In March, a photo surfaced of two Mercer Island High School students giving a Nazi salute. Shortly before that, in January, Eastside residents found anti-immigrant flyers packaged with Snickers bars directing them to bloodandsoil.org, a web address for hate group Patriot Front. And just prior to that, in November, a West Seattle family awoke to the message “F--- JEW THIEVES” on the sidewalk and “JEW” spray-painted on their house.
Despite our region’s reputation as an inclusive, tolerant community, anti-Semitism is a prejudice with long roots in the Pacific Northwest, and it is resurging in this place we call home. But from Jewish groups to law enforcement, the community is not standing idly by as accounts of swastika graffiti, Holocaust denial, and Jewish conspiracy theories swell.
Anti-Semitic bias incidents, such as vandalism, assault, and harassment, are indisputably on the rise nationally. According to the Anti-
Defamation League, from 2016 to 2017 such incidents increased by 57 percent, and in K–12 schools the increase was 94 percent. Locally, the FBI’s hate crime index also demonstrates an uptick. Since the agency began tracking hate crimes by state in 1992, incidents tagged “anti-Jewish” in Washington have ranged from a low of 6 to a high of 25. In 2017, the number hit an all-time high of 43 — up from 19 the year before, the highest since 1993.
Stewards of both data sources are quick to provide caveats. The FBI database reflects information shared by local law enforcement. As more police departments begin sharing their crime reports, the numbers tend to increase. The ADL also attributes some of the rise to an increase in reported incidents.
“It’s hard to discern any one factor why hate incidents are rising, but increased reporting is positive,” ADL Pacific Northwest Director Miri Cypers says. “It shows increased trust between communities and law enforcement. There’s a greater awareness about the crucial nature of reporting these crimes, so that the greater public is aware of what’s going on.”
Increased reporting does not entirely mask the effects of a coarsening of civic life, however. “The lack of civility in public life, the inability of people to connect and relate to those who are different, and the heated political climate that features bigoted and prejudiced rhetoric are contributing to this climate of fear and hatred,” she says.
Patriot Front, a fascist group that brands itself as a pro-America organization, is part of what Cypers calls “a sugar-coated version of white supremacy” among a constellation of groups that view the majority-white demographics of the Pacific Northwest as a future homeland of European-descended people free of Jews.
Extremist groups like Aryan Nations, in Idaho, began recruiting in the 1970s, followed by The Order, in Washington, in 1983. Their activity peaked with the murder of Denver-based Jewish radio host Alan Berg in 1984, leading to a standoff on Whidbey Island later that year resulting in the death of Order founder Robert Mathews.
Their whites-only ideology, fueled by a dose of neo-Nazi Jew hatred, persists in pockets to this day. Mathews remains a martyr, and his memory recently inspired white supremacists to assault an African American DJ at a Lynnwood bar in December 2018, the same day the group made its annual pilgrimage to Mathews’s former compound. Puget Sound-based Northwest Front publicly calls for whites to move to the region but keeps its racially exclusive ideology under wraps. Vancouver, Washington resident Joey Gibson runs Patriot Prayer, a far-right group that flirts with anti-Semitism in its street clashes with leftist groups. Posters recruiting college students to Identity Evropa, which repackages Aryan Nations-era ideology for the 21st century, were spotted around Seattle throughout 2018. In February, nonprofit investigative group ProPublica reported that Western Washington is home to one of the largest cells of the neo-Nazi Atomwaffen Division, which has been linked to five murders nationally.
In 1992, the FBI foiled a plot by white supremacists to firebomb Temple Beth Shalom, one of two congregations in Spokane. The Spokane area is home to a number of hate groups; in addition, Matt Shea, who authored a manifesto called “Biblical Basis for War,” is serving his sixth term as a state representative. Shea, who also has ties to the Christian Identity movement, supports splitting off eastern Washington into a Gilead-like state called Liberty. When Rabbi Tamar Malino arrived eight years ago to intense security protocols at her new shul, like police presence at every service, she thought such precautions were unnecessary. But white nationalist rhetoric in the Spokane Valley over the years — and especially of late — has made her reconsider.
“We are absolutely on the frontlines of responding to white nationalist anti-Semitism in this area of the country,” she says. “Anti-Semitism is a common ideology and lingua franca that white supremacists are using both in how they think and how they speak.”
For decades, the temple hosted an interfaith kosher dinner to welcome non-Jews into the synagogue, at its peak this decade serving up to 1,800 meals. But such outreach efforts have not entirely stemmed a culture of ignorance, most commonly seen in local schools where Temple Beth Shalom’s young people endure casual Holocaust jokes or notions that the Jewish people no longer exist.
“It’s not malicious, it’s just cluelessness,” Malino says. “Here are so many people who have never met a Jew and have no idea.”
Defense of religious buildings has become more urgent since the deadly attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh last October. Anti-Semitic graffiti, as found in West Seattle and, in 2017, on the exterior of Seattle’s Temple De Hirsch Sinai, begs the question of whether such an incident is an isolated outburst or a harbinger of violence, whether from a lone wolf like the Pittsburgh shooter or the coordinated effort of neo-Nazi extremists turning rhetoric into action. Most large synagogues have undergone active shooter trainings, while smaller shuls still grapple with safety plans.
“We don’t want to be alarmist or stoke fear in people, but we think people should be vigilant and aware of the current climate, whether it’s within a Jewish institution or your everyday surroundings,” Cypers says.
Fighting Hate at the Roots
The ADL’s No Place for Hate initiative focuses on combating student bias by certifying K–12 schools that conduct at least three school-wide anti-bias education programs during the year. In this academic year, the program will reach 10,000 students in Washington and Oregon.
Mercer Island High School had taken its first steps toward No Place for Hate certification when the Nazi salute photo became public in early March.
While the Mercer Island High School incident was still under investigation at the time of writing, it seems to fit a pattern of youthful ignorance replicating gestures with guaranteed shock value rather than an underground cell of neo-Nazis lurking in a local school.
Dee Simon, Baral Family Executive Director of the Holocaust Center for Humanity, fields plenty of inquiries from concerned educators after they discover a swastika scrawled on a locker or find out that a Jewish student was told to “go back to Israel.”
“More often than not, teachers tell us the students don’t know what they’re saying,” she says. “It doesn’t come from deep-seated anti-Semitism, it comes from ignorance.” Simon adds that online searches can lead students to conspiracy theories and misinformation, like searches for “Rothschild” that point to conspiracy theories about Jewish financiers, not reputable sources on the European banking family.
The center provides a cutting-edge curriculum that uses the example of the Holocaust as a lesson about halting all forms of bigotry. It also offers school tours of its exhibit, a combined effort that has reached roughly one-quarter of Washington students en route to a goal that every child in the state receive some measure of Holocaust education. New this year, the center has a 10-unit flexible curriculum specifically geared toward Jewish educational settings like day schools and synagogue youth programs.
Local incidents plus the attack in Pittsburgh spurred her organization to become even more proactive. The center launched a free class for adults, “Confronting Anti-Semitism and Intolerance,” with the ADL that will be offered at least 15 times in 2019. The interactive three-hour session includes a museum tour to emphasize how Nazi-era anti-Semitic propaganda fueled the Holocaust, then moves to contemporary forms of anti-Semitism that are more subtle than the Nuremberg laws of the 1930s.
For example, the course explains anti-Semitic dog whistles, or code words, like “globalist” and the online communication use of triple parentheses, also known as the echo effect, to indicate that someone is Jewish. It also explores how to distinguish criticism of Israeli policy from anti-Semitism, a debate that raged in Congress over comments made by Minnesota congresswoman Ilhan Omar in March.
The class concludes with a model called the Pyramid of Hate, which articulates how small but widespread acts of discrimination at the bottom of the pyramid can eventually escalate to the top of the pyramid, where a genocide like the Holocaust occurs.
“What is our role as average citizens to tear down that bottom level of the Pyramid of Hate?” Simon asks. “The Holocaust is a well-
documented case of what can happen if you don’t pay attention and don’t watch the little things.”