I want to first thank Secretary Pompeo and Special Envoy Carr for hosting this conference and for inviting me to participate.
As we have heard, the Internet is just the latest outlet for the “oldest hatred.” The litany of attacks on the Jewish people has gone on through every era of history. We should not be surprised then–even though it saddens us–that it is part of our modern world. And, since that world depends on the Internet for communication, commerce, and daily life, anti-Semites can use it for their purposes as much as anyone else can use it for legitimate causes.
Given this history and the reality of our dependence on technology, perhaps we will find ourselves unable to permanently sever the connection between anti-Semitism and the Internet. But as Rabbi Tarfon says in the Mishnah’s Ethics of the Fathers, “It is not incumbent on you to complete the work, but neither can you desist from doing it.”
So they key thing I want to make clear today is that the Department of Justice will not tolerate anti-Semitic acts that violate federal law, whether they occur on the Internet or elsewhere.
As the title for today’s conference suggests, we face an unfortunate and uncomfortable truth: anti-Semitism remains a serious problem, and one that seems to have worsened over the last decade in terms of violent incidents. For example, in April of this year, the Department of Justice announced an arrest and charges for attempted arson at a Jewish assisted living facility in Massachusetts.
It is also disturbing that anti-Semitism seems increasingly prevalent in public discourse. Sometimes it comes from the usual suspects, like neo-Nazis, followers of Louis Farrakhan, or BDS activists, but other times we are startled to see it from more respected sources. Consider when an NFL star like DeSean Jackson tweeted a fake Hitler quote about Jews controlling America, and was endorsed and defended by former NBA player Stephen Jackson. Or when someone who claimed to be a civil rights advocate, like Rodney Muhammad, posted an anti-Semitic cartoon on his public Facebook page.
Now, let me also add that not every reference to Jewish people is anti-Semitic; for example, I reject the assertion that every criticism of political activities funded by George Soros is anti-Semitic. In addition, there are times that bigoted statements are animated by ignorance, rather than malice, and are followed by a willingness to stand corrected and to learn, as appears to be the case in one or two recent incidents.
But the problems on the Internet go beyond abhorrent expressions. The outbreak of “zoombombing” is another illustration. Zoombombing occurs when someone uninvited interrupts and disrupts a videoconference. Some zoombombing may be relatively harmless, such as when a co-worker’s child makes a guest appearance. Other instances, however, are far more troubling. Zoombombers have targeted hateful or threatening messages at synagogue services, scripture classes, school board meetings in areas with large Jewish populations, and a rally for a Jewish candidate running for Lieutenant Governor of Vermont.
All anti-Semitic incidents are offensive and unacceptable, but not all rise to the level of federal crimes. Some do. Those include violence, plots to commit violence, and other crimes against synagogues and religious property. Let me mention two real cases that involve use of the internet:
One involved an online chat group, where just in the last month, a member of a white supremacist group called Atomwaffen pled guilty to federal charges for conspiring and making threats of violence targeted at black and Jewish journalists, as well as members of the Anti-Defamation League.
In another, last November a man was charged with a federal hate crime for threating to blow up a synagogue in Pueblo, Colorado. He allegedly organized much of his plot online, and repeatedly expressed his hatred of Jewish people and his desire to destroy the synagogue.
Addressing this disturbing rise of anti-Semitism is a priority of the Justice Department. Let me briefly mention a few steps we have taken.
First, the Department has been listening to, and learning from, the Jewish community. Last summer, the Attorney General convened the first-ever DOJ Summit on Combating Anti-Semitism, which brought together 150 community leaders and allies. This year the Attorney General also travelled to Brooklyn to meet with a group of Jewish leaders to hear their concerns about a wave of anti-Semitic attacks in New York City.
Second, we want Jewish communities to know where to report potential crimes. Earlier this year, the Attorney General directed U.S. Attorneys to reach out to Jewish leaders in their districts, to assure them of support and to provide them with personal contacts for reporting anti-Semitic hate crimes.
Third, and most importantly, we have prioritized investigating and prosecuting anti-Semitic crimes. Faith-based communities have been targeted in their places of worship, their grocery stores, and their community centers. One report cited 234 incidents targeting synagogues and community centers in 2019.
By now, some of the worst cases have become well-known: the Pittsburgh Tree of Life murder of 11 worshipers, the Chabad of Poway California synagogue shootings that killed one and injured 53 others, and the Jersey City murders where two individuals, after killing a police detective, drove to a kosher grocery store and murdered the owner, a worker, and a customer before being killed in a shootout with the police.
As these and other cases demonstrate, the Department of Justice has not hesitated to bring hate crime charges and other federal charges in response to anti-Semitic crimes. Since January 2017, the Department has charged over 80 defendants with federal hate crimes and related conduct. In the same time frame, the Department of Justice has obtained convictions of over 65 defendants for the same.
So this brings me back to the topic of the Internet, and what role the Justice Department can play beyond the deadly cases I have already mentioned. And when the issue is solely one of what things people say, we have to acknowledge the need for more education and changing hearts and minds.
The reason is that the Department vigorously enforces and protects the Constitutional rights of all our citizens, so our efforts must remain consistent with the First Amendment and its guarantees of free expression, as construed by the Supreme Court. Given that, no matter how much we are disgusted by anti-Semitism, we do not—and cannot—impinge on free speech, even the most offensive by the most odious of speakers. When dealing with things that involve or implicate speech, the Department is limited to prosecuting crimes that fall under recognized categories of unprotected speech, or otherwise satisfy the First Amendment’s exacting standards.
The Department can and does prosecute what the Supreme Court has called “true threats,” that is, “a serious expression of an intent to commit an act of unlawful violence to a particular individual or group of individuals.” Where anti-Semitic tirades constitute true threats, federal prosecution can both punish and deter such conduct.
For example, in March of this year federal agents arrested a self-proclaimed white nationalist in Washington state who allegedly posted anti-Semitic rants about the victim online, including threats to kill the victim and others. That individual was charged with making interstate threats and cyberstalking. The case is scheduled for trial later this year.
The First Amendment also offers no protection for speech that is integral to criminal conduct. In the context of anti-Semitism on the Internet, this means that the Department will not hesitate to prosecute those who cyberstalk, extort, cyberhack, defraud, or otherwise commit crimes in the course of their hateful screeds.
Sometimes it can be difficult to parse whether an incident of anti-Semitism rises to the level of a federal crime. For example, is zoombombing a federal crime? It depends. Although zoombombing is generally disruptive and unwelcome, whether the conduct rises to the level of criminal behavior will turn on very specific facts. Investigators must consider whether a true threat was made, whether there was criminal harassment or stalking, whether there was intentional unauthorized access to, or damage to, a computer, or if another criminal statute was violated.
Not all anti-Semitism will meet the standard of a federal crime. But, make no mistake, the Department of Justice and the Administration as a whole have unequivocally condemned hateful attacks against Jews. And we have prosecuted them when they involved violations of federal criminal laws, including hate crimes and true threats of violence, among others.
I’d like to suggest, however, that at least in the realm of the law, we should look to find a better term than “hate speech”, as that term can cover some things that are protected by the First Amendment and some that are not, so it has not proven very useful. And sometimes the term “hate speech” has been used to label whatever the person using the phrase doesn’t like. It has become too easy to label political speech as such. The vagueness and malleability of what counts as “hate” could wrongly be deployed to shut down constitutionally protected speech. I have seen some harsh criticism of political leaders that did not sound much like love or affection. Likewise, the label might be used against speech that challenges prevailing orthodoxies or politically correct ideas, but is deemed objectionable by someone who does not wish to hear dissent or opposition. We should not want honest debate silenced, or even heated disagreements about public policy, schools, society, or other public issues. Instead, the concern we ought to have is about vile attacks on people based on illegitimate group stereotypes that constitute threats of violence, or generate actual violence, or other unlawful actions.
On the Internet, as elsewhere, threats and violence have no safe haven. But on the Internet, we have to find ways to condemn genuine bigotry and prejudice while still tolerating disagreements about public issues, and recognizing the limits of what the law can do in a free society that values free speech. Those are issues that the Department also has been considering in the context of legislative immunities that exist under section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which I have publicly addressed in the past, but I will leave that topic for others today.
Let me wrap up by underscoring again that, consistent with the founding principles and best traditions of our country, the United States Department of Justice stands firmly and unequivocally against anti-Semitism. We will not hesitate to take action where anti-Semitic conduct rises to the level of a federal crime. That is as true online as it is offline. We have no tolerance for that behavior and will continue to prosecute such conduct as appropriate. Most importantly, we will continue to uphold the rule of law for all Americans.
Thank you again for inviting me to participate in today’s important conference.