In Idaho, extremist experts say antisemitic groups are 'emboldened'

There has been a recent spike in antisemitic crimes in Boise, Idaho. Here's what's got local leaders concerned and what they think can be done to combat it.

Boise, ID, United States; A general view of downtown Boise, Idaho prior to the start of the 2018 Idaho Potato Bowl between BYU and Western Michigan, Dec 21, 2018. (photo credit: BRIAN LOSNESS/USA TODAY SPORTS)
Boise, ID, United States; A general view of downtown Boise, Idaho prior to the start of the 2018 Idaho Potato Bowl between BYU and Western Michigan, Dec 21, 2018.

Weeks after a spree of antisemitic crimes in Boise, Idaho, officials say they’re still looking for the culprits while community members consider a task force to address the ongoing issues.

In November and December, Boise police reported two incidences of antisemitic graffiti, as well as antisemitic flyers spread through one neighborhood. No arrests have been made in connection with any of the incidents.

Boise Police Department Chief Ryan Lee told the Idaho Statesman he can’t speak to the progress in the investigation and whether these incidents may have been linked to one another or to similar incidents in other parts of the country.

“If we talk too much about any leads that we have in these cases, it can be counterproductive at this time,” he said.

But Lee said the department takes the crimes very seriously, assigning them to a hate crimes detective on the level of a homicide or violent assault. Lee said he believes the actions are the result of a small number of people. Still, with similar flyers being distributed in California, North Carolina and Maryland, Lee said police are considering the possibility that the crimes could be tied to larger networks.

 A piece of artwork is seen through the window of a gallery as the sun rises in Boise, Idaho, U.S., October 26, 2021.  (credit: REUTERS/SHANNON STAPLETON) A piece of artwork is seen through the window of a gallery as the sun rises in Boise, Idaho, U.S., October 26, 2021. (credit: REUTERS/SHANNON STAPLETON)

“It’s a challenge to figure out: Is this something that’s coordinated to something larger?” Lee said. “In the issue of the leafleting ... I know that there were other communities throughout the United States that essentially received the same leaflets around the same time.”

Boise rabbi: Spike in antisemitic acts is ‘concerning’

Boise Rabbi Dan Fink, of the Congregation Ahavath Beth Israel, said this series of crimes is part of a rising number of antisemitic actions across the U.S. and, while he feels the Jewish community in Boise largely feels safe, he said the trend is troubling.

Idaho State Police’s annual hate crimes report showed four anti-Jewish hate crimes were reported in the state in 2020, the most recent data available. That’s the highest number of antisemitic crimes reported since 2004 and 2005, which each also saw four anti-Jewish crimes.

“This is a bigger cluster of events than we’ve dealt with in the past,” Fink said. “Part of what’s concerning is that this is a cluster of events in a relatively short period of time, and what we’re seeing in Boise sadly isn’t unusual. The antisemitism is up across the country, and there have been alarming numbers of antisemitic incidents.”

Since the rash of incidents in Boise, Fink, who has lived in Boise for 28 years, said police efforts have been “fantastic,” with the department posting officers at the synagogue for added security.

Fink commended Lee and Boise Mayor Lauren McLean for doing a walkthrough in the North End neighborhood where the pamphlets, packaged with plastic pellet gun ammo, were distributed last month.

“The reality of the matter is, if that was your neighbor next door, you’d be worried about your friend,” Lee said. “It was important for the community to know that we took it seriously, that we were sorry that they had to go through an event like that.”

Fink said the city has also reached out to potentially convene a task force against antisemitism. Justin Corr, the spokesperson for McLean’s office, said the city is still determining the next steps.

“(The purpose is to) show support and make it clear this is not acceptable in this city,” Fink said. “Our values are for inclusion and welcoming. What that looks like, we’ll have to see after we meet.”

Dan Prinzing, executive director of the Wassmuth Center for Human Rights, said he was also asked to join McLean in a coalition of community leaders to combat hateful acts.

He said he’d like to see police and other authorities, where the law permits, prosecuting potential suspects for hate crimes. Prinzing said an act of vandalism on the memorial in 2017 was declared a hate crime, while the defacement that occurred in December 2020 was not.

Idaho leaders silent on hate, Prinzing says

Prinzing said he thinks hateful acts have been emboldened by state leaders who have “stood with,” “contributed to” or even “coddled extremism.”

He pointed to Idaho Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin, who has posed for photos with anti-government extremists. Though he said McGeachin’s alignment is not specifically with antisemites, he said her association with fringe beliefs encourages many types of extreme views.

Prinzing added that when a compound for the Aryan Nations, a white supremacist group, was headquartered in Idaho during the late 20th century, state and community leaders went on the record and condemned it.

From state leaders today, “I think what we’re getting is just plain silence,” he said. In September, a sign outside St. Luke’s in McCall was defaced with a swastika.

“Where was the condemnation from state leadership?” Prinzing said. “Where were the statements there? Where was the action taken?”

He added, “We already fight a stain in the state’s reputation (from the Aryan Nations compound), and at what point are we going to refram the Idaho narrative?”

How can Boise combat antisemitism?

Prinzing said he believes people who espouse hateful rhetoric have been emboldened in Idaho, and that a vigorous community response is required.

“Hate speech, antisemitism, has been emboldened,” he said. “We cannot allow (it) to become a defining characteristic of our community.”

Lee said he thinks part of the role of police in the community is assuaging the fear of being the targets of crime. He said the Boise Police Department is taking steps to train its officers in human rights and civil rights and looks for an understanding of those principles in new hires.

Lee also said as a leader in Boise, he makes it a point to speak out when targeted crimes like this occur. He called on Boise residents to do the same.

“It’s a matter of us strongly stating what are the values of the community and coming forward,” Lee said. “Whether that’s our elected officials as leaders, whether that’s officials like myself or the fire chief coming out and making strong statements: These are not the values of our city. But it really needs to be the community (speaking up) as well.”

Fink said over the years he’s received messages of support from Boise residents when the Jewish community is targeted.

“I’ve gotten lots of kind, thoughtful messages, phone calls and letters in the wake (of these events),” Fink said. “They’re reassuring, they let us know that the community has our back. And I really do believe the vast majority of the community does have our back.”

Fink said that’s why he speaks up and reaches out when other minorities in Boise have been targets of hate, including Black and Muslim communities.

“We all benefit if we all stand together and speak out against it,” Fink said. “If it’s only Jews speaking out against antisemitism, it means a lot less than if other parts of our community are speaking out.”