Combating Religious Hatred News

Whitefish Jews fight neo-Nazis with faith, peace and interfaith allies

Attendees participate in a candlelighting ceremony at an interfaith peace service in Kalispell, Mont., on April 8, 2018. RNS photo by Kimberly Winston

WHITEFISH, Mont. (RNS) — What do you do when hate lives next door?

What do you do when anti-Semites, stirred up by a guy you see at the local coffee shop and the gym, send you doctored pictures of your child’s face beneath the gates of Auschwitz? When they clog your phone lines with threats to “finish the job” for Hitler and gas you? When they promise to send an army of anti-Semites marching through your town?

If you live in this small, ski resort town where neo-Nazi Richard Spencer — the alt-right darling who has been called “a kind of professional racist in khakis” — has put down roots, you fight back.

But rather than match the haters slur for slur or descend to their level of filth, you organize a kind of party for peace, one that draws on the faith traditions present all across this town and the Flathead Valley of northwestern Montana — Protestant, Catholic, Native American, and, yes, Jewish — and say, “In the midst of pain, I choose love.”

“In the midst of pain, sorrow falling down like rain, I await the sun again,” about 150 people — Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Catholics, Mennonites, Baha’is, Unitarians and Jews sang together at a community center in the town of Kalispell, about 17 miles south of Whitefish.

“I choose love,” they sang, one week after Easter this year and one year after the neo-Nazi attacks on Whitefish finally subsided.

That gathering on April 8 grew from an informal support group local clergy formed after the neo-Nazi attacks and was the first of what they hope will be regular interfaith “peace services.” Among the organizers’ goals is to bring together people of faith to say “not in our town” to human evil of any kind.

“In looking back over the past year and the experience of being terrorized I think we made it through because we felt the support of people across the country and of our neighbors here in the Flathead Valley,” said Rabbi Francine Roston, leader of the Glacier Jewish Community/B’nai Shalom — a “synagogue without walls” — and one of the main targets of the neo-Nazi attacks.

Rabbi Francine Roston, left, the object of recent neo-Nazi troll attacks, leads about 150 people in a Jewish song at an interfaith peace service on April 8, 2018, in Kalispell, Mont. RNS photo by Kimberly Winston

“These ministers felt like if the Jews are being targeted then we are all being targeted and we need to stand up for each other.”

But, as a lawsuit brought by one of the Jewish victims in Whitefish proceeds through federal court — a case that could become a redefining landmark in distinguishing protected free speech from unprotected hate speech — will the opposition forged against hate be enough if the neo-Nazi trolls return?

“I am going to try to say this without crying,” Cherilyn DeVries of Love Lives Here, a local anti-bias group, said as her voice broke on the last word.

“Of course we are worried about another attack. From what we have learned we would be foolish not to think that is a possibility. But in spite of our differences, we know now that we belong to each other and we will not have that driven apart.”

‘Doxxing’

By now, the story of what happened in Whitefish is well known.

In December 2016, Tanya Gersh, a local real estate agent who is Jewish, and Sherry Spencer, Richard Spencer’s mother and a longtime resident, discussed a piece of property Sherry Spencer owns on Lupfer Avenue in Whitefish. Opponents of her son’s racial ideology had threatened to protest in front of it.

Soon after, someone claiming to be Sherry Spencer wrote a post on Medium saying she felt threatened and harassed by Gersh to sell her property and donate the proceeds to charity as a kind of reparation for her son’s activities. Sherry Spencer has said she disavows her son’s views, which advocate for a whites-only America achieved by what he has called “peaceful ethnic cleansing.”

And Richard Spencer — riding a wave of international notoriety from his “Hail Trump!” one-armed salute just after the 2016 election — took to his video blog to decry what he saw as abuse of his mother.

First to pick up Spencer’s story of Jews harassing his mother was Andrew Anglin, the shadowy founder of the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer, which, at the time, had hundreds of thousands of readers. He called his army of “trolls” to an attack on Gersh. That started what neo-Nazis call “doxxing” — extreme attacks, primarily via social media, on Whitefish’s small Jewish community — about 25 families. The doxxing focused on three people in particular: Gersh, her husband, Judah, and Roston.

“Just make your opinions known,” Anglin wrote in one of 30 articles The Daily Stormer carried about the Gershes, Roston and Whitefish’s Jewish community. “Tell them you are sickened by their Jew agenda. … This is very important. Calling these people up and/or sending them a quick message is very easy. It is very important that we make them feel the kind of pressure they are making us feel.”

And, Anglin added, “if you’re in the area, maybe you should stop by and tell her (Gersh) in person what you think of her actions.”

(Gersh is not speaking to media while a lawsuit against Anglin progresses and Spencer did not respond to requests for comment. Anglin’s whereabouts are unknown.)

The attacks were taken seriously by local and national law enforcement. The FBI and Homeland Security officials spoke with the victims. The Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center sent people with experience combating hate. Roston, a reed-thin woman with features as delicate as her crocheted yarmulke, obtained a license for a gun.

“The worst experience was watching the neo-Nazis discuss the fact that I have children, and that they knew my son’s name,” Roston said, her already soft voice tapering to a near whisper. “When I believed my children were being threatened, I was terrified. The lowest moment was watching the Holocaust imagery — the yellow star they put on my headshot — and realizing that the Nazi ideology wasn’t dead but was alive and thriving online.”

The attacks culminated in Anglin calling for a neo-Nazi march on Whitefish on Jan. 16, 2017 — Martin Luther King Jr. Day. He promised to bus in “skinheads” to the town of about 7,000 residents.

But pretty quickly, others came to the defense of local Jews — about 180 families spread across the Flathead Valley. Whitefish residents, who passed an anti-discrimination ordinance in December 2014 in response to some of Richard Spencer’s activities, organized an alternative event they called a “block party.”

More than 300 people turned out to stand for three hours in minus-15-degree weather to hear pro-diversity speakers and drink matzo ball soup.

And the neo-Nazis never materialized in downtown Whitefish, with its faux-western storefronts and trendy boutiques. Over the next couple of months, Love Lives Here and other community groups continued their show of support while the neo-Nazi attacks tapered off.

The whole episode caused many in Whitefish — Jewish and otherwise — to question their relationship to Montana, a state that has historically been a home to multiple white supremacist groups and individuals.

“Whitefish has existed with this knowledge that we live amidst some fundamentalists,” said Hilary Shaw, who is Jewish, lives in Whitefish and sits on the board of Montana Human Rights Network. “And we just kind of ignore it and say we are just here to ski and enjoy this gorgeous place. We don’t want to think about how not diverse our town is. So I think that is one good thing — people had to stop and own it. They had to learn about the history of white nationalism in their valley.”

Gathering

In the middle of the doxxing, a couple of Christian ministers with congregations in the Flathead Valley reached out to Roston to ask what they could do to help.

“I was so touched and grateful for their support,” she said. “We talked about the need to have more interfaith community support and our concern that our culture has become so polarized.”

Residents of the Flathead Valley line up outside a Kalispell, Mont., community center for a first-of-its-kind interfaith peace service on April 8, 2016. The service evolved in response to neo-Nazi attacks on Jews in nearby Whitefish. RNS photo by Kimberly Winston

They started meeting once a month as a kind of clergy support group. Other clergy were invited until there were Lutheran, Methodist, Episcopal, Unitarian and Mennonite clergy involved along with Roston, the only working rabbi in the Flathead Valley.

“Some of us in the Christian community wanted to be intentional about supporting Francine and her community,” said the Rev. Scott Thompson, leader of Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Kalispell. “Humanity in its various religions and expressions of faith is one body and when one part of the body hurts the whole body hurts. So, yeah, what happened in Whitefish didn’t happen to us, but it did happen to us.”

In November, when a gunman killed more than two dozen people, including children, in a Sutherland Springs, Texas, church, the involved clergy felt moved and ready to stage their first public interfaith gathering.

“After the shooting, we (the clergy) felt a need to come together and we thought there must be that same feeling in the community,” Roston said. “People must feel like they want to come and grieve together, lament together, pray for better times together. So we started talking about what would that look like.”

It took months to coordinate the schedules of the various clergy and work around the demands of the various religious holidays. Finally, the second Sunday in April this year was settled on  for a “peace service,” a more somber event than the block party of  early 2017.

And a few ground rules for the service were agreed upon: It would not name any single incident or person by name, it would be held in a community space rather than a single house of worship, and it would draw from the various religious traditions present in the valley, even if their clergy had not joined the support group.

But would anyone come? Roston said she’d be happy if 10 people showed up. Thompson declined to speculate on the turnout, but made an appeal to his congregation to show up.

“We want the Roman Catholics, the evangelicals, the Buddhists in there,” said the Rev. David Rommereim, pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran in Polson, Mont. “But we have to start with what we have.”

Suing

In April 2017, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a lawsuit on behalf of Tanya Gersh, the Whitefish real estate agent, against Anglin, the founder of The Daily Stormer, in Montana federal court.

The lawsuit maintains that the 30 articles Anglin posted on The Daily Stormer calling on readers to harass Gersh invaded her privacy, inflicted emotional distress and, most importantly, violated Montana’s anti-intimidation act.

Marc Randazza, Anglin’s lawyer, has indicated he will claim his client’s speech — while abhorrent — is protected under the First Amendment as free speech.

“If you believe in freedom of expression, you have to believe in it for Nazis, Klansmen, pornographers and anybody else you might find to be objectionable,” he told NPR in January.

But Gersh’s lawyer, John Morrison, said even though the neo-Nazis did not come to Whitefish, their threats were incitement to violence, which is not protected under the First Amendment.

“There’s no place in Montana for the hate Andrew Anglin unleashed from the darkest corners of the Internet,” Morrison said in 2017. “The attack on Tanya Gersh was an attack on all of us.”

Anglin’s lawyers made a motion to dismiss the case on First Amendment grounds, arguing that Anglin’s speech was constitutionally protected, and that he should not be held responsible for the actions of his readers. On May 3, a federal magistrate judge recommended rejecting the motion’s claim, but a federal judge has yet to make the final call on the motion.

Damon Berry, an assistant professor at St. Lawrence University who has written a book about neo-Nazis and religion, thinks Gersh v. Anglin brings the neo-Nazi movement “to a moment of crossroads.”

“Once a case is decided that says this harassment crosses the free speech line, that means the neo-Nazis can be held accountable,” he said. “And that could spell the beginning of the end of their online harassment.”

But what if, as the case goes forward, the neo-Nazi trolls come back? Can interfaith peace gatherings sustain the community in the meantime?

“Obviously, it will happen again,” Thompson said hours before the peace service was set to begin. “We live in a violent world. It might be a thousand miles away or across the street, it might be inflicted on me or on the people I love. Either way I want the people of my community to have words of hope and encouragement to share with each other so that fear does not carry the day.”

DeVries, who attended the service but was not involved in organizing it, said, “What white supremacists are trying to do is divide the community by forcing us to see religious and racial differences in people. What this service is doing is turning that on its head. These clergy are using their differences to bring people together rather than divide us.”

Praying

Volunteers turned up an hour before the first peace service last month, at Kalispell’s Gateway Community Center, a glass-fronted room in what used to be a shopping mall but has now been given over to nonprofits, about 10 miles south of Whitefish.

They set up chairs — someone thought 50 would do — and a table outside the entry with name tags attendees could use to identify themselves. The service would begin at 5 p.m.

At a quarter to five, the volunteers laid out 50 more chairs. At the top of the hour, the line for nametags was so long it stretched back to the center’s front doors.

Rommereim began the service with a prayer from Pope Francis, asking that peace “enable us to see everyone who crosses our path as our brother or sister.” There was a Native American prayer, an Islamic prayer and a Jewish prayer.

But the heart of the service was a community ritual in which all were invited to come forward and light a single candle from a larger taper, and then add it to those already burning together on a bed of sand.

“A single light by itself can be nice, but it is also vulnerable, exposed, and can be extinguished,” the Pastor Andrew Wendle, a Lutheran pastor from nearby Somers, said as he lit a tall taper. “Light can bind and unify. It can draw us in so we can see what we can illuminate together.”

Watching the participants line up to light their candles — a process that took almost 15 minutes and almost every candle Wendle brought — Roston, seated in the front row, began to cry.

“We felt very alone during the attacks last winter and in no way did I feel alone in that moment,” she said later. “I felt very supported and affirmed. I am part of something bigger than the Jewish community.”

About the author

Kimberly Winston

Kimberly Winston is a freelance religion reporter based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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