Conference speaker says hate won't go away
By Anne Koppel Conway
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At the 2006 Oregon Hate Crimes Conference, Kenneth Stern, program specialist in anti-Semitism and extremism for the American Jewish Committee, spoke about the changing face of anti-Semitism in the world today.
Held at the Portland Community College Cascade Campus, June 21-22, the conference was sponsored by Coalition Against Hate Crimes, AJC-Oregon, and 10 other groups. About 150 people attended the full conference with attendance at the two evening keynote programs bringing some 400 people to the event. Additionally, about 60 youth attended a youth conference on June 21.
Stern, a former attorney now living in New York, spoke about classic anti-Semitism in the western world and in the Muslim one. The 10 people attending the workshop, one of 10 offered during the Thursday afternoon session, added their opinions about what goes into that perpetual caldron.
He said contemporary problems include the fact that, "If you are a hard core Islamist, it would be unfathomable—against Allah's will—for Israel to control any part of that land."
"What troubles me," he continued, "is the progressive view" of people who choose to overlook Hamas's terrorist attacks and various positions, including being "vehemently anti-gay and anti-women."
In Europe the challenges arise when "bean counters call hate crimes against Jews hooliganism rather than anti-Semitism."
Also, "When someone is mad at Israelis and takes it out on Jews on the streets of Paris, the substitution is still anti-Semitism," whether it is called that or not, he said.
Earlier this year when a Jewish man in Paris was tortured and killed, French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy denounced the killing as an anti-Semitic crime. Purportedly, the perpetrators, men from the Ivory Coast, were convinced that Jews have money.
Although the men who committed this horrific crime may not have hated Jews in the classic sense, this hate crime, said Stern, is anti-Semitism because the specific selection of a Jew as their victim makes it so.
"Hatred is a normative part of the human experience," Stern said. "It's not about economics."
A sociologist in the audience who talked about the nature/nurture debate disagreed, "Children learn to hate."
Stern replied, "Children do learn hate, but it comes naturally."
The sociologist countered, "If people are hardwired to hate, it is hopeless."
Another woman added, "Some people are hardwired to do the right thing ? It's not hopeless."
"Look at history," Stern said. "People have a problem dealing with 'the other.'" But he agreed, "It's not hopeless by any means. We need to develop strategies to deal with (hate). It won't go away on its own. We have to think like the bad guys. We have to figure out what makes one person an extreme hater," to the point where the venom "takes over his/her whole personality."
One of the workshop attendees, James Taber, said he had experienced being "the other." He will be a sophomore at Occidental College this Fall and lives in a multicultural hall during the school year. He said his overall experience at Oxy has been positive.
However, Taber said, anti-Semitism is not viewed by students in the Los Angeles school with the same seriousness as other racism and anti-gay bias. "Big" Oxy's nickname for the critical race theory "is problematic" for Jews, he said.
This theory begins with the idea that racism is normal in American society. Critical of liberalism, the theory argues that whites have been the main beneficiaries of civil rights laws.
According to this theory and the students in his dorm hall who go along with it, Taber said, "Jews are considered assimilated and white, and so anti-Semitism is considered antiquated and a thing of the past—not a form of oppression."
Taber, who grew up in Portland, said that when he was in middle school his grandfather brought him a chai necklace from Israel, which he wore to school. When one boy told him that he would go to hell if he continued to wear it, he felt pressure not to identify.
In college he has experienced a small twist in anti-Semitism. Since students in his hall do not think of anti-Semitism as oppression, they are comfortable using terms like "Jewed," as in, "the vending machine Jewed me" when the machine malfunctioned by not spitting out the item that the student had paid for.
These kinds of comments "make me feel alienated and put me in the position of the other," Taber said. Students who use such phrases "do not take into account how it makes me feel as an individual."
Stern said that it is a fallacy to assume hate-crime perpetrators are poor, uneducated and stupid.
"Suicide bombers come from a better economic situation. Some of them took final college exams and then blew themselves up," he said.
Attendee Greg Rikhoff, human rights program manager, city of Eugene, said he has seen two beacons of hope in his community.
He told attendees about an incident in October 2002 when skinheads threw rocks engraved with swastikas through the windows of Temple Beth Israel in Eugene during a religious service and claimed it was just an initiation stunt for members of their group.
The community acknowledged the seriousness of the hate crime by coming forward to "create a moral barrier. They held interfaith gatherings at TBI," said Rikhoff.
One of the alleged white supremacists also has been charged with two counts of obstruction of justice relating to making death threats to grand jury witnesses.
He said that Eugene's Jewish community responded similarly when Muslims were the targeted.
"After 9-11 when a mosque in Eugene was threatened, the Jewish community stepped forward," said Rikhoff.
Stern ended his talk by saying, "It's incumbent upon all of us to fight all forms of hatred."