News & Features » Miscellany

Though most Richmonders may not be aware of it, anti-Semitic groups are spreading a growing message of hate in our community and state

Hate in Hiding

In early summer 1998, a Richmond family woke up to find the word "JEW" scrawled in 3-foot-tall letters on their asphalt driveway.

Last October, when Theatre VCU put on a production of "Playing For Time," a play about the Holocaust, it received a threatening phone call telling the theater company to stop the performance. Later, outside the playhouse, someone distributed anti-Semitic fliers on behalf of a growing national neo-Nazi organization known as The Knights of Freedom or the American Nationalist Party.

And this spring, authorities announced that twin brothers who are members of the white-supremacist group Christian Identity were suspected of the 1996 vandalism of two local synagogues, including Young Israel of Richmond at 4811 Patterson Ave., which had its stained-glass windows smashed. (The brothers were also indicted in Henrico County for conspiring to incite a race war between whites and blacks.)

Though many Richmonders probably prefer to think of hate groups as part of Virginia's racially charged past, the groups are still active, and anti-Semitic incidents in particular are growing in our state.

According to the Anti-Defamation League, the world's leading monitor of anti-Semitic activities, 42 U.S. states reported anti-Semitic criminal and noncriminal acts last year, and Virginia ranked 10th in this list.

Nationally, the number of incidents increased 2 percent last year, with 1,611 anti-Semitic incidents. But in Virginia, the numbers nearly tripled, rising from 14 incidents in 1997 to 38 in 1998.

Given recent national events, this gives one pause.

It's been less than a week since a white supremacist opened fire on a Los Angeles Jewish community center, shooting five people, including three children. The suspect later called his actions "a wake-up call to America to kill Jews." In July, another white supremacist shot six Orthodox Jews in Chicago, and in June, three synagogues were burned in Sacramento.

Virginia's incidents were not violent but were mostly acts of vandalism, such as when more than 30 houses in Virginia Beach were spray painted with swastikas and anti-Semitic graffiti. But that's enough, the ADL says.

"These statistics only tell part of the story," says David Friedman, director of the ADL's regional office in Washington, D.C. "Each incident represents a person, a family or an institution singled out to be the target of hate. There are no small or insignificant incidents. Every hate-filled flier slipped under a Jewish family's door or swastika spray-painted on a synagogue must be recognized as what it is — an attack on pluralism and the founding principles of our nation."

And Virginia isn't isolated from the national incidents of violence, either. The shooter in Los Angeles reportedly had been reading a book written by Richard Kelly Hoskins, a white supremacist from Lynchburg and leader of the Christian Identity movement. And in May, white supremacists distributed fliers in Williamsburg on behalf of the World Church of the Creator, a racist group to which the July shooter belonged.

"You just look at the three nation-gripping incidents that have happened to Jewish individuals and Jewish organizations in the last three months and it definitely makes you wonder if there's a national trend or organization," says Brittanie Zelkind, the ADL's regional director for Virginia.

In Richmond at least, there's probably not as much to worry about, says local lawyer Tommy Baer, former president of B'nai B'rith International. Richmond's Jewish community dates back to the city's founding in Colonial times, and despite the city's racial problems, Richmonders have always stood up against anti-Semitism, Baer says.

However, Baer acknowledges it's gotten harder to predict where the next attack will come from. That's largely because newer groups don't typically organize in public rallies like the Ku Klux Klan did. They meet on the Internet, spreading their message in secret, and that makes them much more insidious, he says.

Baer attributes the problems to a societal moral breakdown. "This is a small group, but there are a number of these small groups and they are becoming more virulent," he says, and they will continue to find listeners and attract members "until such time as the American people express outrage, real anger and outrage, and say this is enough."

Baer believes some of the answer lies in gun control, and some of it lies in the school systems taking a stronger role in instilling moral values in children.

Miriam Davidow, assistant executive director of the Jewish Community Federation of Richmond, agrees that educators need to become more involved. But she notes with dismay that a Federation-sponsored class for area public-school teachers about the Holocaust had to be canceled this year. Normally, 30 to 40 teachers enroll. This year, only eight signed up. Many said they were too busy preparing for the Standards of Learning, and the Holocaust wasn't likely to be an emphasized part of the new curriculum.

In light of recent events, Davidow has been reviewing security procedures at Richmond's Jewish Community Center. She maintains partnerships with the Virginia Commonwealth University Police as well as the local branch of the FBI and helps raise their sensitivity to anti-Semitic issues, but she feels the message needs to go out to more than law enforcement.

After all, she points out, the national violence hasn't been targeted at Jewish people. The Los Angeles shooter killed a Filipino postal worker, and the Chicago shooter killed a black basketball coach and shot at Koreans.

"I feel as if we [as Jews] do have a comfort zone in this country, but in every generation there has been some tyrant; we read that in our history, and perhaps the tyrant is bigger than one person in this circumstance," Davidow says. Overcoming the tyranny of hatred will take everyone to stand up against it, she adds. Something like that happened in Washington, D.C., this month, she says, when a planned neo-Nazi rally crumbled under public disapproval.

"I'd like to think the good people are far more numerous than the bad people, but history has shown that can get out of control very quickly," Davidow says. "It's pretty disheartening, it's pretty scary. I'm a first-generation American. My father is a refugee and my mother is a Holocaust survivor. Emotionally, my bags are packed because you don't know when safety or security is no longer there for you. It's scary times we live

Add a comment