Dozens of anti-Semitic flyers were found Sunday morning around Palo Alto, one of several Bay Area towns where hate-motivated misinformation has recently spread, Palo Alto police confirmed Tuesday.
The slips of paper attempt to blame Jewish officials for the COVID-19 pandemic and identify a list of many federal officials as Jewish. The same misinformation is spreading across the country. The flyers were in zip-top plastic bags loaded with rice, possibly to keep them from being blown away, police Lt. Con Maloney said.
“The flyers directed people to a website with various videos espousing certain points of view, many of them on topics of a political nature,” he said.
They were dumped on the front end of private property, many near or on the sidewalk. The locations appear to be random and the same flyers were distributed over a wide area in the northern part of Palo Alto, including the Barron Park and Old Palo Alto neighborhoods.
“There is no indication that the recipients of the flyers were targeted in any way. Police do not know who distributed the flyers,” Maloney said. “We have seen reports of similar, if not identical, flyers being distributed elsewhere in the state and across the country in recent weeks. This was not unique to Palo Alto.”
In a statement released Tuesday evening, the City of Palo Alto said Sunday’s incident, which occurred in multiple neighborhoods, raises community concerns about hate crimes and hate incidents and follows calls from religious leaders, city council and civic leaders for a community response of belonging and kindness.
“Our community is strengthened by its diversity. We call on all to come together in support of our neighbors and our community values. We are inspired by the grace of Rabbi (Yosef) Levin and Santa Clara County Attorney (Jeff) Rosen. who have asked us to respond to these despicable acts with deliberate acts of kindness and kindness toward one another. Together, we can defeat the individuals who would attempt to undermine our goodwill,” said Palo Alto Mayor Pat Burt.
“These types of acts remind us all that hate crimes and incidents are serious and are taken seriously by Palo Alto Police Department personnel,” said Police Chief Robert Jonsen. “We will continue to review information as it becomes available to determine if any criminal charges should be brought before the District Attorney for review. Similar, if not identical, flyers have been distributed in other cities. from the Bay Area and elsewhere in the past few weeks.”
The anti-Semitic flyers were found in Danville on Thursday, February 3, the city’s public information officer Nicola Shihab said in a statement. The city has been made aware of pamphlets posted on the Iron Horse Trail, which is under the jurisdiction of the East Bay Regional Park District. A city maintenance crew was dispatched to the area, but they did not locate any of the flyers. Shihab said the city believes members of the public removed all the materials.
“Flyers obviously go against our values in Danville,” she said, noting that the city Commitment to Inclusivity Webpage. “Our city mission statement focuses on providing services that improve people’s lives. In pursuit of this mission, we are committed to inclusivity, welcoming families and people from all walks of life to live, work and visit.
“We value dialogue and respectful differences of opinion. Our differences can make us stronger, but respect is key. We will not condone or condone violence, intimidation or hatred in any form. where we celebrate diversity, dignity and equality for all members of our community,” she said.
While its authors claimed the flyers “were randomly distributed without malicious intent,” members of the Jewish community said the spread of such misinformation was a concerted effort by a group determined to spread extremist views to foment hatred. The flyers were also dropped off in Tiburon and El Cerrito last week, said Rabbi Serena Eisenberg, regional director of the American Jewish Committee Northern California.
“It’s sickening. We know anti-Semitism is on the rise in other places, and yet when the material is found in (your) hometown, it hits close to home,” said Eisenberg, who lives in Palo Alto.
The claim that Jews are somehow connected to COVID-19 is baseless and despicable, she said. It is reminiscent of medieval anti-Semitism when people spread the false claim that Jews had poisoned wells and caused bubonic plague in Europe. Today, anti-Semitic groups are trying to stoke fear and hatred by using the same trope again, she said.
Publicizing the actions of hate groups is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, Eisenberg said Jewish organizations don’t want to amplify fake messages from hate groups. But “we believe it is important to educate the public about the serious threats to the Jewish community,” she said.
Jews account for 60% of all religion-based hate crimes, but they only make up 2% of the population, she noted. More than 80% of the Jewish population who participated in a Survey 2021 by the American Jewish Committee believe that anti-Semitism is a growing problem. Only 40% of the general population does, she noted.
But hatred and misrepresentation have deadly consequences. The annual survey is being conducted on the anniversary of the 2018 mass shooting in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania at the Tree of Life Synagogue. Robert Gregory Bowers killed 11 people and injured seven others, including Holocaust survivors and police, according to news reports.
It was the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in the United States and took place during morning services. Bowers, who was arrested for the mass shooting, had previously spread lies linking a Jewish aid organization to importing immigrants who he said were killing Americans.
Santa Clara District Attorney Jeff Rosen, who is also Jewish, said Tuesday he was disappointed and angry that a small fringe group was trying to sow hatred in the community.
It’s no coincidence that Palo Alto is the location in the South Bay that the anti-Semitic group chose to publish. “It’s the largest Jewish community in the Bay Area,” Rosen said. “This is an attempt to intimidate Jews.”
Barron Park, one of the neighborhoods in Palo Alto where the flyers were found, has many Jewish residents, he said.
Rosen noted the diversity and value that most locals place on inclusion and respect for the Bay Area’s melting pot of cultures and religions. Because of that, “I think these attempts will fail,” he said.
Rosen spoke with Chief Jonsen after learning of the incidents. Investigators will try to find the culprits and he is confident that they will succeed. But whether the flyers or their distribution are a crime is debatable. Hate crimes involve a crime such as vandalism or assault that is perpetrated out of hatred; flyers probably fall into the category of hate incidents.
Whether it’s actionable or not, Rosen said it’s important to identify the people behind hate literature and its distribution.
“I would love to have a conversation with some of these people to try and change their hearts and minds. I don’t know if it’s naive, but I would be willing to try,” he said.
Rabbi Yosef Levin of Chabad Palo Alto said the way to fight hate is through positivity and friendship.
“Darkness is an absence of light, and the way to fight darkness is to light a candle,” he said. “Good people have to do the opposite (of hate). That’s what I believe. What I feel I can do is I can teach people. At the same time, it’s extremely important to fight that with the light,” he said.
He recalled a story of anti-Semitic individuals breaking the window of a house displaying a menorah. In response, residents of every house in the neighborhood placed a menorah in their bay windows, he said.
“It’s a country that has been wonderful for the Jewish people,” he said. “That’s the real soul of this country. Its real soul is kindness and kindness,” he said.
The Palo Alto Human Relations Commission has made race and equity one of its top issues for the past two years. After several months of community engagement and community conversations about race and equity, City Council adopted a Race and Equity Mission Statement on November 16, 2020. Council voted on 16 more actions to make advancing equity work, from using police data to a community summit on gender equity issues. The Board has decided to continue this work through its Policy and Services Committee on an ongoing basis.
In March 2021, the council spoke out against violence directed at people of Asian descent.
Additional information on hate crimes can be found on the California Department of Justice website, oag.ca.gov/hatecrimes.
The police department encourages reporting of any new incidents that may occur in the future, the city and police said in the joint statement. The City of Palo Alto encourages members of our community to promptly report hate crimes and hate incidents by calling its 24-hour dispatch center at 650-329-2413, or 911 in an emergency. For confidential reports, visit cityofpaloalto.org.