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Kristalnacht in L.A. and other digital lies

The first time I received an e-mail decrying the outbreaks of pogroms in Los Angeles, I read as far as the all-caps title,”KRISTALLNACHT 2020 – DOES ANYONE CARE?” and no further. The second time, I read down to the part where the writer, Rabbi Yakov Saacks of The Chai Center in Dix Hills, compared the looting that took place in Los Angeles after the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police to a pogrom. Again, I stopped– who could take such things seriously?

The third time I got the same e-mail, I realized the answer to that question is: too many otherwise intelligent people. So finally I read it all, and I can tell you, it’s heartfelt, but wrong.

Very wrong.

One email from one rabbi, in the scheme of memes, doesn’t much matter. But it’s just the latest example of an Internet and airwaves awash in misinformation and hyperbole. It’s dangerous to the Jewish community, and terrible for America.

In his email, the rabbi gave his version of what happened in Los Angeles on May 30, the first day of protests.

He implies that the protesters targeted the Fairfax neighborhood because many Jewish-owned businesses and synagogues are there.

“In addition to destruction and graffiti inflicted upon the synagogues,” he writes, “a number of kosher restaurants, bakeries and stores were ransacked by protesters, looting much of the merchandise and causing extensive property damage.”

“At the latest count, at least five synagogues in the area were vandalized, as were three Jewish schools.”

“I am not trying to be cute by calling this Kristallnacht, which means night of broken glass, I mean it literally,” he concludes.

Literally, it was nothing of the sort.

As the Forward’s national editor, based in Los Angeles, I worked with our reporters who were at the protests and saw, firsthand, the subsequent damage.

As they reported, the looters attacked numerous stores and buildings in their path. That included synagogues, schools, kosher groceries– as well as clothing, liquor, jewelry and sporting good stores, markets, restaurants, you name it.

They didn’t go after Jews or shuls specifically, which is, you know, the definition of a pogrom. The graffiti on two shuls was hardly representative of all the protesters. Another instance of anti-Semitic graffiti was later found, by our reporting, to have been Photoshopped and then promoted by a pro-Israel group.

“Free Palestine” graffiti at the Baba Sale Congregation in Los Angeles. Image by ADL Los Angeles/Twitter

“There’s a tremendous amount of disinformation out there that makes the Jewish community look like it’s the victim of these protests, which couldn’t be further from the truth,” Jay Sanderson, the president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles told the Forward a few days after the protests.

“It troubles me that there’s a correlation being made in social media between the protest and a rise in antisemitic activity in Los Angeles,” Sanderson said. “There’s no factual evidence of that. So it troubles me as a Jewish leader, that people are making that correlation, first of all, because it undermines these protests, which it shouldn’t, and second of all, because it isn’t true.”

I called Rabbi Saacks to ask whether, in hindsight, he exaggerated.

“I feel that I am trying to get a point across that we cannot be passive,” he said. “We cannot turn a blind eye. History has proven that when we pooh-pooh something it doesn’t bode well.”

The rabbi accused the media and Jewish organizations of ignoring the damage– a point a quick Google search instantly disproves. If anything, media painted too dire a picture.

Canters, the most famous Jewish deli in LA, was unscathed–one of the owners passed out water bottles to grateful demonstrators. An employee Western Kosher showed up for work Sunday morning and saw Jews and non-Jews cleaning up the street. The store was untouched.

National Guard stationed outside Canter’s Deli

National Guard stationed outside Canter’s Deli Image by (Danielle Berrin)

This week, the Anti-Defamation League released a study that found at least one anti-Semitic flyer attributed to the Black Lives Matter movement was created and distributed by a white supremacist organization.

In the days of peaceful demonstrations that followed May 30, there was not a single instance of anti-Semitism documented. I covered one of those protests in Venice. The marchers passed near two synagogues. Neither was touched.

Our ancestors who survived actual pogroms–not to mention slavery, terror and Farhud – could only have wished for their anti-Semitic riots looked like what happened May 30.

And Kristallnacht? Between 300 to 600 Jews were killed as a result of the violence on November 9, 1939. Nazis targeted Jews, Jewish-owned stores and synagogues specifically and exclusively. The rabbi’s comparison isn’t an exaggeration, it’s historical malpractice.

“I agonized over using that word,” Rabbi Saacks told me. “But if it wakes one person I feel it was worth it. If it gets people upset I apologize. Sometimes I feel a Jew has to yell.”

But this is not about one rabbi’s misbegotten yell. That email belies a deeper issue plaguing the Jewish community and, frankly, America.

We are primed for catastrophe, too ready to believe the worst about those people and groups we don’t understand. Our fear makes us gullible.

Take the story President Donald Trump is peddling about protesters in Portland, Oregon and other American cities. Fox News leads each night with video of the most violent confrontations between protesters and law enforcement. This helps confirm the President’s election-year narrative that America’s cities, governed by Democratic mayors, are chaotic hellholes and that only federal officers can restore order.

“We are witnessing mayhem in cities across America. Violent crime is surging from New York to Los Angeles,” Newt Gingrich commented on

Mayhem? About 200 protesters came out Saturday night in downtown L.A., in a county of 11 million people.

There are real problems in L.A., as there are everywhere in this country, and there is real anti-Semitism in America, but our willingness to believe the worst can only make things…worse.

As Jews we should be superb at spotting confirmation bias, because anti-Semites excel at it. Read Louis Farrakhan or his Twitter disciples, who see the machinations of Jewish conspiracy every time their own Jew-hatred is called out.

The very human frailty that leads us to believe everything we think makes us vulnerable to at least misinformation or at worst fear-mongering and hate speech. The only preventative I know for this is to stay skeptical, curious, and empathetic.

And when an email concludes, as Rabbi Saacks’ does, with the words, ”Please feel free to share,” do us all a favor: please don’t.

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