On Feb. 11, Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll issued a statement condemning the antisemitic messages directed at Salem Board of Health members, who serve on a volunteer basis. Those attacks have continued up until this past week, said board chair Dr. Jeremy Schiller.
Schiller said he has been repeatedly targeted, along with other board members of Jewish descent or who the attackers presume to be Jewish because of their surnames.
Schiller said people who oppose COVID-19 vaccination and mitigation efforts have protested the Salem board's politics and recommendations from the start of the pandemic. But he said the rhetoric ratcheted up considerably as the omicron variant led to a surge in cases and the board reacted by voting 5-0 on Dec. 22 to reinstitute the city's mask mandate and implementing a proof of vaccination requirement for indoor venues.
First, anti-vaccination protestors descended on his home. Then he and other board members received vicious voice messages recorded on the Health Department's main line. Most recently, Schiller and other board members with "Jewish-sounding surnames" received antisemitic images by email. Though coronavirus mitigation policies have eased in Salem as of Tuesday, Feb. 8, Schiller said the bigotry has not.
"My name has been highlighted with Jewish stars with the three parentheses," he said referring to an altered image sent via email. "I was not even aware of what that actually meant until I did a little reading about it."
According to Anti-Defamation League researchers, the three parentheses — or the "echo," as it is sometimes referred to — is a typographical practice some people use online to identify Jewish people.
Mayor Driscoll said the city is making a concerted effort to protect all its residents, including Jewish members of the Board of Health, who serve in voluntary positions. She said Salem has zero tolerance for hate and antisemitism because — in a reference to the famous 17th century witch trials — her community "knows what happens when neighbors turn on each other."
"It's just such a divisive time. We saw this as an opportunity for us to come together," said Driscoll. "Whether you agree with mask mandates or vaccine requirements or not, we all agree that hate speech is not OK, and we want to stand up in solidarity for those who volunteer and serve our community."
Schiller said the group that recently protested outside his home was led by Dianna Ploss, an independent gubernatorial candidate, strong supporter of former President Donald Trump and opponent of pandemic mitigation efforts. Ploss led protests outside Gov. Charlie Baker's home last year, and she livestreamed the Feb. 8 Salem Board of Health meeting on her website.
"There was a simulcast, apparently, of the Board of Health meeting on that Tuesday night by this woman, Dianna Ploss, where there was blatantly antisemitic comments made on that website. 'Look at the smug Jew talking.' Those kind of comments," Schiller said.
GBH News has reached out to Ploss via her political campaign for comment.
Salem Police Chief Lucus Miller said the sources of hate mail and others forms of intimidation targeting Jews seem varied. He said the campaign of harassment has risen to a level that has prompted an investigation by his department.
"There's two different aspects to it that require our attention," he said. "The first is simply any time threats or harassment are used towards a public official in order to influence the way they do their job, whether or not it rises to to a criminal complaint, I think that bears police scrutiny. And then from the perspective of hate speech or antisemitic threats or harassment, whether or not we are able to take a criminal complaint out or not, it definitely bears police investigation."
Chief Miller, a former member of the New York City Joint Terrorism Task Force who moved to the city in April of last year, told GBH News that his department does not rule out the possible involvement of organized hate groups.
"As a relative newcomer to Salem, I do find this particularly shocking. This is not the sort of thing I expected to find here," he said. "But one of the things we have found is that these aren't necessarily local groups. Some of the messages are originating, certainly outside Salem, but in some cases outside the commonwealth."
Miller said police also have not ruled out a tiny clique of Salem based far-right extremists.
"I'm certainly cognizant of a group that calls itself Patriot Front around Salem," said Miller. "It is something that's very much on our minds."