Mich. is No. 2 in Midwest in anti-Semitic incidents, activists flag swastikas at recent right-wing rallies

Conservative protest at Michigan's Capitol against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, April 15, 2020 | Anna Liz Nichols

The number of U.S. anti-Semitic incidents is the highest it’s ever been in since the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) started tracking them in 1979. The League’s audit for 2019 showed there more than 2,100 acts of harassment, assault and vandalism nationwide — and Michigan is among the highest in numbers.

Michigan came in at 42 anti-semitic incidents, the second-highest number in the Midwest, following Illinois at 44 incidents. The U.S. as a whole saw a 12% in incidents from 2018 and a 56% increase in assaults.

Michigan doubled its number of incidents from 2018, according to ADL.

Noah Arbit, founder and chair of Michigan Democratic Jewish Caucus, said the rise of anti-Semitism is an expected trend due to the rhetoric of President Donald Trump.

“Anti semitism is unequivocally political. I think when you have politicians at the highest levels of government, particularly the president, using anti-semitic rhetoric and invoking anti semitic tropes, there is a tone that is set in this country,” he said.

Leadership is set by the top, Arbit added, and “trickle down” anti-Semitism comes in large part from Trump.

“He’s very successful at deploying conspiratorial rhetoric and anti-Semitism is one of the oldest conspiracy theories in the world.”

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Anti-Semitic incidents spiked in the year Trump took office, rising from 1,267 in 2016 to 1,986 in 2017. From 2010 to 2016, incidents per year have averaged at 1,023 annually. Incidents during the Trump administration averaged 1,991, an almost 100% increase.

Voting out Trump will not end anti-Semitism in Michigan, Arbit said. Michigan has a tortured history with the problem, despite having a comparatively small Jewish population. Still, the No. 1 priority to defeating anti-Semitism is to take away Trump’s position of power, he argued.

“That is the bottom line, because what he does to really radicalize people and to stoke the flames of hate in this rhetoric is unprecedented,” Arbit said. “Extinguishing the fire still leaves some coals, but that’s that’s what we have to do.”

Despite the spike in anti-Semitism, the state has several Jewish leaders, including state Attorney General Dana Nessel, U.S Rep. Andy Levin (D-Bloomfield Twp.) and U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Holly), who were all elected in 2018.

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Representation matters, Arbit said, but these victories for the community are not unvarnished positives. He noted these leaders have been vocal about the hateful rhetoric, prejudice and attacks Jewish populations have endured.

The Southern Poverty Law Center announced in 2019 that there were 31 active hate groups in Michigan. Nessel has acted and formed a Hate Crimes unit within her office.

Spokesman Ryan Jarvi said the unit has been conducting considerable community outreach throughout Michigan to raise awareness and educate the public about the resources it provides.

The attorney general’s Hate Crimes Unit is working to examine and address legitimate criminal incidents. When permitted by the victim, the Anti-Defamation League and similar organizations refer incidents that may rise to the level of a crime to the Hate Crimes Unit, which further examines the incident,” Jarvi said.

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In the past weeks, anti-lockdown protestors led by far-right groups have brought swastikas and other Nazi paraphernalia to the Capitol to protest Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-home order to stop the spread of COVID-19. There also have been Confederate flags, guns and misogynistic signs, like “Tyrant Bitch.” 

Arbit said instances like this and the trend in anti-Semitic incidents in schools can be attributed to a culture in Michigan.

“You’re taking your cues from a culture or from a person or an environment that allows these things to flourish,” Arbit said. “The environment in which it is OK to go to the Capitol steps and compare Gretchen Whitmer to Hitler and draw swastikas, it’s incredibly bizarre.”

Jarvi said the events at the Capitol have not gone unnoticed by the hate crimes unit, but cannot provide additional information at this time.

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“We are aware of certain acts that have taken place during the protest at the Capitol and elsewhere, and will continue to evaluate those situations and develop an appropriate response,” Jarvi said.

Arbit said the nation will reflect on the Trump administration and what was allowed to happen for years to come. 

“From day one, he said that he wasn’t going to be president of all Americans,” Arbit said.

“Every day that he has been president, he has lived that out fully and completely,” he continued. “We all deserve a president and leadership that is committed to the welfare, even if we disagree about how they get there, of each and every individual American. Fifty years from now, that’s what we’ll look back on, the worst crime of Donald Trump.”