In a move that was long advocated for by the Orthodox community and New Jersey’s top state leadership, Facebook shut down the page operated by “Rise up Ocean County,” a group widely seen as stoking anti-Orthodox sentiments in the Lakewood area.
The group, which claims to focus solely on fighting overdevelopment, frequently made efforts to shine a negative light on the Orthodox community and on Judaism in general, and comments posted by its members were often openly anti-Semitic and sometimes threatening in nature.
Last April, the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office called on the company to take a more aggressive role in monitoring the site, and following violent attacks against Jews in Jersey City in December, Governor Phil Murphy repeatedly called for Facebook to strike the page from its forum.
In recent months, the company has removed certain statements from Rise Up Ocean County’s (RUOC) page, and in early January temporarily removed it from its network — only to replace it a few hours later.
In a joint statement, the governor and Attorney General Gurbir Grewal welcomed the news.
“We just learned that Facebook has decided to take down the public page on the company’s social network called ‘Rise Up Ocean County.’ Facebook’s action comes ten months after the Director of our Division on Civil Rights, Rachel Wainer Apter, first sent a letter to Facebook expressing concerns about racist and anti-Semitic statements on the page. Since then, we’ve consistently and repeatedly made clear our view that the page appeared to violate Facebook’s terms of service, and we appreciate that Facebook has now decided that this kind of hateful rhetoric has no place on its platform.”
The statement also noted that “there remains much that should be done to stop the spread of hate on the Internet.”
RUOC first gained wide attention in January 2019 when it released a trailer for a documentary on the growth of the Orthodox community in Lakewood and surrounding towns. Its video footage of Jewish school children set to foreboding background music and a vague call that residents must “rise up” led many to say the group was engaging in incitement.
Its adaptation of German theologian Martin Niemoller’s Holocaust-era poem warning of the dangers of failing to confront evil drew particular ire.
In the months that followed, the Simon Wiesenthal Center worked with local activists to lobby Ocean County governments to make formal statements condemning RUOC. It bore mixed short-term results with only Lakewood Township and County government calling out the group by name, while Jackson and Toms River opted for more vague statements against “hatred and bigotry.”
Even after violent anti-Semitic attacks in New York and New Jersey led to national calls to combat the dangerous trend, some voices in New Jersey media were critical of Governor Murphy’s calls to shut down RUOC, casting his efforts as an attack on free speech.
Rabbi Avi Schnall, director of Agudath Israel of America’s New Jersey division, told Hamodia that he was especially gratified by the administration’s resolve in addressing what he saw as a serious threat to the Orthodox community’s safety.
“Even after [the site] was taken down and put back up, the governor continued to fight and we are very grateful for his strong and courageous leadership on this issue,” he said.
Rising threats to Jewish communities and the traces they have left on social media have led to wide calls that the federal government take a more aggressive role in pressuring companies to better police the forums they operate. In his statements following the shooting in Jersey City, Governor Murphy acknowledged that the broader issue can only be addressed on the federal level.
Rabbi Schnall said that he hoped the “multi-pronged” approach taken against RUOC, which involved state agencies, local activists, and national Jewish organizations, could serve as a “template to shut down other hate groups.”
While acknowledging the likelihood of RUOC or a similar group resurfacing in some altered form, Rabbi Schnall said the state’s actions had still sent a valuable message.
“This solidifies the claim that RUOC is a hate group camouflaged in an anti-development mission,” he said. “They might find a way to re-instate themselves, but now anybody who is thinking of joining their followers is not part of group that is fighting development, but an anti-Semitic group.”