'I never thought we’d see swastikas in America'

Anti-Semitic uptick in Oregon college town as neo-Nazis come out of the woodwork

Incidents of Jew hatred skyrocket this year in the Pacific Northwest, a little-known bastion of white supremacy

George and Judy Tanner pose with the sign they held at a February rally after a surge in neo-Nazi and anti-Semitic graffiti appeared in Eugene, Oregon. (Judy Tanner)
George and Judy Tanner pose with the sign they held at a February rally after a surge in neo-Nazi and anti-Semitic graffiti appeared in Eugene, Oregon. (Judy Tanner)

SEATTLE — The college town of Eugene, Oregon, is known for its easygoing vibe and environmental activism, but that reputation has been challenged in the last year by a resurgence of neo-Nazi and anti-Semitic behavior, including a string of threatening graffiti and hostile rhetoric.

Finding itself an on-again, off-again target of hate crimes, the local Jewish community of 5,000 is forced to become more alert about potential threats in an area otherwise known as an idyllic haven set amidst the lush landscape of the Pacific Northwest.

In particular, the recent outing of a local couple running a successful legal cannabis business has alarmed some local Jews that perhaps anti-Semitic sympathies run deeper than just the small handful neo-Nazi extremists in Lane County, a rural enclave between the Cascade Mountains and the Pacific Ocean anchored by Eugene. Most famous is local provocateur Jimmy Marr, who makes occasional headlines with outlandish antics like driving a truck emblazoned with swastikas and the phrase “Jew Lies Matter.”

Bethany Sherman and Mathew Combs, an unmarried couple with a young child, ran a cannabis quality control company in a state with a burgeoning legal marijuana industry. But when activists affiliated with the far left-wing, anti-fascist Antifa movement published a dossier documenting their ties with known White Supremacist and neo-Nazi groups, they were quickly ostracized from mainstream Eugene.

Andy Gitelson, director of Hillel at University of Oregon. (Courtesy)

Andy Gitelson directs the Hillel at Eugene’s University of Oregon. While he didn’t know Sherman and Combs personally, he called the revelation “a betrayal” and “antithetical” to his understanding of the community, in part because they came from the legal pot industry, which is generally considered a liberal bastion.

“I’m less concerned about the stuff that Jimmy Marr does,” Gitelson explained. “The challenging thing for all of us is that we live in a time when people can have these belief systems and fly under the radar.”

The recent outing of closet sympathizers with White Supremacist and neo-Nazi causes comes after an occasionally tense year in Eugene, which has seen an uptick in anti-Semitic and other hate crimes in the past two years. According to OregonLive, local officials in Eugene recorded 60  hate crimes in 2017, up from 44 the year prior. Oregon, meanwhile, saw a 60% increase in hate crimes from 2015 to 2016, one of the largest increases of any state.

Nationally, anti-Semitic crimes have “surged” according to the Anti-Defamation League. Investigative researcher Carla Hill told The Times of Israel that recent incidents in Eugene are “part of a national trend where extremists are feeling more emboldened and [the] area is no exception.”

Despite its current liberal reputation, she pointed out the region’s past, from Oregon’s history as a whites-only state until 1926 to white ethno-state boosters Northwest Front to the Portland headquarters of the virulently anti-Semitic Volksfront. In Eugene, an active chapter of the KKK burned crosses on a nearby hillside in the 1920s.

Illutrative: Hundreds of white nationalists, neo-Nazis and members of the ‘alt-right’ march down East Market Street toward Emancipation Park during the Unite the Right rally August 12, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

In 2002, two brothers with ties to Volksfront threw swastika-emblazoned bricks through windows at Eugene’s Temple Beth Israel. One of the brothers, Jacob Laskey, was sentenced to federal prison and released in 2016, where he promptly began recruiting for the White Supremacist organization American Front. In 2007, burglars damaged Torah scrolls and prayer books at the synagogue Ahavas Torah, although local officials declined to prosecute as a hate crime.

2017, meanwhile, saw a string of incidents. In February, Nazi graffiti and fliers showed up in a hip business district, appearing to target Jewish owners. That incident prompted Judy and George Tanner to attend a rally days later. George, who was born in Vienna in 1938 and fled with his family to the US, carried a sign that read “I survived the Nazis in Austria. I didn’t expect to encounter them in Eugene.”

“I’m 77 years old and I never thought we’d see swastikas in America,” Judy said.

Rabbi Jack Melul with his wife Shira, formerly of Ahavas Torah in Eugene, Oregon. (Courtesy)

Anti-Semitic graffiti also cropped up at a local high school in September on the eve of Rosh Hashanah. And on April 20, the white supremacist activist Jimmy Marr drove his swastika truck onto the University of Oregon campus to deliver a rambling speech in honor of Adolf Hitler’s birthday.

Rabbi Jack Melul, then of Ahavas Torah, was on campus working with students. A crowd, including university administrators and campus police, formed around Marr, who was legally parked and protected by First Amendment rights to free speech.

Students alerted Melul to the ruckus, who came out and began an impromptu rendition of  popular Hebrew folk song, “Am Yisrael Chai” (“The People of Israel Live”). Many in the crowd joined in the chanting, which drowned out Marr’s rant.

Reflecting on the incident, Melul, who has since relocated to Los Angeles, told The Times of Israel, “It made me feel like we won this battle at this moment. Nazism is long gone and we are still here.”

The episodic uptick in anti-Semitic activity has caused both Ahavas Torah and Hillel to up their security protocol. (Temple Beth Israel declined to comment for this story.) This past year, for the first time in Gitelson’s six years as Hillel director, armed officers guarded the campus’ High Holiday services. Back on campus, university student leaders have gone through active shooter training.

The University of Oregon Hillel. (Courtesy Andy Gitelson/Hillel)

“For the first time, we’re not just sitting around and waiting on the off chance something may happen, we’re actually expecting something to happen,” Gitelson said.

Ultimately, Gitelson feels the need to walk a fine line between awareness and alarmism.

“We have people in our community whose belief systems are totally not in line with living in a decent, collaborative, diverse space. Those exist in any place. But I have no problem with my daughter growing up in Eugene, who is able to be proud about who she is,” he said.

But thinking back on the outing of closeted neo-Nazi sympathizers, he added, “We feel completely betrayed that you weren’t wearing this on your sleeve the whole time. That makes people scratch their heads — how many other people are out there like that?”

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