The Hardening Face of Anti-Semitism Public Prejudices Have Faded, but Extremist Violence Grows

Article excerpt

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. …