(JTA) — Andie Bond can almost see the one-time bastion of the American neo-Nazi movement from her house.
Bond, 34, is from St. Louis, Missouri, a city with a robust Jewish population. Now she’s one of just two Jews living in Wallace, Idaho, a town of fewer than 1,000 residents that abuts the Aryan Nations compound from which white supremacists preached their ideology for three decades.
Richard Girnt Butler, the former aerospace engineer who founded the Aryan Nations group, chose the remote parcel of land for what he said was “the international headquarters of the white race” because it was cold and northerly, like the Nordic countries that he admired, and remote enough not to be easily accessible for police or the media. White supremacists networked with each other there, printed literature that they distributed nationally and brushed up on paramilitary training.
An admirer of Hitler who flew Nazi banners at Aryan Nations gatherings, Butler believed that Jews should be “repatriated,” or expelled, from the land he controlled. Some of his followers assassinated a Jewish radio host in Denver in the 1980s, while another shot children at a Jewish community center in Los Angeles in 1999.
Butler lost control of the land after the Southern Poverty Law Center, an anti-hate group, won a legal judgment against him in 2000. By the following year, the buildings had been demolished, but Butler’s influence persisted. Northern Idaho remains a stronghold for white supremacist organizations in the United States.
For Bond, who first wound up in Wallace for a newspaper job right out of college and now teaches high school, the specter of the Aryan Nations stronghold is never far from her mind. But she said what she experiences as a Jew in the area is not exactly what Butler imagined.
“There is not so much of this active hatred of Jewish people like you might imagine,” she told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “It’s not that people think about their dislike of Jewish people on a daily basis or make it a part of their lives. We’re a blank spot on the map.”
We spoke to Bond about what it’s like living in the shadow of the symbol, Jewish life in small-town Idaho and how she works to fill in that blank space for her students.
To hear more stories about being Jewish in small town America, sign up here for this JTA panel on February 17 at 1 p.m. ET.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
JTA: What brought you to Wallace, Idaho, from St. Louis?
Bond: It was journalism, actually. My very first job in my degree field out of college was working for the local paper up here. I figured I lived in the Midwest my whole life, it was time to see the rest of the country a little bit. I moved out here in 2011, and was here for the year, and came back out here to get married. In February, it’ll be three years for me here.
Do you think people know that you’re Jewish?
Around here, people think I’m either Italian or Native American because we do have a couple of reservations pretty close by. If somebody asks me I definitely don’t lie. When I was younger, in the South in certain parts of the country, I kept it to myself when somebody asked because, unfortunately, you have to. But around here for the sake of just trying to spread a little bit of awareness and let people know that Jews are still around, I do tell people, and I’m much more open about it.
How many other Jews live in this area?
I know of one, and they’re not practicing. He’s around my father’s age, in his 50s, 60s.
How did you find out he was Jewish and how did it feel to kind of spot another Jew in your area?
Well, I kind of looked at him and I knew what his last name was. So I asked him and he just grinned and said, “Yeah, but not practicing.”
I felt like, oh, I’m not the only one — we do exist. I think I lean more into my Jewish identity now than I did living at home in St. Louis. I didn’t realize how much I would miss the community, I didn’t realize how much those little things meant, to just pop something off in Yiddish and have somebody laugh or to say “good yom tov” on a holiday and people know what I’m talking about. Tradition and ritual has become more important to me, since I’m kind of the only one.
I do try to say the Shema every day, and I do try to observe holidays and festivals. The closest temple is in Spokane, which is a couple hours away. And even then, I think it’s a messianic temple. [Editor’s note: Spokane also has a Chabad center, a Reform synagogue and a Conservative synagogue.] There’s not really like a central hub for Jewish life, but I try to do things that are meaningful to me and that are a daily reminder of my Jewishness.
What does it feel like to live so near the former stronghold of the Aryan Nations?
The area has an interesting history as the seat of power for the Aryan Nations for years. When I moved here the first time about 10 years ago, I don’t think I saw an African-American person. It’s a little more diverse now, and it’s not unwelcoming, it’s just sort of secluded and cloistered.
I think because the compound was sort of isolated, that mindset was able to incubate and expand, unknown to authorities or anybody else. There was a push from the Jewish community in Spokane, and eventually they were able to get that compound shut down, but there are still pockets of people who have a pretty backward mindset.
I have found since moving away from home and moving into smaller communities out west that there is not so much of this active hatred of Jewish people like you might imagine. It’s not that people think about their dislike of Jewish people on a daily basis or make it a part of their lives. We’re a blank spot on the map. They don’t know anything about us. They don’t know what “Jewish” is to even hate, let alone have specific arguments against us.
We’re not so much battling outright hatred as we are just a complete lack of education. It’s really difficult to grasp that when you grow up in areas with major Jewish populations. It’s easy to not understand that people don’t even know where to start to ask the questions, and don’t know how to not be rude about it either.
What kind of questions have you gotten?
Somebody will ask if the word Jew is offensive. A lot of students would use “Jewish” as a synonym for something that they thought was really stupid. It was just a general pejorative term. A lot of them stopped doing this, to their credit.
They would say, ‘Oh my god, I was Jewed out of a parking spot coming into school this morning.’ The first time I heard it I looked up and I was shocked hearing it come out of this person. And I was thinking there’s a Jew right here. But then I realized they don’t think of it as applying to actual people that could still be around and be offended. They didn’t think of it in terms of my teacher is Jewish. They completely dissociated it from an actual group of people.
One child asked me once if I was bothered by being in a church because all Jews were going to hell. This child has only been told certain things about Jews. And that was a natural question for them.
It was fascinating to see that there was no hatred there, that’s just the way that they have always heard the terms used and the way that they know to use it. With the students, we had a little talk about that.
Where do you think this lack of education comes from?
It’s easy to start to fear something that you don’t interact with and understand on a personal level, and I think a lot of young people in this country see Jewish people as another thing from a textbook. A lot of people unfortunately also look at Native Americans as pinned in time and place to a specific event. And unless somebody has a personal interaction that sort of broadens their perspective, that’s all that they know. That’s all that we are, is something in a textbook. It’s a piece of history, something that’s gone already.
As I was talking to some of these classes [as a substitute teacher], I tried to draw a parallel between the way that we treat certain groups now and the way that Jewish people were treated in the Holocaust to try and give a more modern context to it. So it’s not just dry, dead history.
But the Holocaust is in the curriculum, isn’t it?
Yeah, so with the classes, one grade was reading “The Diary of Anne Frank” and the other was reading “Night,” by Elie Wiesel. And as the kids were working one day, the teacher that I was filling in for came in and we were discussing where they were on the material. And she looked at me and said, “Wait a minute, aren’t you Jewish?”
I said, “Yes, I am actually.” At the teacher’s invitation, I started telling the class about my bubbe Sally, who was a Holocaust survivor, and the story of her family coming here and I could see something changing on the faces of these kids. They’re sitting and listening. They kind of sat up a little straighter, they didn’t talk or interrupt me. They kind of looked at me in a different way, not in a way that was frightened or confused, but as though they were properly looking at me for the first time. It brought home the closeness of history, how recent it really was, that there are people still alive that were there. The cool teacher’s family members were there.
I think being able to put a face on what was otherwise just a dead subject in a textbook made them think again the way that they use the term Jewish, the way that they thought about who Jewish people were and what they actually knew about Judaism.
How did that feel for you, that moment of seeing this recognition on their faces?
That was when I realized it’s not necessarily about hate. It’s about ignorance. There is a huge, huge difference between being actively hated and being a complete curiosity. And a lot of times that can look the same because people are wary about things they don’t understand.
If all they know is what Jewish people were portrayed like in the media or perhaps stories that they might hear from people who used to be affiliated with the Aryan Brotherhood, that image of what being Jewish is not going to be the most positive thing. And it takes knowing somebody to realize that Jewish people are not homogenous and we are not gone by any means.
You are the first Jewish person who many of your neighbors have ever met. Does that put pressure on you to be sort of a model representative of all Jews?
It does because I am really aware that if I am just a jerk, I am reinforcing these negative stereotypes, and I don’t want to be part of the problem that way. So I just try to be open with people. I try not to be the stereotype, but it’s also not something that I stress about because if somebody wants to draw a comparison or make a caricature of me, anybody could. It’s just showing through example that there’s more to being Jewish than “beanie hats” or money.
Does that ever feel overwhelming for you?
Sometimes. If I’m having a bad day, sometimes I’m not as patient as I should be. I don’t want to sit and explain something. But I will still try or apologize to the person.
The lack of Jewish community is something that I feel like a wave daily. I really was not expecting to miss the community as much as I do. So I guess my way of sort of keeping community alive with me is just to try and be a good Jew and try to be a good person. And make people’s experience of meeting a Jewish person for the first time a positive one. But I’m human and I don’t always live up to that goal.
The valley has gotten a lot more diverse in the last 10 years, but when I first got here I would have a group of people I met up with at a bar every Sunday who would write down questions and bring them. They’d ask do you celebrate Christmas, do you believe in the Ten Commandments, do you believe in God, are you rich? If they had questions that I didn’t know the answer to, I would come home and I would study or go online and look at the answers to these questions, so we could have an honest exchange of information. I wanted to be sure I got it right.
Without having Jewish people to interact with, we’re something people only see on a TV screen or a movie screen or in a book. And that makes it feel as though Jewish people are part of the past, that we don’t have a place in modern culture. I think that the way that a lot of history classes are taught makes it seem like things occur almost in a vacuum.
What was your reaction to the Anne Frank statue in Boise, Idaho, getting vandalized? Until recently it was the only Anne Frank statue in America, and people put stickers on it with swastikas that said ‘We are everywhere.’
Well, I think it says something about the area and about the people that they did erect this monument to Anne Frank and it was the only one in the country. But there is still that element of racism and fear of the unknown. And Jewish communities tend to find an area that we like and everybody moves there and schools get built and everything is hunky dory except that it limits our exposure, really. So people don’t have the opportunity to interact with Jewish people on a daily basis and realize that we’re not so different.
I don’t necessarily go around waving an Israeli flag and pronouncing my Jewishness to one and all because you never know when you’re going to run across those elements. But in the rare instances that I have, it’s almost like the person becomes embarrassed, especially if they’ve known me for a while, just not knowing that I’m Jewish. I can see the conflict on their face trying to reconcile these beliefs that they’ve held with the person that they know.
The area is sort of untouched by time in a lot of ways. You have to get people to pin down when something happened because they’ll talk about something from 100 years ago like it was yesterday. There are pockets in and around the mountains where a backwards mentality has sort of incubated for a long time without any other outside influence. But it is changing.
What should Jews living in highly populated Jewish locations know about where you live?
It’s a wonderful place to live and I have amazing neighbors. If I have an issue or if I just don’t show up around town for a few days, somebody is going to come to my house and make sure I’m all right. It’s the kind of community a lot of people wish that they had.
The hatred that I assumed I would find here is just not present, it’s a group of people eager to expand their horizons and know more about what’s really going on in the world, who Jewish people really are, who any group of people really are.
It’s a community where it’s almost too small to hate because you know everybody, and through those kinds of interactions a lot of misconceptions get worn down.
If I were speaking to my younger self, I would tell myself to appreciate community more when I had it because it’s an aspect of life that you don’t realize is going to be so absent until it’s not there. At the same time, I’m so glad that I’ve had this experience because it’s reaffirmed a lot of why my Jewishness is important to me, and it’s been a privilege to be able to share my culture with people. We’re all just people.