Defying the New Nazis
I bought an Israeli flag last week.
It is a thing of beauty — a white field with two horizontal blue stripes at top and bottom and a Star of David in the middle.
I will fly it on April 14 and 15 from the flagpole where — because I consider myself a patriot — I fly the American flag on national holidays. That same pole flies the rainbow flag during pride month and my University of Oregon Ducks flag during football season.
I had been thinking about adding the Israeli national flag to the rotation for some time.
Then, last week, a person or persons still unknown spray-painted Swastikas on the outside walls of Temple Beth Shalom and defaced the synagogue’s Holocaust memorial. Temple Beth Shalom is not far from my South Hill home.
In the days following the vandalism there was considerable teeth gnashing in Spokane, the usual “this is not us,” or “hopes and prayers,” and so on. But I doubt there is a Jew in our community who was surprised by the vandalism – or found much comfort in the expressions of sympathy and concern. Sympathy for the victims of hate crimes is no longer sufficient. Prayers are no longer sufficient.
As I wrote here in October, anti-Semitism is always bubbling under the surface in this country and in recent years it has bubbled back to the top. If it is not QAnon Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene suggesting Jews are building fire-starting space lasers, it is the Proud Boys selling T-shirts, sweatshirts, and ball caps on Amazon with the slogan “6MWNE,” meaning six million Jews sent to the ovens was not enough.
In October, I wrote of my brushes as a youngster with violent anti-Semitism and my flirtation as a college student with possible emigration to Israel. But even then, it was still easy to think of anti-Semitism as a problem from our past or something to be worried about primarily in the Middle East.
That changed for me in 1976. I had been working as a reporter for The Register-Guard in Eugene, Oregon, but based in the paper’s Cottage Grove bureau 35 miles to the south. Taking a one-year leave for graduate school in Ohio, my wife and I held a garage sale to pare our household belongings down to a U-Haul trailer’s capacity. Among the sale items were lots of books, nearly all our old college texts, 50 cents each.
I was supervising the tables when an older man came by to look over the books. We exchanged pleasantries for a few minutes before he asked where he might find my Jewish books. The United States was threatened by international Jewry, he said. Jews had led us into a misguided war against Germany and were responsible for Communist infiltration of our government. Americans would not be safe, he said, until Jews were purged from the country. He wondered if I had any books on the subject.
I was stunned. Scared, too. Physical violence on the playground or in the neighborhood perpetrated by other kids was one thing. But here was a well-dressed older man, an educated man, suggesting Jews should be purged from the United States. Every Jew knows what that means.
In the moment, I did not tell him he was speaking to a nice Jewish boy from Portland. I told him the garage sale was over, that I needed to leave. I asked him to go.
And I have regretted that action ever since. Why did I not look him in the eye and confront his virulent anti-Semitism directly? Fear of confrontation? Fear I would be marked in that small lumber town? Fear I was not strong enough, confident enough to take him on? I still do not have the answer to that question though I have thought about it often, especially in recent years.
I do know that afterwards I told myself I would never stay silent again. Now, when I see anti-Semitism or racism or homophobia, I call it out. And I do not hide.
So, when some neo-Nazi or Nazis vandalized the synagogue last week, I bought my Israeli flag. I will fly it on April 14 and 15 to mark Israeli independence. It is a big flag and that centered Star of David is going to be visible from a block away.
I hope the local Nazi wannabes see it, see that there are Jews among them and that we are not afraid.
They can come for me if they want. They can bring their spray paint and burn a cross. In the impenetrable dark of night, where neo-Nazis are most at home, they can bring their hate. Come and get me boys. I will not be hiding.
Steven A. Smith is clinical associate professor emeritus in the School of Journalism and Mass Media at the University of Idaho having retired from full time teaching at the end of May 2020.
Smith is former editor of The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington. As editor, Smith supervised all news and editorial operations on all platforms with a staff ranging from more than 140 in 2002 to 104 at the time of his resignation in October 2008. Prior to joining The Spokesman-Review, Smith was editor for two years at The Statesman Journal, a Gannett newspaper in Salem, Oregon, and was for five years editor and vice president of The Gazette, a Freedom Communications newspaper in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Newspaper Management Center Advanced Executive Program and a mid-career development program at Duke University. He holds an MA in communication from The Ohio State University where he was a Kiplinger Fellow, and a BS in journalism from the University of Oregon.
Smith serves on the SpokaneFāVS Board.