It’s a Thursday morning at Har Shalom and the children are gathered for play. But the synagogue’s spiritual leader has taken to the library, where she’s thinking of ways to counter the emergence of Nazi-inspired literature in Missoula.
Over the past few months, hate-filled leaflets with Nazi propaganda have appeared at area homes. While the drops have been sparse and seemingly random, they are nonetheless troubling in a community that prides itself on tolerance.
“I don’t want to be subject to people with a distorted point of view thinking they can control my life,” said Laurie Franklin, the spiritual leader and a student rabbi at Har Shalom. “I’ve been spending a lot of time on this issue when I’d rather be studying the Torah, feeding people and housing people.”
Over the past few months, the leaflets began appearing in some neighborhoods around Missoula. Several members of Har Shalom have received them at their homes. The fliers are crudely printed and draw their material from the “Protocols of The Elders of Zion,” an antisemitic and fabricated text that outlines a Jewish plan for global domination.
“The Jews’ purpose is to destroy us and our families from the inside out, slowly and gradually perverting us with their own special kind of poison,” Franklin says, reading from one of the recent leaflets. “You can help stop them.”
One of the fliers asks for a $5 donation in exchange for an American Nazi Party “info pack.” The mailing address includes a post office box in Westland, Michigan, but fails to include the name of any individual.
It’s easy to hide behind propaganda, Franklin said.
“Leafleting is relatively benign, but it creates a climate of intimidation and a climate of fear,” Franklin said. “Even if it’s a single person operating alone, it still has a negative effect. This has no place in a free society.”
Rachel Carroll Rivas, co-director of the Montana Human Rights Network in Helena, said hate activity has risen across the state over the past year, though it reached a crescendo six weeks ago.
The materials have included leaflets, harassment of certain minorities, and Nazi-inspired graffiti, including swastikas and references to “88.” Rivas said the latter is code for the eighth letter of the alphabet, or H, and references the phrase “Heil Hitler.”
“Right after the election in Bozeman, there were swastikas and graffiti that were written in German, referencing Nazism and supporting it,” said Rivas. “There was a swastika spray painted on the Rimrocks in Billings. We’ve seen some specific references to cases saying people will be deported. That’s just in relation to the color of their skin.”
While the messaging isn’t new, it has reached new heights and it has community members concerned. Missoula has been subject to leafleting from time to time over the years, though Rivas said the more recent cases are different.
So is the fact that it has continued with some consistency.
“In the past, when we had white supremacist leafleting in Missoula, it stood alone as a case of extremism,” Rivas said. “The leafleting from the American Nazi Party has been concentrated specifically in Missoula. There has been white supremacist leafleting in the Flathead too, but it’s not specific to the American Nazi Party. We’re not sure if we’re talking about a group in Missoula, but in the Flathead, it’s one person.”
Rivas said the perpetrators in Missoula remain unknown, though the individual in the Flathead has been identified. Rivas said the Montana Human Rights Network is working with local law enforcement there, though it’s still looking at the cases in Missoula and asking the police to track the fliers’ distribution.
“We could be talking about someone who has a relationship with the American Nazi Party, or someone who’s using their website to get the materials and doesn’t necessarily have a strong organizational affiliation with them,” said Rivas. “It doesn’t matter either way in terms of the impact. Leafleting is a tool for intimidation and perpetrating hate that makes people afraid.”
The Montana Human Rights Network, along with local spiritual leaders and members of the local media, has questioned whether reporting such instances serves to inspire the perpetrators. But Rivas, like Franklin, believes it’s best to call them out for what they are, and work to generate a community response.
Staying silent, they believe, would serve to condone hate.
“By calling it out, we’re saying it’s harmful to people and hurtful, and it makes our communities not function in an inclusive way where everyone can participate,” said Rivas. “It’s not giving them a microphone. It’s exposing what they’re doing as damaging and problematic. There’s definitely a reason the Ku Klux Klan wore a hood. It’s important we call them out and expose them.”
The recent incidents follow the anti-refugee rhetoric that gained momentum as President-elect Donald Trump made his run for the White House. Anonymous letters were sent to local government leaders, including one that urged local citizens to “lock your daughters up when the refugees are brought to Missoula.”
The anonymity of the perpetrators behind such letters and leaflet drops has made it impossible for local community and spiritual leaders to engage the individuals in direct dialogue. Instead, the Montana Human Rights Network has launched a new portal on its website, asking individuals to report any cases of leafleting or hate-inspired activity.
Har Shalom is also working toward community solutions, from standing in solidarity with other faith groups to programs to help members of their congregation respond to incidents of bias as it happens.
“There are some people who are never going to agree with you, and don’t have any kind of dialogue,” said Franklin. “Even if you’re talking with each other, you’re debating, and you’re not really exchanging anything. But there are some people who are willing to think about their ideas differently, and there’s a lot of conversation to be had.”
This article originally appeared on Missoula Current, an independent online newspaper, of which Martin Kidston is the founding editor.