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Virginia Tech religion, extremism experts able to comment on spike in anti-Semitic incidents, hate group activity

March 9, 2017

Three Virginia Tech experts are available for interview to discuss the recent rise in threats against Jewish centers across North America, including their historical and societal context.

Brian Britt
Britt is a professor in and chair of the Department of Religion and Culture in Virginia Tech’s College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences.

Quoting Britt
"One concept I think the public does not fully understand is the idea of the 'dog whistle,' a term used to describe statements and actions that may appear harmless but actually signal coded support for extremist views. Not mentioning Jews in public statements about the Holocaust has been interpreted as a 'dog whistle' to anti-Semitic groups."

"Anti-Semitism has unfortunately become a perennial part of Western history and thus a frequent tool of demagogues. It has become a kind of irrational hatred one can summon and activate in many situations that have nothing to do with Jewish people."

James Hawdon
Hawdon is professor of sociology and director of the Virginia Tech Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention.

Quoting Hawdon
"Some have argued that President Trump’s election emboldened white supremacists and others on the far or alt-right, many of whom hold anti-Semitic views. While it cannot be stated with certainty that President Trump’s campaign and election caused this, there has clearly been an increase in incidents targeting Jews since the election. Similarly, data my colleagues and I collected as part of a National Institute of Justice grant indicate that more American youth are seeing hateful and degrading messages of various types while online."

Samuel Kessler
Kessler is a postdoctoral fellow in Judaic studies in the Department of Religion and Culture, and coordinator of Virginia Tech’s Jewish studies minor.

Quoting Kessler
"Why attack cemeteries? Why Jewish community centers? Because those are 'religious' places — places of sacred meaning, of expressing moral and ethical difference, of cultural difference, rather than difference based on race or ethnicity. For the most part, one can no longer tell who a Jew is on the street. But one knows a Jewish space without much difficulty. It is the literal presence of those places in America, on American soil, that is under attack. A gravestone or a child’s playground is only a danger because it represents an idea. Anti-Semitism is about the living people."

"It is so important to note that what begins with the Jews will not end with them. Violence begets violence. Because anti-Semitism is not about the real life of real Jews, it is a channel — and not an endpoint — for underlying currents of illiberalism and disrespect for human life. Theological and philosophical differences with how Judaism understands the world are what make intellectual life exciting; disrespect for the sanctity of life itself, be it of children in a classroom or of the markers of their deceased forbearers, is a moral cancer that eventually destroys a society from within."

Background
At least 140 bomb threats have been directed at Jewish institutions across the country and Canada since January, according to the Anti-Defamation League. Several Jewish cemeteries have also been vandalized. The repeated waves of incidents prompted all 100 U.S. senators to recently send a letter to top law enforcement officials in the Trump administration calling for a response and federal action.

Request an interview
To secure an interview with Britt, Kessler, or Hawdon, contact Jordan Fifer by email at jordanfifer@vt.edu or 540-231-6997.

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