WASHINGTON (Jul. 18)
The disturbing headlines of recent weeks have generated considerable trepidation among American Jews about a rising tide of anti-Semitism.
Even before the recent outbreak of hate activity, Jews had identified anti- Semitism as one of the greatest threats to Jewish life in the United States, according to a recent survey by the American Jewish Committee. In fact, since the group began polling Jewish attitudes nearly 20 years ago, fears about anti- Semitism have consistently ranked among the community’s greatest concerns.
Although recent events would seem to confirm those deep-seated fears, experts who monitor hate activity say there are no signs of an alarming trend and caution against unwarranted anxiety.
“There’s no evidence to suggest that there is an upsurge in the number of Americans who are buying into terrorism, racism, hate and violence,” said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles.
Indeed, according to the Anti-Defamation League, which audits anti-Semitic activity each year, the number of anti-Semitic incidents reported in the United States involving harassment, threat or assault has declined during the past few years.
Although there was a slight increase in vandalism against Jewish institutions and property in 1998, the general decline in anti-Semitic activity has been consistent with the drop in overall crime rates across the country.
Kenneth Stern, a specialist on anti-Semitism and extremism with the AJCommittee, said, “If you look at it from the last 10 years, it’s hard to say that one guy who decides to take a gun and shoot as many people as he can therefore defines a trend.”
“The chances of running into a Benjamin Smith are rather small,” Stern said, referring to the suspect involved in a series of shootings in Illinois and Indiana that left two dead and nine wounded.
“But to say that those dangers don’t exist would be wrong,” he added.
These assessments come in the wake of a series of hate-driven attacks directed at Jews and other minorities in recent weeks:
Last month, three synagogues were set ablaze in Sacramento, Calif., in suspected arson attacks;
On July 3, a shooting spree in Chicago injured six Jews walking home from Shabbat services;
Last week, an alleged “hit list” that included the names of prominent Jews was discovered following the arrest of two brothers in connection with the murder of a gay couple in northern California.
The suspects in each of the incidents have been linked to the World Church of the Creator, an overtly racist and anti-Semitic group that advocates a racial holy war.
Smith, 21, who authorities said engaged in a two-state shooting rampage over the July 4 weekend before taking his own life, had been considered a model member of the World Church of the Creator.
A search conducted in connection with the arrest of brothers Benjamin and James Williams in Redding, Calif., meanwhile, yielded World Church of the Creator pamphlets and a cache of evidence linking them to the Sacramento synagogue arson attacks, including a notebook containing the names of 32 Jews, all but one of whom live in the Sacramento area.
Authorities say the Peoria, Ill.-based group, which was founded in 1973 but has experienced a resurgence in recent years under the leadership of Matthew Hale, is one of the fastest growing white supremacist groups in the country.
The explosion of hate on the Internet has greatly aided the recruiting efforts of groups like Hale’s, while giving rise to a growing number of other self- proclaimed hate groups.
Cooper said that since the Simon Wiesenthal Center began monitoring hate on the Web, the number of sites has risen from a single site at the time of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 to nearly 2,200 today.
In the three months since the school shootings in Littleton, Colo., — where two students apparently obsessed with hate and Nazi symbols massacred fellow students on Hitler’s birthday — 700 hate sites have been added to the Web, Cooper said.
“For the first time these extremists are able to mass market their program and their ideology, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week in an unfiltered, unassailable fashion,” he said.
“If you do that often enough, you’re probably eventually going to be able to find more of the loners that are out there and people that are going to act out on the program that’s been put in place.”
In Sacramento and the Chicago area, local Jewish leaders have been attempting to quell anxieties that have arisen from the recent hate activity. One Sacramento rabbi whose synagogue was targeted in the arson attacks has urged those on the hit list not to give in to fear.
“It’s a mistake to be frightened,” Rabbi Stuart Rosen, spiritual leader of Kenesset Israel Torah Center, told the Jewish Bulletin of Northern California.
“This is something the enemies of the Jewish people want to hear,” added Rosen, who declined to say whether he was on the list.
“We have a mission to bring peace to the world. That mission rests on three pillars: Torah, prayer, and loving kindness. You fight hate with more acts of loving kindness.”
One of those named on the list, Marc Klein, editor of the Jewish Bulletin, said the hate activity in northern California has created understandable fears among those for whom it has hit closest to home.
“If you see a synagogue that you go to every Shabbat and you see that there was a fire there started by anti-Semites, there’s a reason to be paranoid and reason to be scared,” said Klein, the only person on the list who has spoken out publicly.
“But we have to pull away from the individual incidents and put this in perspective and say that it doesn’t happen very much and there are loose cannons everywhere.”
Klein, who wrote a column about his inclusion on the list, said he decided to go public because “people have to realize that these are not just names that are threatened. They’re real people, they’re neighbors, they’re friends – - people no different than themselves. And when one of us is threatened, all of us are threatened.”
Meanwhile, in West Rogers Park, the Chicago neighborhood where many Orthodox Jews live, the local Jewish community, law enforcement and Chicago Mayor Richard Daley gathered at the Jewish community center on Wednesday in what amounted to a display of the community’s resiliency.
“Our community, shocked and outraged by what happened, has rejected the path of fear and intimidation,” Michael Kotzin, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, told the gathering.
“We have stood tall, we have gone about our daily lives and we have reached out with sympathy to the others targeted during that awful weekend.”
In the aftermath of the attacks, those involved in the fight against racism, anti-Semitism and bigotry are urging a more serious exploration of the root causes of hate and possible responses.
Devin Burghart, a project director for the Illinois-based Center for New Community, which monitors hate activity and engages in faith-based community organizing, cautioned against “jumping to rash conclusions” about recent events.
“We should never let fear be our single guiding principle,” Burghart said.
Instead, he said, “communities need to stand together to speak out against hate, to actively work to construct moral barriers against hate in their local communities, so that we can decrease the number of Benjamin Smiths that we have.”
Stern of the AJCommittee said he hopes recent events will convince Congress to open a full-scale investigation into the ideologies of the far right.
“We haven’t as a society taken a serious look into what is breeding violence and hatred and potential incidents of domestic terrorism from homegrown groups,” he said, adding, “It’s much easier for us to look at Hamas or other foreign groups that target Americans.”
Others have proposed legislation that would outlaw Web sites offering instructions on how to build bombs and carry out other terrorist activities. Jewish activists and civil rights leaders are also urging Congress to enact legislation to strengthen the federal hate-crimes statute.
The Hate Crimes Prevention Act would allow the federal government to prosecute hate crimes sparked by sexual orientation, gender and disability. Current federal law applies only to crimes motivated by race, color, religion or national origin.
Looking at the relatively young ages of those linked to the recent incidents, Cooper said another reality has begun to hit home.
“We’re looking at a new generation, including individuals who are in it for the duration,” he said.
Although “this is not a time to panic, he added, “it is definitely a time for our community and other faith communities to take this stuff seriously, work closely with law enforcement, and to send a signal through our political establishment that it may be time to be putting even more resources to monitoring these specific acts and trends.”
Ultimately, however, most experts acknowledge that there is only so much that can be done to curb hate activity.
Said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League: “The threat has always been there, the potential has always been there, and as long as you have anti-Semites who are ready to use violence, so it will always be. We’re not going to eradicate it.”