“Right-wing extremism was responsible for all 50 anti-Semitic murders in the United States last year,” according to Kathleen Blee. Blee presented that fact as part of her lecture “Anti-Semitic and Other Hate Violence: The Current Context, Perpetrators, and the Role of Social Media.” The event was presented by Congregation Dor Hadash’s Adult Education Committee on Sunday, Feb. 17 at Rodef Shalom Congregation.
Blee is a professor of sociology and Bettye J. and Ralph E. Bailey Dean of the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences and the College of General Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. She is the author of eight books, including “Women in the Klan: Racism and Gender in the 1920s.” Her lecture focused on right-wing extremism, which includes white supremacist groups such as the Klu Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, white-power skinheads and Christian Identity groups. The latter is “a fake religion based on race as its central idea,” she explained. The final component of this catch-all classification is a series of intertwined groups under the “alt-right” umbrella operating primarily in cyberspace.
“Since the 1940s, anti-Semitism is at the core of these groups,” Blee stated. Their members believe racial tensions exist because of manipulative Jews who operate above whites and non-whites.
Blee explained that right-wing extremists share a belief that whites are superior to other races; deny the Holocaust in public while privately taking glory in its history; see Jews as conspiratorial and elitist; have a deep fear of race suicide caused by declining birth rate and demographic shifts; view immigrants as an invasionary force; and believe in and promote the idea of race wars. These groups can be nationalistic as well, but “while they can be in favor of America first, they hate the federal government and see it as being controlled by Jewish elites.”
The members of these groups operate in a world “a lot more complicated than we often think and what the media tells us,” said Blee. People joining these groups aren’t particularly anti-Semitic or racist before becoming members, but they discover these ideas after getting pulled in by acquaintances, friends or recruiters. Fear is the motivating force, she said.
While right-wing extremist groups operate in a culture of violence, members aren’t violent before joining. Blee explained that “in this world you learn that there are people to be feared and that violence is possible. That combination with a sense of urgency in stopping those groups can move people to catastrophic ends.”
Members often come from middle class backgrounds, dispelling the belief that all right-wing extremists are marginalized members of society. Rather, members’ lives are “changed dramatically,” getting tattoos, losing friends and family and becoming the stereotype portrayed in the media.
Blee said that these groups are more fragile and porous than previously believed. People leave for a variety of reasons but often it is because a member’s personal life no longer makes sense in the context of the group or because they have made friends with people targeted by these groups.
While members leave, they often maintain their racist beliefs before deradicalizing, remaining vulnerable to relapse. Interestingly, many people change their minds and deradicalize but stay in the groups, stuck for a variety of reasons.
Understanding these groups can help detect and stop violent white supremacists, according to Blee. She highlighted several strategies used to combat the recruitment of new members, including developments in the world of technology.
Moonshot CVE (Countering Violent Extremism), a Google startup, is one such tool. It works to disrupt and ultimately end violent extremism through Google ads, digital redirection of search engine results and counter messaging campaigns.
Blee concluded her talk by discussing what can be done to combat right-wing extremist groups. She said it was important to be aware of how hate groups recruit new members, such as the use of flyers, music and parties. She stressed the importance of not circulating propaganda on social media left by these groups and recommended supporting the work done by organizations like the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Congregation Dor Hadash President-elect Donna Coufal framed Blee’s lecture in the wake of the Oct. 27 terrorist attack at the Tree of Life synagogue building: “There is a certain irony to having Kathy speak to us today,” she said. “Only a year-and-a-half ago she gave a talk to Dor Hadash members on white supremacists and racist hate groups. We were all fascinated and asked many questions.
“The links to anti-Semitism were disturbing and thought-provoking, but I for one never thought that such a short time later, Dr. Blee would be standing here talking to a much larger group, all of us touched by an act of hatred.”
Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha member Austin Shifrin was pleased to hear Blee’s lecture, saying she was an “excellent speaker and very well versed. I’m glad Dor Hadash was able to present this program.” He concluded by saying that it was “reassuring to have an academic come in with facts.” PJC
Dave Rullo is a local freelance writer.