Civil society has big role in combatting hate, panel says

White supremacists rally In Charlottesville last August. Rightwing groups have more political power than the left, according to a panel in Washington. Photo by Anthony Crider / Wikimedia Commons

Hate crimes are often underreported, but it’s clear that they are becoming more common in the United States and Europe, with Muslims and the LGBTQ population often the victims, a panel of experts told a Jewish audience in Washington this week.

Even when Jews aren’t the explicit victim of a hate crime, pluralism is at risk when minorities are not protected, said Rabbi David Saperstein, former ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. “Jews won’t be in good shape in countries demonizing the Muslim population,” he said.

The Jan. 22 exploration of the return of far-right nationalism, hosted by Georgetown University’s Center for Jewish Civilization and held at the National Press Club, focused on the factors that led to the resurgence of far-right nationalists.

Michael Whine, UK Member of the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance said that increasing numbers of migrants from the Middle East and Africa are disrupting largely homogenous countries in Europe. “There’s a rise in populist ideology, fear of globalization, fear of migration—especially Muslim migration,” he said.

Similarly, demographic change in the United States has led to the growth in popularity of white nationalist ideology. “Immigration is the driver of these fears, and the hard core extremists are aware of the trends,” said Heidi Beirich, intelligence project director at the Southern Poverty Law Center. For those who want their country to remain white and Christian, diversity and immigration pose a real threat, she said.

The panelists pointed to social media as a breeding ground for white supremacists.

“In the last few years, energized by Trump, a whole new young cadre has come up to lead movements like what took place in Charlottesville,” said Beirich, referring to the white supremacist march last summer in which a counterdemonstrator was killed. “There’s a milieu on the web where these people can spread ideas, recruit, and radicalize.”

They are also targeting college campuses to recruit members, she said.

Meanwhile, social media companies have started to tackle the situation head-on. For example, PayPal is making it harder for hate groups to raise money in the hope of lessening their strength.

The panelists said civil society and universities have important roles in combatting hate and intolerance.

Civil society is powerful in combatting hate crimes by supporting victims and showing that acts of hate won’t be tolerated in the community. And so average citizens have a part to play in keeping their community and country safe, tolerant and welcoming, they said.

And when issues come up at college campuses, administrators must respect free speech while they deal with the problem and not sweep it under the rug, Beirich said.

But power rests in the hands of national leaders, Whine said. “The role of government is crucial.” He pointed to anti-Semitic attacks in France, and the speed with which French leaders responded. In this country, Congress unanimously passed a resolution in September urging President Donald Trump to denounce anti-Semitic and racist hate groups, he said.

The left and right in the United States often point fingers at the other as the root of anti-Semitism. Beirich said both sides are guilty, but that rightist groups have more political power.

Saperstein said there are also fundamentally different views on what it means to be an American. Republicans are far more likely than Democrats to believe that Christian religious beliefs are essential to America’s the country’s wellbeing.

“There’s an incredible chasm,” Beirich said. “We can’t agree on basic principles about our country.”

Anna Lippe is a Washington writer.


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