Anti-Semitism In America: Rising Hate Speech Turns To Terror

A vigil Saturday night in Pittsburgh
A vigil Saturday night in Pittsburgh
Joe Heim and Samantha Schmidt

This is what they had long been fearing. As the threats increased, as the online abuse grew increasingly vicious, as the defacing of synagogues and community centers with swastikas became more commonplace, the possibility of a violent attack loomed over America's Jewish communities.

On Saturday, the worst of those fears was made real as a gunman stormed a Pittsburgh synagogue, killing at least 11 of its members and injuring many more, reportedly shouting "All Jews must die" during his rampage. It is the worst single attack on American Jews in the history of the country. And it is one that many who have been monitoring anti-Semitic activity in the United States have been dreading.

"Unfortunately, in the atmosphere we are in, as shocking as these incidents always are, they are not surprising," said Oren Segal, director of the Anti Defamation League's Center on Extremism. "Anti-Semitism is the lifeblood of extremism, and violence is never that far behind."

In its annual Audit of Anti-Semitic incidents in the United States, the ADL chronicled a 57 percent rise of incidents in 2017 over the previous year. That included everything from bomb threats and assaults to vandalism, desecration of cemeteries and the flooding of college campuses with anti-Semitic posters and graffiti.

Saturday's deadly attack took place against the backdrop of a particularly toxic era in American political and social life. Many Americans believe that the increase in anti-Semitism, xenophobia and racism over the past two years has been stoked by the rhetoric of some of the nation's top leaders, particularly President Donald Trump, whose ongoing rallies are marked by denunciations of immigrants and the deriding of "globalists," which is viewed as a code word for Jews. Most recently, he has declared himself a "nationalist," thrilling some of his followers who identify themselves as white nationalists.

It has been just 14 months since white supremacists protesting the removal of a Confederate statue marched through the University of Virginia campus chanting, "Our blood, our soil!" and "Jews will not replace us!" They were met not with an unconditional rebuke by Trump but a claim by him that there were "very fine people on both sides." On the far right, the president's words were taken as an endorsement of their behavior and their ideas and encouragement to pursue them.

"The response was not at all satisfactory," Segal said. "It's not hard to condemn Nazis or anti-Semites unequivocally. That's the expectation the Jewish community has. That's the expectation all communities have."

Although anti-Semitism is surging, it is not new in the United States. The country's Jewish groups and organizations have long been targets of zealots and bigots. But for much of American history, there have been relatively few large-scale violent attacks. And nothing on the order of Saturday's mass murder. That it took place in such a politically poisoned atmosphere is also significant, observers say.

It's giving permission to people on the margins to act out.

"We have seen acts of violence. What's new is the context of the acts of violence," said Eric Ward, executive director of the Western States Center, an Oregon-based progressive group focused on social and economic justice.

"I have never seen this coupling of political violence with political rhetoric before," said Ward, who has been studying anti-Semitism for the past 30 years. "It has primarily come out of the margins, and what's different about this moment and chilling about this moment is that the rhetoric is now coming out of the mainstream, and it's giving permission to people on the margins to act out."

Deborah Lipstadt, a professor of Jewish History and Holocaust Studies at Emory University, said that in previous decades, such as when she was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, anti-Semitism was more structural, in the form of discrimination in employment and education. "I knew I had to be twice as good as the non-Jewish kids' to get into college, for example, she said.

Attacks would happen on a personal level, for example. "Kids would be beaten up in the street if you lived in the mixed neighborhood," she said. But Lipstadt said she was taken aback by the scale and horror of the Pittsburgh rampage.

"This is beyond anything we've experienced," she said.

She said it and the recent wave of anti-Semitic incidents over the past two years are the result of "anti-Semitic dog whistles' from leaders - for example, she said, rhetoric painting George Soros as a "21st century Rothschild" - that have emboldened neo-Nazis and other white supremacists intent on committing acts of violence.

The increase in anti-Semitic attacks and harassment online, particularly on popular social media platforms, has been an acute concern in recent years for those monitoring far-right hate groups and white supremacists.

"The rise of the far right in America and Europe is tied to both the spread of anti-Semitic conspiracies about Jewish global domination and increased calls for stronger borders and nationalist policies in majority white countries," said Joan Donovan, media manipulation research lead at Data and Society Research Institute, an independent nonprofit in New York. "Attention to conspiracy theories about Jewish people, especially Soros, has reached new mainstream audiences through Internet memes and right-wing news outlets. This has led to increased harassment and calls for social media companies to ban topics such as Holocaust denial."

Yet more hatred & anti-Semitism from Trump supporters. Swastikas on the playground equipment in Adam Yauch Park in BK Heights. #NeverIsNow

— Brad Lander (@bradlander) November 18, 2016

Although there are increasing demands for platforms to aggressively monitor and remove such material, not every social site has been vigilant in addressing the problem.

"Such failures to act on the propagation of these conspiracies is dangerous," Donovan said.

Rabbi Jack Moline, president of the Washington, District of Columbia-based Interfaith Alliance, said the current public display of anti-Semitism "is like nothing that I have seen in my lifetime, and I go back to the early "50s."

For Moline, the marches in Charlottesville, Virginia, last year were the first public demonstrations of anti-Semitism he had seen since the late 1970s, when American neo-Nazis fought in court to march in Skokie, Illinois. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, he remembers synagogues and Jewish centers requiring identification from visitors and erecting barriers to prevent car bombers. Some of the precautions may have seemed excessive. Not anymore.

"I don't know a Jewish institution who hasn't considered the new security requirements of a dangerous world," he said. "I think we have gone from theoretical to practical in a matter of minutes today."

For the ADL's Segal, who has spent 20 years tracking anti-Semitic violence and intimidation, Saturday's deadly news was met with sorrow, but not despair.

"You can't do this work without maintaining a healthy dose of hope that things will get better," he said. "We have to hope that this moment in time will not be remembered solely for the haters and the violence, but for what people did in response. Already we're seeing people coming out in the streets saying that this does not represent us, this does not represent this country. That's a good first step. Now we need our elected officials and community leaders and business leaders to push back against this hate more than ever."

The Washington Post's Michelle Boorstein contributed to this report.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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