JCA in the news: "The Fight Against Anti-Semitism: Carin Mrotz Breaks Out the Cleaning Supplies" - The Progressive

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The following appeared in The Progressive on December 4, 2017. The original can be found here.


By: Sarah Lahm

The large, red swastika spray-painted onto a Minneapolis garage door in November 2016 was not even drawn correctly.

Half of its loopy, lurid arms bent right; the others, nearly touching, bent left, lacking the ironclad symmetry of the iconic Nazi symbol. Yet it appeared on a garage door on the city’s north side just days after Donald Trump was elected President of the United States. A photo of it was posted on social media. That’s how Carin Mrotz first became aware of it.

“I saw it on Facebook early in the morning,” recalls Mrotz, a longtime north Minneapolis resident who works for Jewish Community Action, a local justice advocacy group. She was headed to a mall in the suburbs to walk a picket line in solidarity with striking retail janitorial workers, and couldn’t do anything about it right away. But as she headed back to Minneapolis, she couldn’t stop thinking about the “giant swastika” and the threatening message it sent.

So she jumped into action. Mrotz bought cleaning supplies from a local shop and headed to the defaced garage with an activist friend, Wintana Melekin, who had called to offer her help. Melekin remembers Mrotz fearlessly striding up to the front door of the house that went with the garage, looking for someone to talk to about the swastika. No one answered her knock; the house was vacant. Still, without waiting for the Minneapolis police to show up, Mrotz and Melekin scrubbed the garage clean.

First, they took pictures, documenting the before and after scene. “Last night someone spray-painted a Swastika on a home in north Minneapolis,” Melekin wrote. She posted the photos on Twitter, declaring that she and Mrotz had since gotten “rid of it.” Melekin added a hashtag: #ResistHate. Quickly, they realized just how hard it is to resist hate on Twitter.

The photos of the clumsily painted swastika became instant fodder for neo-Nazis active on social media, who accused Mrotz and Melekin of painting it themselves.

The photos of the clumsily painted swastika became instant fodder for neo-Nazis active on social media, who accused Mrotz and Melekin of painting it themselves. Far-right provocateur Gavin McInnes, a prominent Fox News talking head and co-founder of Vice magazine with a track record of spewing hate and downplaying the Holocaust, weighed in on Twitter a few days after the incident. Linking to Melekin’s before and after tweet, McInnes alerted his hundreds of thousands of followers to the incident. “Fuck up your hate crime hoax?” McInnes prodded. “No problem! Make fixing it part of the hoax!”

McInnes’s accusation was retweeted more than one thousand times and became a jumping off point for alt-right trolls. Some tagged the Minneapolis police on Twitter, asking, with a bully’s fake sincerity, “please investigate this hate crime!” For days afterward, Mrotz’s phone pinged at all hours, notifying her that another anti-Semitic message of hate—including an image of her face “Photoshopped into a gas chamber”—had been directed at her.

Though a lifelong activist, Mrotz was temporarily undone by this viciousness. She became fearful of everyone she saw. Standing at Target with her two young children one day while receiving violent Twitter notifications, Mrotz had a sudden feeling that anyone could be sending her these messages. The guy near her, pushing his cart while on his phone? He could be tweeting at her anonymously, telling her she should die. “These are actual people, with families and lives,” she says, months later. “They’re not walking through Target with jackboots on.”

Shortly after the firestorm hit, Mrotz received a phone call from her employer, St. Paul-based Jewish Community Action. She’d been interviewing for the group’s executive director position—one that would surely put her in the spotlight even more. She got the job.

Mrotz says she hesitated, wondering if this was the safest moment to go public, in a position of Jewish leadership. Her husband worried about her stress level. It was a legitimate concern.

In the ten days immediately following Trump’s election, the Southern Poverty Law Center documented nearly “900 reports of harassment and intimidation from across the nation”—not including online harassment. These incidents were not just anti-Semitic, but included students chanting “build a wall” in the direction of fellow classmates and overt sexual harassment directed at women. The Anti-Defamation League, which focuses primarily on anti-Semitic actions, announced a 34 percent one-year increasein such activities—including bomb threats and online bullying—in 2016.

In the ten days immediately following Trump’s election, the Southern Poverty Law Center documented nearly 900 reports of harassment and intimidation from across the nation—not including online harassment. These numbers continue to rise.

These numbers continued to rise in 2017, according to the group, with an 86 percent increase in incidents of hate reported in the first three months of this year alone. And journalists are being targeted by neo-Nazis on Twitter.

This spike in public anti-Semitic behavior has been linked to Trump’s campaign and presidency, as Trump has been notoriously slow to condemn hate groups and their ramped up rhetoric and action.

The President’s reluctance hit a new low in August 2017, in the wake of the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that left one woman dead. Even though the groups that rallied held torches and promised, through chants, that “Jews will not replace us,” Trump struggled to even tepidly denounce their actions before proclaiming that the group included some “very fine people.”

This is the atmosphere Carin Mrotz now finds herself working in as the new executive director of Jewish Community Action. The group is part of the national Jewish Social Justice Roundtable, a network of over fifty organizations that organize and act on behalf of racial and economic justice rooted in Jewish principles. Abby Levine, the group’s director, says most members are committed to openly “combating anti-Semitism in the age of Trump.”

Each of the fifty-seven groups Levine oversees is unique, she insists, yet united around a “universalist perspective.” This includes promoting the Jewish values of “loving the stranger and seeing the image of God in everything,” while doing local work that goes beyond advocating on behalf of Jewish people.

With the recent rise in anti-Semitism, Levine says, the social justice groups she works with are now wrestling with this issue in a new, broader context. The fight now is about “racism and white supremacy,” as well as pushing back against the resurgence of virulent anti-Semitism. When a rash of incidents happened in early 2017, for example, Jewish Community Action organized a rally in St. Paul and invited people from various faith and social justice groups to stand together–united against hate in all forms.

The fight now is about racism and white supremacy, as well as pushing back against the resurgence of virulent anti-Semitism.

Following her clash with neo-Nazis on Twitter, Mrotz says she grew thicker skin. She became stronger and is now “so much less triggered” by the hateful, anti-Semitic tweets that often go unchecked on Twitter. After she was targeted by people like McInnes, Mrotz learned to block them—thanks to international activists with a low tolerance for anti-Semitism.

One example: In August 2017, Israeli-German artist Shahak Shapira got so fed up with Twitter’s refusal to handle neo-Nazis and their tweets that he splashed their words—including calls for Germany to do to Muslims what they did to Jews—all over Twitter’s German headquarters.

On a Tuesday afternoon in September, Mrotz—a spry figure whose unwavering blue eyes stand out beneath a cascade of black curls—was holding court at a Jewish Community Action staff meeting. Under fluorescent lights, the small huddle of staffers dipped pita bread in hummus and unwrapped deli sandwiches as Mrotz asked for their thoughts on an article they were supposed to have read before the meeting, a 2017 piece by racial justice organizer Eric K. Ward, “Skin in the Game.”

Ward, a West Coast activist, was once part of the L.A. punk scene and played in the band that later became Sublime. In the 1990s, he went undercover among what he calls the “extensive rightwing counterculture.” In this counterculture, Ward found that “white nationalism is a constant, explosive presence.” Although he is black, Ward says he was invited to “start building broad coalitions” against an unnamed but obvious common enemy: Jews.

With painful, unflinching insistence, Ward makes the case that anti-Semitism is the “throughline” stitching together today’s loosely organized white nationalist groups. Hatred for Jews reasserted itself in the post-civil rights era, Ward argues, when white supremacists suddenly had to deal with the advances people of color were making.

The Voting Rights Act? The end of segregated schools and drinking fountains? The election of a black President? Surely someone, somewhere, must be “manipulating the social order behind the scenes,” Ward writes, invoking white nationalist ideology.

Jews, in this scenario, are the “arch-nemesis of the white race”—as they’ve been portrayed throughout history. But coming to grips with this resurgence puts social justice-minded Jewish leaders, like Mrotz and her employees, in an uncomfortable spot. Are they white or not? White nationalists say no, but many other people—including the progressive groups Mrotz and others have worked with—consider Jews the pinnacle of white privilege in today’s society.

At the lunchtime Jewish Community Action meeting, one young staffer—with short hair dyed bright green—recalled attending an “explicitly radical” workshop a couple of years ago. Someone unabashedly told the audience, “We all know that Jews run the media.” Mrotz and other employees also discussed the difficulty of navigating incidents such as the September 2017 March for Black Women, which coincided with the March for Racial Justice. This event, supported by groups such as the National Organization for Women, is typically something Jewish social justice groups would support—except that it was scheduled to take place on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year in Judaism.

It’s clear that being Jewish and being an ally against racial injustice requires a delicate balancing act. On the one hand, both Mrotz and Levine say, anti-Semitism is resurfacing in a newly brazen way, forcing many Jews to reckon with an ugly trope many hoped was buried. On the other hand, many Jews—Jews of color, people who convert to Judaism, working-class Jews—are left out of the predominant narrative of what it means to be Jewish. “We have to do the work within” the Jewish community, Mrotz insists, in order for Jews to more fruitfully participate in racial justice movements.

Mrotz’s approach to resisting racism and anti-Semitism centers on what she calls the “radical action” of “reconnecting people to government.” Ten thousand people may go to a march, but what happens when they get home? Mrotz’s group, Jewish Community Action, tries to keep that momentum going by advocating locally for such things as affordable housing, police reform, and climate justice. “Local work gives people a chance to work together, in their own backyard, and feeds up into national movements,” Mrotz insists.

Levine, of the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable, agrees. “People like Carin are on the frontlines, doing Jewish social justice work,” she says, busily fighting against anti-Semitism, racism, and white supremacy. Sometimes, this work calls for a bucket of cleaner and a sponge. 

Sarah Lahm is a Minneapolis-based writer whose work has appeared in The Progressive and other local and national publications.

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