December 15, 2018

Montana rabbi speaks out on anti-Semitic harassment

From his youth in a western Pennsylvania steel town, Rabbi Allen Secher recalls having his head “broken open with rocks thrown behind the phrase ‘Jew bastard.’ ” But since moving to Whitefish, Mont., in 2000, he’s experienced anti-Semitism exactly once — in an off-color comment from a car dealer — and never again.

That changed after a Dec. 16 post on the neo-Nazi website Daily Stormer that called for the harassment of Jews in Whitefish, hometown of white supremacist hero Richard Spencer.

Since then, Andrew Anglin, the website’s founder, has called for an armed march on the town to take place on Jan. 16, Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

But so far, the saga has played out primarily on the internet. Secher and the other Jewish residents of Whitefish named in the post have been “inundated” with cyberattacks, he told the Journal.

“Hundreds, not just a few,” he said. “Hundreds, and the cyberattacks are brutal.”

Secher, 81, lived in Los Angeles for more than a decade before moving to Chicago in 1980. While here, he served as rabbi of Temple Ahavat Shalom in Northridge. He said the recent harassment brings his life “full circle” from the anti-Semitism he experienced as a youth.

The original Daily Stormer article went up after Sherry Spencer, Richard’s mother, wrote in a post that she was considering selling a commercial property she owns in Whitefish. The elder Spencer said she felt pressure to sell her building due to a backlash against her son’s extremist views, which include establishing a white ethno-state in the United States. 

“Whatever you think about my son’s ideas  —  they are, after all, ideas  —  in what moral universe is it right for the ‘sins’ of the son to be visited upon the mother?” she wrote on Dec. 15.

The next day, Anglin implored his readers to unleash an “an old fashioned Troll Storm” on Montana’s Jews and provided contact details for five Whitefish residents, including Secher and his wife, as well as a local child. The post also included photographs of some of those residents, superimposed with a yellow Star of David bearing the word “Jude,” the German word for Jew.

“Tell them you are sickened by their Jew agenda to attack and harm the mother of someone whom they disagree with,” Anglin wrote.

In a follow-up article, he posted the names and numbers of Whitefish businesses he said were associated with a local anti-hate group. 

On Jan. 5, he posted a permit application for a march from the town’s Memorial Park to Whitefish City Hall titled “James Earl Ray Day Extravaganza,” named after the man who assassinated King. In addition to “two hundred skinhead Alt-Right Nazis,” he wrote that a representative of the terror group Hamas would be on hand to speak.

The Daily Stormer posts have suggested that the group Love Lives Here, co-founded by Secher and his wife, Ina Albert, pressured Sherry Spencer to sell her building. In her Medium article, Spencer said local realtor Tanya Gersh, who Spencer said has ties to the group, threatened to call for a picket of Spencer’s building unless she sold it.

Secher unequivocally rejected the claim that Love Lives Here approached Spencer, saying that Gersh was not speaking on the group’s behalf. Gersh did not respond to an emailed request for comment.

“Nothing was further from the truth,” Secher said of the allegation that his group pressured Spencer. “Love Lives Here never contacted her.”

Nonetheless, Anglin’s posts and others on similar websites whipped up a frenzy of anonymous internet haters, who tossed out a flurry of ethnic slurs against Jews and added “The ovens are waiting” and “Too bad they only killed 6 million.”

Secher said he reported the incidents to the police, the FBI, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).

“ADL has been in almost daily contact with the families and law enforcement authorities to address the ongoing anti-Semitic harassment being perpetrated by white nationalists against the Jewish community in Whitefish, Montana,” Jonathan A. Greenblatt, CEO of the ADL, wrote the Journal in an emailed statement. “The security of the families involved is our paramount concern.”

Richard Spencer has distanced himself from the harassment while stopping short of denouncing it. 

“I don’t feel personal responsibility” for the hate messages, he told a Whitefish-area newspaper, the Daily Inter Lake.

Responding on Twitter to a question from this reporter, Spencer wrote, “Tanya Gersh attempted a nasty shakedown of an innocent woman.” In a second tweet, he wrote, “I will certainly condemn violence. I will never condemn free expression.”

Spencer gained widespread attention during the recent presidential campaign as one of the founders of the alt-right movement. His think tank, National Policy Institute, has been described by the SPLC as a leader of “academic racism.”

His prominence has cast a shadow on Whitefish, sowing division in public forums and the local press in a town previously known mostly as a pleasant vacation destination close to Glacier National Park.

Secher, for his part, is no stranger to staring down racism.

As a civil rights activist, he was arrested twice while demonstrating with the Freedom Riders: once in Albany, Ga., in 1962 and again in St. Petersburg, Fla., in 1964.

This time, he’s received support from Whitefish and across the globe, as far away as Austria.

“The community of Whitefish has been spectacular in their outreach,” he said. “Spectacular. We just got boxes of letters and drawings from the community. Boxes! I have received maybe 500 emails from all over the country of people supporting us, people we don’t even know. I’d say half of those emails are from people we don’t know.”

In general, he said, Whitefish is a welcoming place where he doesn’t feel any different from others due to his religion.

“In this town, in this atmosphere, I’m Allen Secher, who happens to be a rabbi.”