This past Shabbat morning, over 30 families in Madison, Wisconsin, awoke to find anti-Semitic and racist graffiti covering their homes, garages, and driveways.
“I got up and pulled aside my bedroom curtain, and there on my neighbors’ house was ‘Fuck Jews,’ ” James Stein, professor in cardiovascular research at the University of Wisconsin School and president of the Jewish Federation of Madison, told me in a telephone interview. “I went outside and saw that my car had been vandalized. Shortly afterward we found out that a house a quarter-mile away had a swastika on the garage door and a house a block down had a ‘KKK’ and a confederate flag.” Other homes were spray-painted with penises, racist slurs, and various and sundry obscenities.
Thus far the incident hasn’t been classified a hate crime, since although the incident occurred in a community with a lot of Jewish families, the homes with racist and anti-Semitic graffiti weren’t actually owned by blacks or Jews.
“We helped my neighbor clean off his garage door, and when the snow melted we saw a swastika on the driveway as well,” Stein (a high-school friend of my husband’s) told me. “People call Madison ‘seven square miles surrounded by reality,’ but sadly, hatred is here, as it is everywhere.”
The shock was compounded when Stein’s Facebook post about the incident, which featured the image below, was removed for violating Facebook’s terms of service—basically, his own post was deemed to be hate speech. Dozens of friends who’d shared his post saw their posts suddenly deleted as well. “In the middle of Saturday afternoon I got a message on Facebook saying that my post was taken down because it was offensive and that my account was temporarily shut down. It let me log back in, but the original link and all the forwards were gone.”
Both Stein and I suspected that some kind of algorithm had nuked his post, but nope; a human employee of FB had made the decision to take it down and briefly suspend Stein’s account. Matt Steinfeld, privacy communications manager at Facebook, got back to me quickly and investigated. “A member of our team removed [Stein’s post] in error,” he wrote to me in an email. “It will shortly be reinstated. This error was likely attributable to the fact that it included what appeared to be hate speech, but since the photo was condemning the action it should not have been removed when reported to us.” Shortly thereafter, the original post and the dozens of shares came back online.
Sadly, what happened in Madison this weekend wasn’t an isolated incident in Wisconsin. According to an annual report released two days ago by the Milwaukee Jewish Federation’s Jewish Community Relations Council, the state experienced a dramatic rise in anti-Semitic incidents in 2014—double the rate of previous decades. There were at least nine swastikas drawn, carved, or painted around the state, Jews were threatened, and a hairdresser told a prospective client that she doesn’t cut “Jewish hair.”
Stein concludes, “This incident has been shocking and hurtful. But the community response has been wonderful and kind, with offers to clean and paint.” Still, he says, his people need to know that hatred can rear its head anywhere. “This is a liberal and educated community, and we live in a bubble,” he told me. Not anymore.
Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.