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Stockton conference highlights resilience in face of violence against religious people

Stockton conference highlights resilience in face of violence against religious people

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ATLANTIC CITY — Rabbi Francine Roston moved from New Jersey to Whitefish, Montana, in 2014.

A few years later, an argument between a Jewish Realtor there and the mother of Richard Spencer — a white nationalist leader and a Whitefish resident — prompted Andrew Anglin, publisher of the white supremacist forum Daily Stormer, to direct threats and hate toward the area’s minuscule Jewish population.

Even with the worst of the online harassment behind them, armed security now accompanies Jewish community events in the area, Roston said.

“Our lives will never be the same,” Roston said. “We live with the effects of trauma and fear every day.”

Roston was Tuesday’s keynote speaker at a conference bringing together leaders of many faiths in the Fannie Lou Hamer event room at Stockton University’s Atlantic City campus. The two-day event, which continues Wednesday, is focused on resilience amid a sharp rise in violence aimed at members of religious groups in recent years.

The conference, titled “Building Resilience in the New Threat Paradigm: Targeted Violence Against People of Faith,” also features talks from law-enforcement, state and federal officials.

In 2013, 17.4% of 5,922 “single-bias” hate crimes in the United States had a religious motivation, FBI statistics show. In 2017, 22% of 7,106 “single-bias” hate crimes had a religious motivation. Shootings at a synagogue in Pittsburgh in October and a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, in March and a bombing at a Catholic church in Sri Lanka on Easter drove home the reality of radicalization.

“Four years ago, we would not have drawn a crowd like this. ... We have people from Europe, from the United States,” said John Farmer, professor of law and executive director of the Miller Center for Community Protection and Resilience at Rutgers University. “When we started this work, there was just this dawning recognition there was a problem. And what we’ve seen ... unfortunately flourish in those four years is this spread of these hateful ideologies of all different kinds of extremism, and the willingness of people to act on them.”

The increase in violence and hateful threats like the ones levied at Roston means law enforcement must be proactive, looking for signs of budding bigotry and potential powder kegs of online hate. As Roston noted, some Whitefish locals took part in the harassment, but the majority of the calls and messages they received were from around the country.

“When people say, ‘What keeps you up at night?’ It’s those homegrown, violent extremists, it’s terrorists,” said Col. Patrick Callahan, superintendent of the New Jersey State Police. “Our partnerships, both here and abroad, are key to making sure we all get a good night’s rest.”

Underscoring the day’s topic, Stockton police Sgt. Tracy Stuart and her explosive-sniffing partner, Hemi, a chocolate Labrador, walked the perimeter of the school building during Tuesday’s keynote.

Inside, attendees listened intently to talks on prevention and resilience in the face of hate. The sharp uptick in “religious tension and in sectarian violence” infects everything, said Michelle McDonald, chief officer for academic programming and associate vice president of academic affairs at Stockton.

“This aftermath has shaped all aspects of our lives: where we live, how we travel, what events we choose to attend, what schools we choose to enroll in, and most importantly for this conference, where and how we worship,” McDonald said.

No one can claim ignorance, Roston said, and religious people cannot rely totally on law enforcement.

“We must do everything we can to secure our houses of worship, to train our congregations on security and to have these difficult conversations,” she said. “No one can say, ‘It can’t happen to us.’”

Tyler Osborne-Lomax contributed to this report.

Contact: 609-272-7260 Twitter @ACPressColtShaw

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