Russians traveling to S.F. to tackle hate-crime issue

Jews have come to know a thing or two about hate crimes out of necessity.

On Aug. 10, with the help of the San Francisco Police Department, the Jewish community will share that expertise with a visiting delegation from Russia.

For the most part, Russians are "more ready to acknowledge the problem of extremism over anti-Semitism," said Pnina Levermore, executive director of the Bay Area Council for Jewish Rescue and Renewal, one of the sponsoring organizations of the seminar. "The nationalism issue has been a problem for the Russian authorities. It's kosher to talk about interethnic problems generically," and not specifically as anti-Semitic.

Nevertheless, a delegation of 13 Russians, including human- rights activists, Jewish community leaders and law enforcement officials will participate in a week-long exchange here to learn from their American counterparts.

The seminar is the first of two meetings: In September, an American delegation will go to Russia, and it is hoped that the relationships forged will continue.

The idea for the seminar came about when there was a rash of anti-Semitism in the town of Borovichi, in Northwest Russia, several years ago.

A neo-Nazi group, the Russian National Unity Party, had distributed letters, threatening that if the Jewish residents of the town did not leave, "the streets would be awash with Jewish blood," said Levermore.

She, along with Rabbi Doug Kahn, executive director of San Francisco's Jewish Community Relations Council, and Greg Smith, a board member of the Bay Area Council, met with Russian Consul General Yuri Popov to voice their concern about the Jews of Borovichi.

Kahn suggested to Popov that the Russians might benefit from hearing how the Jewish community deals with hate crimes. Popov agreed, and the next time Levermore traveled to Russia, she met with law enforcement officials there.

This is a continuation of those meetings, on a larger scale.

The Central Pacific region of the Anti-Defamation League is also co-sponsoring the seminar. Jonathan Bernstein, the regional director of the ADL, said Levermore had approached him because the ADL could draw upon its existing relationships with law enforcement, and because one of the organization's mandates is anti-hate crime training.

In addition, the ADL opened an office in Moscow about two years ago, so the organization has an interest staked in the region. "It's keeping quite busy, because there's a lot of work to do there," Bernstein said.

The San Francisco Police Department is participating because intercultural exchange is invaluable to police officers, said Prentice E. Sanders, assistant chief of police.

This is not the first time the SFPD is cooperating with another country.

"The world has truly shrunk into a global village," Sanders said, and "crime that happens in one country will very much affect crime and behavior in another country. We can really learn a lot from each other when we talk to one another, not through our governments or state departments, but cop to cop."

Sanders believes that the SFPD has one of the best hate crime units in the country. With Russia's transition to democracy, he said, comes new freedoms, and the Russian police could surely benefit from his department's experience.

Last year, Sanders and a group of police officers traveled to Khabarovsk, Russia, where he saw that many of the problems the Russian police are dealing with are identical to what he and his force encounter here. He has also visited Amsterdam to participate in a similar program.

Leonid Lvov, director of the Harold Light Jewish Center for Human Rights in St. Petersburg, is among the 13 Russian participants, and he selected the other dozen. Funded by the Bay Area Council, the Light center has offices in six cities, and serves as an advocacy group on issues of extremism, hate crimes, intolerance and ethnic conflict, said Levermore.

Thomas Martinez, a former member of the white supremacist group The Order, will be one speaker at the seminar. Martinez eventually helped the FBI infiltrate his former sect, which Bernstein called "one of the most violent hate groups in history," and bring down its leaders. Martinez' told his story in his book, "Brotherhood of Murder," and a movie-based version aired on cable's Showtime last year.

Other sessions will allow law enforcement officials to discuss how they deal with hate crimes, and to sensitize the participants to dealing with the victims of hate crimes.

The participants will also have some time to socialize, and attend an ethnic festival in Napa.

While two translators will help along the proceedings, Bernstein sounded a note of caution.

"I'm sure this first time out, there will be glitches, with the language barrier. We're dealing with two different cultures, and we need to be sensitive about that.

"But I think it will be a powerful program and have a lot of impact," he added.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."