not happen often there, but a week earlier, 10 car tires were slashed in a similar manner. The police believe the two incidents are related.
Orthodox residents have felt tensions grow significantly over the past few months. Much of this unease has been coming from social media, particularly a Facebook page titled Rise Up Ocean County. The page claims it aims to “preserve the quality of life” of residents in the area, but a scroll through the posts quickly reveals content that includes caricatures of Jews, accusations of laziness and freeloading, bashing and displays of anger toward the Jewish community on a variety of issues.
One post from August 6 mocks a local Jewish lawyer, with a doctored image of his face on the drawing of a diapered baby with a green dollar sign tattooed on his arm. Another post claims that Jewish children attending private religious schools are spending taxpayers' money.
But some of the most disturbing rhetoric can be found in the comments left by members of Facebook that follow the page. Someone suggested feeding “rat poison” to Orthodox Jews; another person wrote, “Kristallnacht 2019 ... what did they think would happen? How far will push? History only repeats itself, but they do not teach history ... the fools. They will suffer.”
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“The Orthodox Jewish community have no business being alive if no one likes them,” said a comment that was published and later taken down.
Rise Up Ocean County’s administrators state on their page’s About section that they are not anti-Semitic. “This is NOT about a specific religion, this is about equal treatment under the law and mutual respect for others,” they write.
The page has grown from 6,400 members in February 2019 to over 13,500 members now. Orthodox Jews living in Ocean County, non-Jewish residents and even some elected officials have called it out as anti-Semitic.
One Orthodox resident of Lakewood told Haaretz that the page is “spreading venom.” The man, who on Facebook goes by the pseudonym Donovan Presley, said he only joined Facebook some five months ago, when he first heard of Rise Up Ocean County. His original goal was “defending and adding context” about his community.
“I learned very quickly that Rise Up Ocean County very cunningly created a page to actually create and feed anti-Semitism,” Presley said. “The environment they foster, that’s where the haters coalesce to hate on Orthodox Jews.”
A matter of time
After the tire slashings last week, RUOC published a post: “Fifty six ‘Jewish owned cars’ in Takewood had their tires slashed during Shabbos. How one defines a ‘Jewish owned car’ is subject to interpretation, we can only assume that it was a mix of Toyota Camry’s and mini-vans or that each vehicle was wearing a yarmulke.”
In some of the page’s posts, Lakewood is referred to as Takewood – a way to imply that the Orthodox Jews who live in the township are living off of government assistance and taking public funds.
Many comments on the post suggested the tire slashings were “an inside job” or a “another self inflicted crime to look for sympathy.”
“Sorry you got a flat use the money you steal from us and replace it. I’m pretty sure it won’t conflict with your work schedule,” one commentor wrote, adding a laughing emoji.
The suspected vandal, who wears a hoodie on security footage, has not yet been found but the Lakewood police department said it was “actively investigating” the case as a “bias incident,” or one that targets individuals based on their identity. The Anti-Defamation League is offering a reward of up to $5,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the individual responsible.
Another Orthodox resident of the area, who asked not to be named, said that the RUOC posts are “clearly, without a doubt meant to rile up their followers.”
“One day, unfortunately, there is going to be a shooting in the area,” said the man, who has spent close to 10 years in the Ocean County area. “I don’t like to say that, I hope God protects us and I hope all the security agencies do their job, but I really believe there is going to be a shooting one day.
“All it takes is one person who wakes up one day and forgets to take his medicine and goes crazy.”
In recent months, Lakewood synagogues have brought in armed guards to stand outside during services. “I never thought I’d see that in the U.S.,” Presley said.
But Orthodox Jews are not the only ones worried about the activity on RUOC’s Facebook page. Christine La Grace, who grew up in Ocean County, said she is very concerned about the anti-Jewish sentiments there, and has been actively reporting and monitoring such social media activity. She was banned by the page after questioning some of its posts.
La Grace said she finds the posts and comments on RUOC “really frightening.”
“Judging by what these people say they would like to do, [the possibility of an upcoming violent act] is not a stretch. It’s a matter of time,” she said. “If I were Jewish, I’d get out of Lakewood. Something is going to happen.”
La Grace also pointed out that politically, Ocean County leans to the right. “It’s the same people who are participating in this group that hold other views that correlate, like the right to hold guns,” she explained. “It’s the combination of all those factors and all these ideologies that make it more dangerous in my opinion.”
It only took a week for Presley to get banned by the RUOC administrators. His offense: condemning an anti-Semitic hate crime. “They banned all Orthodox Jews,” Presley said. “I joke with some of my friends that the only place where you have such widespread agreement is on the Rise Up Ocean County page and in North Korean elections, because they banned anyone that has a different point of view.”
The page’s active efforts to create its own echo chamber particularly worries Presley. “Now that they’ve moved out any resistance or ability for somebody to add context, anybody who doesn’t know much about Jews, this becomes their opinion of them,” he said. “Now people see Rise Up Ocean County as their information source.”
Local officials have predicted that by 2030, the population of Lakewood would more than double, the Asbury Park Press reported. Posts in the page largely blame Orthodox Jews for the increased population density in and around Lakewood. “Makes me sick, helpless, angry and resentful. ... They truly do nothing for our country except take and reproduce,” one commentor wrote last week.
“I am also a victim of high-density housing,” Presley said. “I need to drive my daughter to school: It should be a seven-minute drive; instead it’s a 40-minute drive. How does it benefit me? Why do you think we are moving to surrounding counties?”
“Somehow high-density housing became this push against the Orthodox and Jewish people, as if our Bible requires it,” he said.
Free hate speech
Since its launch last October, the RUOC page didn’t go unnoticed by the local authorities. In April, it even caught the attention of New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, who wrote a lengthy letter to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, detailing a few of the “many comments on the page [that] appear to incite violence against Orthodox Jews.”
“We need to get rid of them like Hitler did,” one of the quoted posts said. “I live on the edge of Toms River and Lakewood and the gang war has begun. I have my mac11 loaded,” another reads.
But the letter fell on deaf ears: The page is still functioning and Facebook has not deemed any of the RUOC posts reported by concerned users to be against their guidelines.
“I’m a little surprised that Facebook, even being as ridiculous as it is, have allowed this page to exist for so long, even with a letter from the attorney general,” La Grace said.
“We try to report comments, but the vast majority of them — Facebook is OK with,” Presley added. “So we try to screenshot as many comments as we can till God forbid the unthinkable happens, and then maybe we can hold someone accountable.”
The ADL, which monitors anti-Semitic activity in the United States and internationally, told Haaretz that it has been working on bringing the Rise Up Ocean County page to Facebook’s attention for most of 2019.
“Social media platforms are private venues,” said the ADL’s director of community affairs for New York and New Jersey, Alex Rosemberg. “It’s the same as if I was going to a McDonald’s and yelling at the teller. The company has the right to [refuse] service and they have the right to apply the terms and conditions that they come up with in order to do so.”
Social networks, Rosemberg said, have a responsibility to address hate speech. Although he can’t venture to say whether or not there is a connection between the RUOC page and last week’s tire slashings, he points out that there are dangers in letting such a page go unmonitored.
“Biased thoughts, when unchecked, become biased attitudes. When those go unchecked, they go to discrimination, to action and eventually to vandalism and eventually assaults,” he said. “I don’t even want to go up the ladder anymore to where that leads, but I think that’s why we say at ADL that responsible leadership needs to dial down any such rhetoric.”
“If you look at all these websites that have become sounding boards and echo chambers for extremists, you realize that these are the places where the manifestos for shootings have been published,” he added.
Haaretz reached out to Facebook for comment, but has not received a response from the company.
Duty to speak out
The Orthodox man who asked to remain anonymous said he had been “feeling vibes” of anti-Semitism even before the RUOC page was launched last fall. “I am always self-conscious wherever I go,” he said. “But I definitely feel there is a level of animosity out there. When I walk into public places I feel out of place, I feel I’m not wanted.
“If I’m in Walmart and my child pushes her cart, which happens all the time, and hits the person in front of her, in most places you apologize and expect them to move on. But here I’m always thinking that now they are going to put out a post on Facebook that Jews hit people with their carts,” the man added.
Despite the tensions, the man said he doesn’t see himself moving away from the area. “This is where my family is being raised, my kids have friends and unfortunately you can’t just pick up and run away every time,” he said.
After the tire slashing incident, which happened on Saturday in Lakewood’s Old Pine Acres neighborhood, some non-Jewish neighbors of those affected rallied to help the community. The site NJ.com reported that residents called the police for their Orthodox neighbors, who couldn’t use their phones because of the prohibition on using electrical devices on Shabbat.
In addition, an anonymous donor launched a fund drive to help the victims of the vandalism fix their cars.
La Grace said that although she isn’t Jewish, she feels a duty to speak out against hate. “I don’t think you would need to be Jewish to empathize with any marginalized group,” she said. “I would be doing the same thing no matter who was being targeted.”
Haaretz reached out to Rise Up Ocean County via email but did not receive a response by press time. Despite numerous calls and emails from Haaretz, the Lakewood Police Department did not respond to requests for comment.
JTA contributed to this report.