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‘1933 all over again’: How North Bay Jews are confronting antisemitic hate speech

Shortly after residents of the Old Town neighborhood in Napa woke up to find antisemitic flyers sprinkled around their sidewalks and driveways on Feb. 24, Niles Goldstein began to get calls from people looking to him for guidance.

“One of them said she found a flyer literally on her doorstep. She felt targeted,” said Goldstein, the rabbi at Congregation Beth Shalom, a reform synagogue at the southern edge of the neighborhood. “And whether that’s true or not, she felt very traumatized by it. Mothers of children, fathers of children were very upset.”

None of these households had been directly threatened with harm. But Goldstein knew exactly why his congregants were concerned.

“It’s not a big jump,” the rabbi said. “If this guy is able to move from being a keyboard warrior to mobilizing followers to action in the real world, the next step would be violence.”

“This guy” is Jon Minadeo II, who lives in Petaluma and is the original source of the flyers, though there is no evidence he personally distributed the handbills in Napa or in other Bay Area neighborhoods in recent months.

In an interview with The Press Democrat, Minadeo repeatedly emphasized he does not urge violence. So while his internet videos may be racist, gay-bashing and viciously antisemitic, he said he bears no responsibility for any real-world incidents they might trigger.

Jews living in the North Bay find the argument laughable. That was literally the reaction of Scott Brockman, who moved here in August to take a position as executive director of the Jewish Community Center of Sonoma County. He laughed out loud when presented with Minadeo’s denial of accountability.

“That’s ridiculous,” he said. “If I were to ask him, what’s the purpose then of his rhetoric? And if he would say to me something like, ‘I want people to be aware of what’s going on’? Well, OK, to what end? Words are not used to just spill out words. Words and thoughts and speech are used to move somebody to action. Whether it’s to purchase a product, or to buy into an idea, or to storm the Capitol.”

In this case, Brockman argued, the inevitable outcome is violence. “Because if you’re teaching hate, that someone is less human than you, less deserving than you, where will that lead? It never leads to anything good.”

Mike Burwen, an 84-year-old retired computer consultant who lives in Petaluma and feels a strong cultural connection to his Judaism, was more succinct in his appraisal of Minadeo’s decompartmentalizing.

“My response is that’s BS,” he said.

Antisemitic hate speech is having a resurgence — not just locally, or even in the United States, but all over the world. And it has corresponded to an uptick in anti-Jewish hate crimes. According to Anti-Defamation League data, 2019 and 2020 were two of the three “busiest” years it has tracked since 1979. The organization is still tabulating data for 2021.

Jewish groups are reluctantly adjusting to this shifting reality.

“We have institutional support from non-Jewish friends and neighbors. We have allies in local government. But we need to be vigilant and strong, and not rely on others to protect us,” Goldstein said.

He noted that particularly after the Tree of Life massacre — where a shooter murdered 11 worshippers and injured six more at a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018 — organizations across the country have been hardening their spaces.

According to Goldstein, tactics have included “situational awareness training, active shooter training. Having armed guards, and in some cases members of synagogues carry (guns) to have an added level of protection.”

Short of those drastic measures, it can be hard to develop a concrete response to hate speech. Local Jewish leaders and even journalists, including those at The Press Democrat, face a similar dilemma. Do you expose the Nazi sympathizer down the street, and risk amplifying his message? Or, do you ignore him, and risk allowing him the opportunity to build his brand in relative anonymity, as Minadeo has?

There is no clear consensus. Brockman said he would prefer to address antisemitism in general, or government leaders who give it cover, rather than relatively small-time purveyors.

Goldstein felt the same way for a long time, he said, but has recalibrated over the past few years. The political ascent of prominent political and media figures eager to capitalize on vilifying a particular religion or ethnic group demands a new strategy, he argued.

“I used to come down on Jewish leaders for being too reactionary,” Goldstein said. “I don’t think that’s the case now. We’ve seen ebbs and flows of this stuff historically. But we’re in a period of flow now. It’s got to be confronted. It’s got to be challenged.”

Burwen also has no patience for Minadeo.

Like many other Jews, he is dismayed to think his ancestors survived pogroms and discrimination in Europe and elsewhere to find a better life for their children in America — and yet in 2022, Jews are once again confronting the same messages of hate that once carried Adolf Hitler to power.

“What can I tell you?” Burwen said. “It’s 1933 all over again.”

You can reach Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Skinny_Post.

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