In the late afternoon of Friday, June 4, Jeremy Burton – executive director of Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston (JCRC) – went offline for a three-day Shavuot holiday weekend.
When he switched his phone back on late Monday night, he discovered something startling: a torrent of anxious texts and emails from colleagues and community members about a website called the Boston Mapping Project, which had evidently popped up just before Shavuot. Even Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs had tweeted about it.
What confronted Burton was an interactive map – with unsubtle threats – singling out scores of “Zionist leaders” and Jewish communal organizations in Massachusetts supposedly complicit in the “colonization of Palestine.”
Anonymously produced and initially hosted on the U.S.-based Internet domain registrar GoDaddy, it was taken down briefly last weekend and has surfaced again, this time hosted by an Icelandic provider called 1984, which describes itself as “Iceland’s biggest web hosting company by far.” One of 1984’s core values, according to its website, is to “always go the extra mile to protect our customers’ civil rights, including the freedom of expression [and] the right to anonymity and privacy.”
The provider declined to respond to queries from the Journal.
The website listed names and addresses (including Burton’s), calling apocalyptically for them to be “disrupted” and “dismantled.” They included Combined Jewish Philanthropies, the Synagogue Council of Massachusetts and the Anti-Defamation League, as well as smaller groups with no particular political or societal agendas, such as the Jewish Arts Collaborative, Jewish Teen Foundation of Greater Boston and Gann Academy, a Waltham Jewish high school.
There was a mishmash of hundreds of other “agents of oppression” on the map, too, whose missions were seen to somehow intersect with those of the Jewish groups. (“Our liberation struggles are connected,” according to the website.)
These fell into a variety of categories, from A to Z (Abington Police Department to Zionist Organization of America) and included universities, medical schools, and entities dealing in robotics, agribusiness and the “prison/industrial complex.”
Enjoining website visitors to be indignant, the groups were indexed by various “harms” they’d committed, such as “Zionism,” “health harm” and “ableism.”
Apple made the list – for supporting Israel and US imperialism and driving up housing costs in Cambridge. The Boston-based craft beer company, Harpoon Breweries, got dinged for partnering with an Israeli company specializing in water purification. Berklee College of Music was chastised because it “supports and normalizes Israel” through an exchange program with an Israeli music school. (It also fell into the “ethnic cleansing/displacement” category for “gobbling up” real estate and keeping rents high.)
PUMA was cited for its four-year contract with the Israeli Football Association. The Beverly Police Department was one of several police forces singled out for maintaining “colonial and capitalist power relationships through violence and coercion.”
The Jewish Journal got a dressing down, too (complicit in “Propaganda/Normalization”), and so did Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey (for “‘Both-Sides’-ing” Israeli Ethnic Cleansing.”)
Mishmash though it may have been, the conclusion seemed clear: “The Jewish community bears unique responsibility for oppression,” said Justin Finkelstein, an analyst with the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, who spoke at a public briefing about the website last week.
“This project is an anti-Semitic enemies list with a map attached,” tweeted Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.).
The website was endorsed and promoted by various anti-Zionist groups, including the anti-Israel group BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) Boston movement.
The collective public res-ponse and condemnation were instantaneous. Law enforcement was notified, and the FBI got involved. “We’re focusing in on obviously any acts of international and domestic terrorism as well as civil rights violations,” FBI Boston special agent Joe Bonavolonta said at the briefing.
“I support people’s right to free speech, but of equal importance is people’s safety and security,” said Robert Trestan, the ADL’s New England regional director. “Responsible technology companies should recognize the security threat this site poses, and should act responsibly by not serving as a host of antisemitism and potential incitement of violence against Boston’s Jewish community.”
The local, multi-partner Jewish Emergency Management System swung into action. Everyone on the mapping list was alerted, editorials written in the local, national and international press, public statements made by numerous politicians and Jewish leaders.
At a public online briefing with some 1,300 people attending, CJP’s head, Marc Baker, called it a “truly vile perpetration of hate against the Jewish community and our allies.”
By the end of last week, ADL New England had launched a “Pledge to Speak Up Against Antisemitism” website. Modeled on a statewide initiative in Nevada last year said to be Nevada’s “largest statewide coalition ever to combat antisemitism,” the ADL is asking for a “full mobilization of the community” in Massachusetts to take a pledge against antisemitism.
“It’s an opportunity for all elected officials to sign on, and members of the clergy and the community,” said Robert Trestan. Signatories include Governor Charlie Baker, Attorney General Maura Healy, and Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito.
But the question remains: How scared should we be?
Putting the vicious threats aside – if that’s even possible – it’s hard not to be a little dubious about the Mapping Project, if only because it’s striking in its illiteracy, coming off as a kind of scholastic gobbledygook. For all the authors’ insistence on remaining anonymous, one suspects a failing undergrad is at the wheel given all the typos, run-on sentences, non-sequiturs, and logic disconnects.
The graphics are something of a dog’s breakfast, overly dense with too many pins superimposed on the map to make sense of it. It’s “like the corkboard of an overzealous detective,” according to a Boston Globe article. From a tech point of view, “it is very much not search engine-optimized,” Jeremy Burton said.
Whoever is behind it – and the FBI declines to share any information – leans hard on progressive and inclusive verbiage (“We are a multi-generational collective of activists and organizers on the land of Massachusetts, Pawtucket, Naumkeag, and other tribal nations”) and apologizes – right on the home page – because “the struggles of local indigenous nations against US colonization are underrepresented on our map.”
Hard to argue with that, but what does this – or the numerous other black marks mentioned against the human race, like gentrification and ableism – have to do with Zionism?
And why is J Street on the map? (It opposes the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory.) Or Yachad, a disability services organization?
Why pick on pluralistic Gann Academy? Or maintain that the Jewish Journal is demonizing Palestinians, by linking to a story about a children’s arts program – featuring a “Mommy and Me” class – that doesn’t even mention Palestinians?
“It’s like this big mumbo jumbo,” said Tracy Adams, a postdoctoral researcher in sociology at Yale, whose research interests include antisemitism. “They are talking here about Zionism but also targeting universities and how they colonize lands and imperialism and militarism and apartheid. They’re all over the place. I don’t know what to make of it.”
This is one question, among many, that experts are asking.
On the one hand, it’s familiar and derivative, “deeply rooted in antisemitic tropes,” said Robert Trestan of the ADL, which has published a guide to prevalent antisemitic myths. (They include: Jews have too much power, Jews are greedy, the Holocaust didn’t happen, and the State of Israel is uniquely evil.)
It’s “the 2022 version of the Protocols [of the Learned Elders of Zion],” Trestan said, referring to the hoax dating back to the early 20th century alleging a Jewish plan for global domination.
At the same time, there are elements of it that are different. Aggressive antisemitic rhetoric on the Internet has been around for a long time, but it’s generally part of fringe group online chatter, said Tracy Adams. “This is a very open, easy-to-reach website. It’s not like it’s part of dark social media.”
“It’s not often that we would see so many organizations linked together in that way,” said Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis, and director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies, which was cited on the Mapping Project for being complicit in “Propaganda/Normalization” and “Zionism.”
“I would say that once upon a time we might have dismissed this as a bunch of crackpots who see Zionists wherever they turn,” Sarna said. “But I think in an environment where we see a lot of folks with AK-15s, and you see a map and hear that language, you get nervous about words like “dismantle.” We are living in very polarized times, and the digital revolution has greatly heightened threats because all sorts of extremists who 10 or 15 years ago could not communicate with one another, now can. And they use things like the Mapping Project to bring them under their wing.”
Alvin Rosenfeld directs the Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism at Indiana University, and has been teaching for nearly 55 years. “I’ve not seen before anything remotely like this map that they put out,” he said.
“It does amount to a Jewish hit list. It’s a kind of formula to ‘go get them’. It is not out of line, unfortunately, with a certain kind of very radical antisemitic thinking that’s been going on for some time now in America, but it is a brazen dimension of that thinking. Much bolder and, let’s say, much more extreme than what one usually comes across … It is real cause for concern.”
Why is it happening now? “Because America is a troubled country right now for all kinds of reasons. People are badly polarized. The culture wars play out day in and day out. We are facing major inflation. We’ve been in the midst of COVID, which is far from over. The racial problems in America are far from anywhere close to being solved. America has been in an overwrought, tense and angry phase, and we have not had good national leadership to help bring people together.
“And when one is in such an angry, badly polarized, hateful time, people really hate one another. Jew-hatred is out there together with a bunch of other hatreds. And these hatreds go public – especially in an age of social media, where the Internet is open to anyone and people can say whatever they want anonymously. What we don’t have is something like stability.”
Rosenfeld added: “If I could wish for one thing for our country, it would be for it to calm down. But America is not in a calming way.”
Linda Matchan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org