The hardening face of anti-Semitism

Public prejudices have faded, but extremist violence grows

The followers of Judaism have been discriminated against and attacked for their faith since the earliest times of antiquity. But Tuesday's shootings in a Jewish community center in Los Angeles may be emblematic of something new: the hardening face of modern anti-Semitism.

Among the general public, anti-Semitism has declined significantly over the decades. But among the alienated extremists willing to resort to violence, symbols of the Jewish community are becoming primary targets, say experts who track the problem.

While largely an American phenomenon, these alienated extremists are attracting followers in other nations, from Australia to Austria.

"If you look at the organized white-supremacist movement, anti-Semitism has never been higher," says Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala. "Jews have not been the No. 1 enemy of these groups historically, but now they are."

The suspect in the Jewish community center shootings, Buford Furrow Jr., has allegedly told federal law-enforcement officials he carried out the attack because he wanted to "send a message to America" by killing Jews.

It would be wrong to make too much of his motivation, experts caution. A person who would target small children is by definition deeply troubled.

And overall, anti-Semitism is far from the deep and troubling stain on the world that it once was. In the United States, anti-Semitic acts have been on a slow decline throughout most of the 1990s, according to Anti-Defamation League statistics, despite a slight 2 percent rise last year. The ADL counted 1,611 anti-Semitic incidents in the US in 1998, up from 1,571 the year before.

The percentage of Americans who harbor anti-Jewish views is now 12, according to ADL statistics. While that still seems far too high, it is lower than the comparable figure from 1964 of 29 percent.

To read too much into the activity of a few extremists would be to play into their hands.

"Their goal is to stir up hatred and create religious and ethnic divisions we've tried so hard to overcome in the last couple of decades," says Jonathan Sarna, an expert in American Jewish history at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass.

There have been several changes in the character of anti-Semitic activity, however, say Mr. Sarna and other experts.

One is the increased likelihood that Jewish institutions, not just individuals, will be attacked. There have been several synagogue bombings on the West Coast recently, as well as community-center shootings.

The other is a heightened level of violence. "There are a growing number of cases where people are physically harmed" instead of just property damaged, says Chris Freeman of the Center for Democratic Renewal, an Atlanta-based civil rights group that monitors far-right extremists. "That is a trend we are seeing."

Roots of hatred

This stems from the rise of organized hatred in America. Whether it goes by the name of Aryan Nations, or The Order, or Christian Identity, it bears similar characteristics: An alienated fringe of extremists unite on the Internet and in the name of their own brand of Christianity, are increasingly willing to take desperate steps to promote their doctrine of hate.

The theology, if it can be called that, of these groups often holds that Jews, blacks, and other traditional scapegoats are "mud people" or the spawn of the devil, and that they must be eliminated from the earth if true Christianity is ever to return.

These groups take a dash of neo-Nazi thinking, a pinch from the Ku Klux Klan, and a dose of myths from the 1930s that have been totally discredited - such as the belief that banking is controlled by a Jewish conspiracy - and mix them together into a combustible product.

Today, the Christian Identity movement is in many ways the glue that holds the radical right together, says Mr. Potok.

"It is Bible-based, and it has had some success making inroads into the Christian fundamentalist movement," he says.

Its violence stems from its beliefs, the kind of people it attracts, and the tactics leaders adopt to gain attention.

"What's happening is that there are people who are willing to take a page from international terrorism, saying, 'We don't need a movement. We just need a few people who are willing to go to the wall,' " says Abraham Cooper, a rabbi and associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in L.A.

The Internet is a natural fit with these groups, say experts. It allows small, isolated groups to feel they are part of larger communities. Surfing the Web appeals to loners and being a loner is often a necessary, though not sufficient, condition to membership in a Christian hate group.

In a twisted way, the Internet is attracting a new and more dangerous kind of anti-Semite - "a younger, better educated hater," says Tamar Galatzan, a lawyer with the Anti-Defamation League in Los Angeles.

Anti-Semitism is hardly a new phenomenon, of course. Since antiquity Jews have been an obvious choice of adversary for some in Christianity, due to a shared lineage of the two religions, and the fact that both consider themselves chosen people of God. "It's a basic Christian story, and one of the real blemishes on Christianity," says Krister Stendahl, retired dean of the Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass.

When Christians became the preeminent religious group in the Byzantine Empire under Constantine in the 4th century, they began persecuting the Jews, Mr. Stendahl says.

At the turn of the 19th century, people who had trouble transitioning to the new industrialized world saw Jews doing well and turned to their ancient scapegoat to blame them for all that was wrong, says David Biale, a professor of Jewish history at the University of California at Davis.

That is a predecessor of American anti-Semitism today, which came over with immigrants.

The Christian Identity movement per se is a largely American phenomenon. But echoes of its beliefs can be found in many other nations - including some that have dark histories of widespread persecution of Jews.

Attacks in Argentina

Take Argentina, for instance. Many Nazi leaders fled to Argentina after Hitler's defeat and the exposure of the Holocaust. "Hitler's anti-Semitism isn't dead. It's just mutating," says Sergio Widder, the Buenos Aires-based Latin American representative of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Mr. Widder has no exact figures on the rise of incidents, but says there is a growing trend of anti-Semitism in his region. Argentina now has 15 neo-Nazi Web sites, all of which have appeared in the past two years. A neo-Nazi Congress has been proposed for April 2000 in Chile.

Even Canada - a nation not traditionally associated with hate groups - has seen a rise in anti-Semitic incidents. Such acts rose 14 percent in Canada, from 212 in 1997 to 240 in 1998, according to the League for Human Rights of the B'nai Brith Canada.

"After two consecutive years of declining incidents, anti-Semitism and hate again appear to be on the rise again ... the incidents of anti-Semitism in Canada have become more diffuse in nature and the faces of hate are becoming harder to identify," says Lawrence Hart, the national president of the B'nai Brith Canada.

Throughout Europe, actual violent attacks against Jewish targets have decreased in the past few years. And indigenous anti-Semitism, whether of the far right or left, seems on the decline.

Now, ironically, the danger comes from the US, where the combination of easy access to firearms and the rise of hate groups could cross the Atlantic.

"We're seeing a lot of the violent material placed on the Internet by American groups being copied here in Europe," says Shimon Samuels, director of the European branch of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Paris. "Today, that's the real danger."

Today's relative calm is quite a change from the 1980s. Far-left European terrorists then combined with Palestinian groups to produce a deadly mixture. In 1979, they bombed a Paris synagogue on Rue Copernic.

From then through 1982, Mr. Samuels says 79 shootings took place in Europe. Rabbi Meyer attended the Rue Copernic synagogue as a child and says the attack changed Jewish life on the continent. "Before, we never even thought about security," he says. "Afterwards, we never have forgotten about security."

Cold-war effect

The collapse of the cold war took the steam out of French left-wing terror organizations such as Action Directe and Germany's Baider Meinhof. And the tentative peace between the Palestine Liberation Organization and Israel reduced the threat of Middle Eastern terrorism. "The far left has been decimated," says Samuels. "Only a few Trotskyites are left hanging around."

The Right experienced no such neutron bombs. During the early 1990s, anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic nationalist groups such as France's National Front and Germany's Republikaners made dangerous electoral inroads.

France's Jean-Marie Le Pen, who once said the Holocaust was a mere "detail" during World War II, got 15 percent in a presidential vote. Similar parties remain strong in Belgium's Flanders and Austria, among other places. But in recent elections, German far-right scores have fallen off and the French National Right has split into weaker factions.

The biggest danger comes from skinheads and neo-Nazi groups. "We are not so afraid of the parliamentary extreme right, but of the military extreme right," says Samuels. "Most of these movements here are inspired by North America and the hate groups there that preach a racial holy war."

Last year, he convinced French police to arrest 17 skinheads who had taken a Canadian hate site on the Internet and adapted it for use in France under the label Charlemagne Hammerskins, making threats to kill prominent French Jews.

Another danger comes from Muslim extremists. In recent years, Arab fundamentalists have congregated in Britain.

Algerian fundamentalists also are visible in both France and Germany and have begun recruiting local Arab immigrants into terror groups. Unlike their American counterparts, European skinheads have difficulty obtaining guns. Strict firearm laws exist throughout Europe. "There's still anti-Semitism here," says Rabbi David Meyer of Beth Hillel Synagogue in Brussels. "There's just less access to weapons."

Most anti-Jewish attacks in the West consist of desecrating Jewish cemeteries. Samuels counts 100 such attacks throughout Europe last year and says they're more common in Eastern rather than Western Europe.

When he returned to visit his parents' graves in London last year, he was shocked to find that a quarter of the cemetery was destroyed. "I've worked fighting against anti-Semitism all my life," he says. "This was the first time it had touched me personally."

Reported by staff writers Mark Sappenfield in Los Angeles and James N. Thurman in Washington and contributors William Echikson in Brussels, Corinna Schuler in Johannesburg, and Tom Regan. Written by staff writer Peter Grier.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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