Jews wary of militia groups, but no imminent danger seen

WASHINGTON, D.C. — One year after the Oklahoma City bombing blew the lid off the paramilitary movement and its anti-Semitic undercurrents, American Jews still eye the militias with trepidation.

But as Jewish defense organizations work to monitor and expose the armed white dissidents who make up the militias, Jews living in the movement's back yard say they feel no imminent threat to their security.

"I'm not very concerned about the militia movement at the present time, but that's probably what they want us to think," said Al Lerner, a Jewish attorney who lives in Kalispell, Mont.

To date, there have been no reports of attacks perpetrated by militia groups against Jews. Nor is there evidence to suggest that Jews are living in explicit fear of these groups.

"These groups by and large do not target Jews or blacks as their prime organizing principle," said Kenneth Stern of the American Jewish Committee, a specialist on anti-Semitism and extremism.

The movement, however, revolves around a virulently anti-government ideology that borrows from age-old anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.

"The basic political premise of the militias is that found in the `Protocols of the Elders of Zion,' but recast by most as anti-governmentalism instead of anti-Semitism," Stern said, referring to the notorious anti-Semitic tract.

Still, with people in the leadership and ranks of militia groups who have long-standing ties to the racist movement, experts warn of the potential for violence against Jews.

An estimated 800 militia and militia-support groups are active in at least 40 states, with between 10,000 and 40,000 members. Not all subscribe to extremism.

Only one-quarter of the groups have racist ties, says the Simon Wiesenthal Center of Los Angeles.

The movement's main breeding ground stretches from eastern Washington state across the Idaho panhandle into Montana — an area of the country where fewer than 1,500 Jews account for less than 1 percent of the population.

Jews living in the region say that while they remain wary of the militias' conspiratorial ideology, they have never been targeted.

"I'm very concerned, but not for those of us living here," said Billings resident Brian Schnitzer, president of the Montana Association of Jewish Communities.

"I'm very concerned about those living in larger communities. It's much more likely that a spokesperson for a major Jewish organization would be a target than someone in Montana."

Still, most observers remain less concerned about the threat to Jews than they are about the threat to federal officials, who have been shunned in some communities and have even been refused service in stores and threatened.

"If I were living next door to a militia and if I had to choose who to be, I'd much rather be a Jew than a federal official," said Stern, author of a new book about the militia movement titled "A Force Upon the Plain."

"On the other hand, I'd prefer to be an Episcopalian."

Anti-Semitism is not a driving force in the movement, but with the militias viewing the world through a prism of conspiracy, many observers see inherent danger.

"Whenever you're dealing with an environment of obsessive conspiracy, we've found that it ultimately finds its way to focus on Jews," said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.

Similar concerns prompted Dan Yurman of Idaho Falls to begin monitoring militia activities in Idaho in 1994.

As director of community relations for Temple Emanuel in Pocatello, Yurman set out to determine what kind of threat these groups posed to the 150 Jewish families living there.

"When it became clear that the Aryan Nation and other neo-Nazi groups and known extremists were involved" in the militia movement, "we began to pay attention," Yurman said.

After monitoring the groups' literature, media accounts and the Internet for two years without encountering any reports of anti-Semitic incidents, "At this time I would have to say that they do not constitute a threat," Yurman said. "But that could change."

Schnitzer said that while there is "no question" the militia groups are anti-Semitic, their bigotry does not necessarily fly in the face of Montana residents.

"Their world-view, their historical view is that Jews are a seed of Satan," he said. But when they come to gun shows, "they talk about government bureaucracy and taxes and the difficulty of making a living as a farmer and as a rancher."

The militias have attempted to mainstream their message by tapping the vein of widespread discontent with government.

They have shied away from traditional hate activities and organized through issues that dovetail with mainstream concerns, finding supporters who oppose gun control, hunting laws, restrictions on land use and high taxes.

"The white hoods, the swastika — it doesn't really cut it for America," said Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

"It doesn't speak to the anger that's out there. But the trappings of patriotism — its virulent anti-government message, the notion of empowerment — does."