Visitors pray outside 770 Eastern Parkway "Chabad Lubavitch World Headquarters" Brooklyn in March, 2020. A flyer in the foreground pays tribute to Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Photo via Getty Images
A bizarre situation unfolding within the Orthodox Jewish Chabad-Lubavitch movement is going viral in the wider world, driving a raft of antisemitic conspiracy theories online and reviving some of the oldest slurs against Jewish communities. At issue are a group of buildings that surround 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, New York, the world headquarters for the Chabad-Lubavitch movement. At some point—when, exactly, remains unclear—a group of yeshiva students, described as “extremist” by a spokesperson for Chabad Lubavitch, are said to have knocked down walls between two adjoining buildings—784 and 788 Eastern Parkway—to create a passageway that wasn’t there previously. Attempts to repair the damage resulted in a brawl, a massive police presence, several arrests, and irresistible catnip for conspiracy peddlers.
The local website Crown Heights Info reported on Monday that when a cement truck was brought in to repair and fill in the damage, a tense confrontation ensued between the NYPD and the students; a video shows an astonishingly chaotic scene, of an Orthodox man emerging from the passageway into what appears to be a classroom or a sanctuary and being arrested, while a large group of men yell, overturn large tables and run towards the police. The site reported that 10 men were ultimately arrested, and that one man—referred to as a “bochur,” a Hebrew word for a Yeshiva student—attempted to pepper-spray an NYPD officer. (ABC New York had a slightly different number, reporting that nine men were arrested and charged, while the Daily News said it was twelve.) Rabbi Motti Seligson, a Chabad spokesperson, published a statement on Twitter suggesting that the situation had been unfolding for some time, and follows a long-running dispute and heated litigation over the property. The dispute is between the Chabad-Lubavitch headquarters and a group of people within the community who manage the sanctuary, referred to as the Gabboim.
“Some time ago,” Seligson wrote, in part, “a group of extremist students, broke through a few walls in adjacent properties to the synagogue at 784-788 Eastern Parkway, to provide them unauthorized access. Earlier today, a cement truck was brought in to repair those walls. Those efforts were disrupted by the extremists who broke through the wall to the synagogue, vandalizing the sanctuary, in an effort to preserve their unauthorized access.”Seligson added, referring to the litigation history: “Lubavitch officials have attempted to gain proper control of the premises through the New York State court system; unfortunately, despite consistently prevailing in court, the process has dragged on for years. This is, obviously, deeply distressing to the Lubavitch movement, and the Jewish community worldwide. We hope and pray to be able to expeditiously restore the sanctity and decorum of this holy place.” The situation generated intense news coverage, and, for some reason, a push notification sent by the crime-reporting app Citizen. (I, for instance, received the notification despite being in Los Angeles, nowhere near any particular relevant tunnel.) In its notification, Citizen did not cite any reputable news source, but instead the Santa Monica Observer, a publication that traffics in fake and conspiratorial news alongside less polarizing news items about local restaurants, traffic accidents and weather.
Naturally, this news has proven powerfully interesting to conspiracy peddlers like Stew Peters, a far-right podcaster better known for trying to spread an unsuccessful conspiracy theory about COVID and snake venom and for his role in promoting an equally polarizing and more successful COVID conspiracy documentary, Died Suddenly. In a series of tweets, the subtext of which could scarcely be missed, Peters referred to the passageway as “NYC’s Jew tunnel,” punctuated with a Star of David emoji, and noted that “high chairs” had been discovered inside it. (Given that the passageway seemed to run through a basement, it would follow that any number of items might be stored there.)In case his point was still not clear, Peters also tweeted, falsely, ”There seems to be a correlation between U.S. human trafficking and high Jewish population centers,” punctuated with another Star of David emoji. All of this is, of course, a fairly obvious reference to antisemitic blood libel conspiracy theories, which claim that Jews kidnap and ritually abuse Christian children, and which have been used since the Middle Ages to justify violence against Jewish communities. A QAnon-promoting Telegram account with 30,000 followers—and other, less popular accounts—went one step further, claiming that “blood-stained mattresses” were found in the passageway, which it referred to as a ‘jewish [sic] tunnel network.”
“Drain that swamp!” the account added, an oft-repeated QAnon catchphrase. “Rats must run.” The account also shared a cartoon of an Orthodox man balanced atop a bursting manhole, with the caption ”Disney Jewgate.” (Disney has no connection to any of this whatsoever. It’s unclear who the account holder was referring to as “rats.” Linking Jewish people to “rats” or other animals meant to provoke disgust or said to spread disease is a noxious and common antisemitic trope.) Conspiracy theories about tunnels have radiated outwards from the Middle Ages on, built on blood libel foundations and threaded with the particular anxiety, prejudices, and urban legends of the time in which they are spread. Unfounded beliefs that evildoers are meeting in secret beneath the earth to ritually abuse children are remarkably durable. During the McMartin preschool case in the 1980s, for instance, one of the most notorious Satanic Panic-driven prosecutions of the time, parents at the school became convinced that the alleged abuse of their children had been carried out in hidden tunnels beneath the school. An archaeologist named E. Gary Stickel, hired by some of those parents to conduct an archaeological dig, subsequently claimed the tunnels has been uncovered, along with, as he wrote, “previously unrecognized structural features which defied logical explanation.” In a review of Stickel’s work, W. Joseph Wyatt, a professor of psychology who’d acted as a forensic psychology expert in child sexual abuse cases, suggested that what was uncovered was far more likely to be the remains of a rural trash pit that predated the school. During the first wave of the pandemic, rumors briefly abounded that trafficked children were being kept in tunnels beneath Central Park and treated in a temporary tent hospital that was set up by an evangelical disaster relief organization. All of this provides a combustible foundation for the newest iteration of tunnel conspiracy theories. Prominent QAnon promoters like self-styled journalist Liz Crokin were quick to join in. Crokin spent much of Monday and Tuesday tweeting about the McMartin school case and alleged tunnels that notorious billionaire rapist Jeffrey Epstein had on his island; she also promised she was “tracking the story” of what was going on in Crown Heights. The hashtag #Tunnelgate and #TunnelJews also began circulating on Twitter, frequently accompanied by antisemitic cartoons, links to videos by overtly antisemitic far-right content creators like Nick Fuentes, or graphic discussions of sexual abuse scandals in observant Orthodox communities in Brooklyn. The purpose was to claim, falsely, that Jewish communities are more prone than other religious communities to sexual abuse.The tunnel kerfuffle also comes at a convenient time for antisemitic conspiracy peddlers, who have also been using the ongoing siege of Gaza by the Israeli army to promote anti-Jewish ideas worldwide, regardless of whether the individual stories have any particular connection to the ongoing conflict. Stew Peters, for instance, has used the war to fan rampant antisemitism for months, while also blaming “Askhenazi Zionists” for the war in Ukraine. Those sentiments have been widely and gleefully picked up Twitter. “Look where the IDF found the Secret Pedo Tunnel under a Jewish synagogue in New York,” one person wrote, encapsulating other, widely-circulated sentiments. “Hamas are NOT rapists but IDF and Jews certainly are.” Motti Seligson, the spokesperson for Chabad Lubavitch, told Vice News on Tuesday afternoon, “There are some who will use just about anything to prop up their ludicrous and often antisemitic conspiracy theories. I think the press has a responsibility to report the facts, not just accurately, but without sensationalizing them, which is the oxygen for a lot of these conspiracy theories.”