Religious Leaders Concerned About Dangers Posed by Extremists Seeking to Recruit in Farm Areas

Religious leaders representing northern Kentucky and southern Ohio gathered at the Isaac Wise Center in Cincinnati last week to discuss the plight of the American farmer and the threat posed by extremist groups seeking recruits in the depressed farm areas.

The all-day conference, “The Rural Crisis: A Rural-Urban Dialogue,” was attended by some 75 Catholic, Methodist and Episcopal clerical leaders, and also by local Jewish officials, according to Jonathan Levine, the American Jewish Committee’s regional representative in Chicago, who attended the meeting.

The AJC initiated the conference and sponsored it in coordination with the Catholic Diocese of southern Ohio and northern Kentucky, the United Methodist Church of Ohio and the Episcopal Diocese of southern Ohio, according to Levine.

It was designed, Levine explained, to bring urban and rural leaders together to discuss the farm crisis in the region, to educate the Jewish community on the issue, and to “inform the Christian and other religious leaders about our concern of the potential of anti-Semitic organizing groups.”

INCREASING CONCERN IN JEWISH COMMUNITY

Conference participants were provided with a screening of the ABC-News “20/20″ segment “Seeds of Hate,” broadcast nationally last August, which brought to public attention the activities of extremist groups in the Farm Belt. Though the program was criticized by some groups, including the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, because it was considered too sensational and alarmist in its presentation, it nevertheless generated increased activism by American Jewry to meet the challenges posed by the extremist groups.

The concern was highlighted when, last month, the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, the coordinating body of community relations policies, urged its 113 local and II national constituent agencies to direct more attention to the plight of American farmers and support various efforts aimed at easing their situation.

But extremist groups such as the Posse Comitatus, the Christian Patriots Defense League, the Populist Party and other extremist and paramilitary groups have sought to capitalize on farmers problems and are actively seeking recruits in the Midwest.

But to what extent these groups have succeeded in their efforts has become the subject of some dispute. The ADL issued a report last week based on a Harris Poll conducted last January of 606 rural residents in Nebraska and Iowa. It concluded that reports of growing anti-Semitism in the Farm Belt have been “grossly exaggerated,” and that far-right groups have “failed in their mission” to recruit farmers to their cause. Nathan perlmutter, ADL executive director, pointed out in the report that “even a little bit of bigotry is far too much.”

But two AJCommittee officials — Levine and Rabbi James Rudin, AJC interreligious affairs director — suggested that claims of extremist support in the Farm Belt have not been exaggerated and that the Harris Poll’s findings indicated that thousands of persons have attended meetings of extremist groups or are actively associated with the movement.

All those Jewish community officials contacted in the past months by the JTA have unequivocally asserted that the overwhelming majority of farmers in the Midwest have not taken to active support or involvement in extremist organizations.

More than two months ago, the ADL issued an ll-page background report on the American farmer and the extremists. It said the “overwhelming majority of farmers have not swallowed the extremist message”–but there is a potential danger to American society when “violence is threatened as a tactic” and radicalism and bigotry are propagated.

Furthermore, the Omaha World Herald last week quoted officials of the FBI office in Omaha and the Nebraska State Patrol in Lincoln as saying the Harris Poll survey was consistent with their assessment of the strength of far-right movements in the two states. But both law enforcement officials indicated that a small number of extremists can do enormous harm.

Levine told the JTA that religious leaders at the Cincinnati conference indicated that extremist group activity in southern Ohio and northern Kentucky is not a serious problem at this time. He expressed concern, however, about the potential future growth of extremist groups in the region unless the situation of the farmer is eased.

WAYS TO COMBAT EXTREMIST GROUPS

Levine said there were some “real-nuts-and bolts” discussions among the conference participants on ways to combat extremist groups. These included, Levine said, increased outreach to farmers and their families, developments of interreligious groups to aid distressed farmers and “getting local religious leaders to speak out against these extremist groups.”

“One of the ways that the Jewish community can help respond to problems of extremism, I believe, is to offer responses to the rural crisis itself,” said Levine. “If we as Jews get out there and offer what help we can even if it is simply advice, we are going to go a long way to neutralizing extremist efforts. It’s going to show that Jews care about their neighbors and that Jews take this rural crisis seriously.”

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