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Shawn Vestal: The synagogue vandal grows from an entire ecosystem of hatred

Shawn Vestal  (DAN PELLE)
Shawn Vestal (DAN PELLE)

People say it was shocking that a racist vandal spray-painted swastikas and defaced the Holocaust memorial at Temple Beth Shalom this week.

If only it were more shocking.

People say Spokane simply will not tolerate such hateful acts.

Just as they did after the last such hateful act.

People say there is no place for hate in this community, that this is not who we are.

But the sad, sorry truth – established over many years – is that there is a place for hate in this community. It is, we hope, a tiny place. A cramped, dark, mouse-infested corner of the community that almost all of us reject, but which also receives regular booster shots straight from the political mainstream these days.

So events like this week’s vandalism remain an ugly but undeniable part of “who we are” – not most of us, not the best of us, but a small, ugly sliver against whom the battle must be sustained and constant.

We see it too much to pretend otherwise.

This wasn’t the first time in recent years that someone has painted swastikas on walls of Temple Beth Shalom. It happened in 2014, too, while worshippers were inside for Yom Kippur services marking one of the faith’s holiest days.

Rabbi Tamar Malino was brand-new in her position at Temple Beth Shalom then, and said that members of the congregation, naturally, found the vandalism troubling and frightening. After all, “there’s no question the swastika is a death-threat symbol for Jews,” she said.

What they eventually learned was that the vandal was a teenager whose motives were as misguided as much as they were malicious; she and members of the synagogue went through a restorative-justice process with the boy, which was a somewhat hopeful way of resolving the case.

That was still a hate crime, but Malino saw this week’s vandalism as more aggressive and threatening – a greater degree of hatefulness and threat. The swastikas were bigger and bolder, and the Holocaust memorial was defaced, as well. The damage was discovered Monday morning; there is security camera footage of the vandal, and Malino is hopeful he will be caught.

Malino noticed several differences between this incident and the last one. This one received more attention from police, the press and community leaders – more news coverage and more prominent denunciations from local officials and from some clergy members. It’s been heartening for members of the congregation to hear such support, she said.

It makes it easier to feel that “there might be one horrible hater out there, or more than one horrible hater, but there are also a lot of wonderful … good-hearted people who we know support us.”

The cloud that goes with that silver lining, though, is the fact that bigotry and hatefulness have been mainstreamed and nourished in the past five years in ways that would have been hard to imagine before that.

The timeliest example of that might be the fact that there is an impeachment trial underway, connected to a riot at the U.S. Capitol conducted by people who believed in election conspiracies that were – explicitly or implicitly – based on the idea of a global Jewish conspiracy to undermine America.

“There is no question the current political climate has emboldened this kind of bigotry,” Malino said. “It’s no longer under wraps and it’s frightening.”

The hate crimes at the synagogue are not isolated examples. In 2015, on the Fourth of July, while Muslims were offering Ramadan prayers inside the Bosnia and Herzegovina Heritage Association of Spokane building in the Spokane Valley, someone spray-painted “Death to Islam” on the outside wall.

The following year, the Sikh temple in the Spokane Valley was vandalized by a man who believed it was a headquarters for ISIS. In November 2016, a racial slur was painted on the side of a building facing the playground at the Martin Luther King Jr. day care center.

In 2017, vandals broke into the Salish School and scrawled racial slurs on the wall. The same year, people vandalized the Community Building, which includes a preschool, with anti-Semitic rhetoric including: “Hitler Did Nothing Wrong” and “Juden Raus,” a reference to a Nazi game for children in which the object was to remove the Jewish characters from the board.

Last year, the George Floyd memorial and Black Lives Matter murals were vandalized downtown.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. As awful as this week’s swastikas at the temple were, we cannot treat them as new, or shocking or unprecedented.

They are precedented.

The vandalism doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It has roots and context. It comes from a tradition that has a history here, and it exists on a spectrum – and the people pushing milder, less explicit, more coded forms of the message help to nourish and sustain it. Not all of these folks are goose-stepping around in Nazi regalia, but they nonetheless help to inspire fear and hatred of Jews, Muslims and people of color on a regular basis.

It is common, for example, in far-right circles in this area for people to make insidious claims about Spokane’s Muslim center or to make wild assertions about people protesting racism and police violence. It is common to hear voices in the Stop the Steal movement tout ideas based on anti-Semitic tropes.

There is local and national political context for these acts – the roots and tendrils in an ecosystem of hatred. We can’t wish it away, and the strongest denunciations likely don’t do much to dig up the deepest roots.

This is not to argue that we should not denounce hate crimes. Of course we should. It is not to argue that our leaders shouldn’t loudly assert community values of tolerance and acceptance. They should, obviously. And it is not to claim that it’s easy or clear how to root out racism. It isn’t. Not remotely.

But we cannot pretend this cancer is some exterior ailment that does not reflect upon who we are as a community. We cannot kid ourselves that what happened at the synagogue is an alien malady that it not really “us.”

It’s real, it’s here, it’s a part of us. That’s what makes it so bad.

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