2018 saw increases in hate crimes and the rise of antisemitism and white nationalism
By Deepa Bharath
From the killing of Blaze Bernstein and continuing increases in hate crimes to the massacre of 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, 2018 has been a year that has witnessed rising antisemitism, hate incidents based on sexual orientation and gender identity, and white nationalism, not just here in Southern California, but nationwide.
Local law enforcement agencies’ hate crime statistics lined up with the national numbers released annually by the FBI, which all showed increases in hate crimes, particularly in large cities such as Los Angeles and New York for the third straight year. The year saw a whirl of feverish activity online from extremist groups and lone actors and while social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter became a little better at weeding out hate groups and hate speech, these individuals moved on to other uncensored sites such as Gab.
Officials said Robert Bowers, the man who shot and killed 11 at the Tree of Life synagogue in the iconic Jewish neighborhood of Squirrel Hill in what was the deadliest attack on Jewish people in American history, posted on Gab right before he picked up an assault rifle and entered the synagogue on Sabbath day while yelling that he wanted to kill all Jews. The synagogue attack came after two years of “unprecedented years of increases in hate crimes and hate incidents” against all marginalized groups based on race, religion, national origin, sexual orientation and gender identity, said Rabbi Peter Levi, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League in Orange County and Long Beach.
In January, the brutal stabbing and murder of 19-year-old Blaze Bernstein in South Orange County shocked the region. His accused killer, Samuel Woodward, now faces murder and hate crime charges after being linked to the white supremacist group Atomwaffen. Bernstein was both Jewish and openly gay.
The Anti-Defamation League has also tracked a wave of threats to synagogues in the wake of the Pittsburgh shooting, including several incidents in Southern California. In Irvine, a vandal defaced the front wall of Congregation Beth Jacob with the words “(Expletive) Jews” and in Anaheim, another synagogue received a bomb threat, Levi said.
“We’ve seen continued incidents in schools with stereotypes, swastikas, Holocaust jokes and so on,” he said. “We’ve also seen a dramatic increase in posters and fliers on campus seeking to recruit for white supremacist groups.”
The risk of extremism is high in the United States with “the far right most ascendant,” said Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism in Cal State San Bernardino.
“In times of such political stress, conflict and polarization, what I’m concerned about is we’re not just looking at the traditional Ku Klux Klan,” he said. “A fragmented, polarized society is finding a home, an echo chamber online. The biggest risk we face is from the fragments, the loners that cuts across all ideologies although (white nationalism) is currently the biggest threat.”
Experts who work to counter all stripes of extremism such as London-based Moonshot CVE documented 280,000 searches online for far right content in the United States just over three months in 2017 compared to 40,000 online searches for jihadist material over six months.
These researchers say the appetite for material about violent extremism in the context of white nationalism has burgeoned in the United States, and continues to increase.
At the same time, far right hate groups such as the Proud Boys and Rise Above Movement, both of which have strong roots in Southern California, have also faced significant scrutiny from the Department of Justice.
Federal officials arrested several members of both groups after looking into evidence that they committed acts of violence during public rallies in Berkeley, New York and Charlottesville.
Journalists have also played a role in exposing closeted white supremacists. Michael Miselis, a Southern California resident, was outed by investigative news organization ProPublica and the television program “Frontline,” which identified him in photos and videos from the rally, where he was seen with arms raised and tape covering his hands.
Miselis, who lost his job at Northrop Grumman after the report came out, was also one of three Rise Above Movement members who were arrested in Southern California in October.
Experts like Levin believe that the online space will continue to feed the fragments and spawn more lone actors.
“We used to look at hate crimes as individual pathology,” he said. “But now, social media has amplified and weaponized our divisions. It’s become a national security issue.”
Levi said the Pittsburgh massacre has created an awareness about the need for security not just in synagogues but all houses of worship.
“What I predict for 2019 is we’ll continue an open and transparent relationship with law enforcement,” he said. “We’ll call out antisemitism and anything that normalizes hate directed at any aspect of Jewish identity including conspiracy theories directed at Israel and Jews.”
These types of falsehoods should never be allowed to thrive, Levi said.
“This leads to identity-based violence and we’ve seen it happen too many times against all types of people,” he said.
Deepa Bharath covers religion for The Orange County Register and the Southern California Newspaper Group. Her work is focused on how religion, race and ethnicity shape our understanding of what it is to be American and how religion in particular helps influence public policies, laws and a region’s culture. Deepa also writes about race, cultures and social justice issues. She has covered a number of other beats ranging from city government to breaking news for the Register since May 2006. She has received fellowships from the International Women’s Media Foundation and the International Center for Journalists to report stories about reconciliation, counter-extremism and peace-building efforts around the world. When she is not working, she loves listening to Indian classical music and traveling with her husband and son.