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Learning from the anti-Semitic incident on 113 overpass

Anti-Semitic bannersBy Roberta Millstein

As most Davisites have learned by now, at least twice over the past two weekends, masked men displayed antisemitic banners from a highway overpass in Davis (see Davis Enterprise article for details).

The banners said, “Communism is Jewish” and “The Holocaust is an anti-white lie.”

Several local leaders issued responses.  These responses, although all were well-meaning, miss the mark a bit.  I want to try to explain why.

Chancellor Gary May said: “We are sickened that anyone would invest any time in such cowardly acts of hate and intimidation. They have no place here. We encourage our community to stand against antisemitism and racism.”

This isn’t false per se, but it’s incomplete.  This isn’t just an act of hate.  As I will explain further below, the banners replicate common tropes (repeatedly told stories) about Jewish people.  Without calling out those tropes, many will not understand, or fully understand, what the issues are.

Chancellor May is correct that anti-Semitism and racism are connected, but he doesn’t say how.  Again, more on this below.

Davis Mayor Lucas Frerichs tweeted, “I’m disturbed to see the photos of these banners being hung from a prominent overpass. Hate has no place in Davis, and a common denominator to Holocaust deniers is Anti-Semitism. As Mayor, I stand in support w/our Jewish community in Davis, UCD & beyond.”

Again, hate is invoked in this apparently well-meaning but incomplete statement.  The assertation that “a common denominator to Holocaust deniers is Anti-Semitism” is so obviously a truism that it really doesn’t convey very much.

DJUSD Superintendent Matt Best likewise condemned the “acts of hate.”

Here’s the thing that all of these statements are missing: Holocaust denial has a specific context and a specific purpose.  As this short video explains, Holocaust denial “a common anti-Semitic trope depicts Jews as “manipulative and powerful influences of world government and the media.”  (You may have seen this trope elsewhere; if you haven’t, keep an eye out and you will surely come across it).  In line with this trope, the claim is that Jews have “fabricated myths of their own suffering (such as the Holocaust) for their own benefit… Holocaust denial first began with the Nazi party itself, who declared that the concentration camps were a fabrication of the Allied forces to win public support against Germany.”

In other words, Holocaust denial isn’t just a historically false claim about one of the most well-documented events in human history.  It is intended to foster distrust and doubt about Jewish people.  And, of course, it tries to defang the “Never Again” vow; if the Holocaust had never occurred or underplayed (e.g., by citing a number much fewer than the actual 6 million killed) then the impetus to guard against its recurrence disappears or loses strength.

Of course, the banner doesn’t just proclaim that the Holocaust is a lie.  It proclaims it to be an “anti-white” lie.  This gets to Chancellor May’s point about racism.  Many Jews are seen as white.  But historically, Jews have also been seen as a distinct race; Hitler certainly portrayed them that way.  When white supremacists march with Nazi flags and Confederate flags, when the KKK targets both Jews and Black people, the connection is clear.  White supremacists target Black people and Jews alike – essentially, anyone who is not a straight Christian white male.

“Communism is Jewish” feeds into this connection as well.  Another trope has Jews aiding and abetting people of other races against white people, something that “communists” purportedly do.  Jews were prominent in the civil rights fights of the 1960s; today, the issue is immigration and the “Great Replacement Theory” that whites will be “replaced” by non-white immigrants (never mind the obvious point that whites are immigrants here who replaced the Indigenous populations). 

Davis has an educated populace.  Events like these can be turned into learning experiences that can help us to identify racist and anti-Semitic speech in all of its forms, including tropes not mentioned here and tropes specific to other races – e.g., there are a number of common Asian tropes as well.  I fully admit that I am not the most knowledgeable person to speak on these issues; I write this only to start the conversation, not to position myself as an expert.

I hope those who are experts take the opportunity to speak up and that Davisites take the opportunity to listen.


Alan C. Miller

I am piecing together an article on this as I have time, but you made some of the same points I was going to make and added valuable points, Roberta. Thanks for this.

Ron O

Personally, I think that the biggest "learning opportunity" here relates to free speech.

These people have a right to it, as does anyone else - even if they hang a banner that says, "I hate all (fill-in-the-blank)", "they're destroying the world", etc.

All of the background information regarding the "Holocaust denial" is irrelevant, in light of the protections this country supposedly provides in regard to free speech. Which most people don't seem to understand - perhaps ironically / especially in college towns.

There may be a law against hanging a banner (of any type) from a freeway overpass.

The biggest danger (from this type of incident) is that someone will be so offended by it that they will end up initiating a physical confrontation with those holding the banner. (Which may be what the banner-holders are hoping for - who knows.) In that case, "guess who" is breaking the law.

Roberta L. Millstein

Ron, yes, we have free speech rights in this country. That makes understanding and denouncing that speech all the more important. Notice I’ve said nothing about squelching it.

Roberta L. Millstein

Alan, I look forward to your article. As I acknowledge above, there is much more to be said.

Ron O

Roberta: I agree that YOU have said nothing about squelching it. Unfortunately, others often do - including supposedly-educated people.

That's the reason that understanding what free speech entails is the most important thing that anyone should learn from this.

In contrast, I have yet to see anyone, anywhere state that this type of speech is "just fine" with them, personally. (Other than those who are espousing it.)

I strongly suspect that this type of speech would be protected by the court system. It's also the type of thing that the ACLU periodically defends, though it seems to have mostly drifted-away from that role (into something else).,speech%20under%20the%20First%20Amendment.

Roberta L. Millstein

Ron, you seem to have some other pet peeve, then. My point is that to properly condemn or accept this speech, you have to understand it. Most don’t. What is the point of free speech if you just advocate for it without understanding what
has been said?

I suggest you take a moment to try to do that.

Ron O

I disagree - I believe that most people DO understand most of the background. It's repeated constantly in the media and elsewhere. Ask anyone on the street if they've heard this type of thing, and I suspect they'll say "yes". Even outside of college towns or their associated blogs.

On a broader scale, it's pretty hard to avoid terms such as "white privilege" these days. Or, "critical race theory" in schools, etc. Not debating those issues here, but there's a lot of conflicts regarding this.

But as far as "fully understanding it", again - it doesn't matter regarding the law. And yes, my "pet peeve" is that many don't seem to understand THAT.

And I do believe that the constant condemning of it increases the possibility of conflicts (or even violence), while simultaneously bringing more attention to the banner-holders' "message". And if there is violence, they might point to that as "proof" of what they're claiming.

But hey, if you think that the people on the overpass are causing anyone to say, "hey - I think they have a point", then go ahead and keep writing articles, I guess. But you might get responses that aren't going to simply go along with, "yes - how horrible" that they said that.

In contrast, ask some college students (and even some professors) if they think this type of speech is "legal". (THAT's where the misunderstanding is.)

And some people don't care if it's legal or not - they just want to shut it down. And take it upon themselves to do what they think is "necessary" to accomplish that.

This even happens with plain-old "conservative" speakers on campuses throughout the country. Let alone how they might react to the people holding a banner.

I suspect that if the banner-holders return, there's a high likelihood of a confrontation. (Not that I actually care all that much about that, one way or another.)

Personally, I think those who are highly concerned about this might want to simply try to make it "illegal", like they've done in Germany. (Which of course, then drives it underground.)

Or, they could just relax and realize that largely ignoring it won't make it "grow" (which seems to be their underlying "fear").

Todd Edelman

Ron O., this will not stop if it is ignored, as you suggest. These people have networks that circulate plenty of hate even without referring to these specific incidents.

How do we fight back? The other day in the Davis Vanguard , I suggested that while police and other government actors should not physically confront people in the situation as it was described at the time*, but that the same from private individuals could be considered. The react from one commenter was that the typical equivocation in these discussions, i.e. he implied that I was advocating for a kind of ReverseShoah (TM) against these people!!

* According to the 'Enterprise story, the Neo-Nazi racists followed someone who confronted them verbally, and harassed them by asking for their address. Do these two things constitute some form of actionable harassment and stalking? I am not sure.

So... how do we fight back? The best non-violent reaction would be to propose filling the "bike overpass" [sic, it's a bike-ped overpass] with as many people as it can handle and doing the "Jewish" things suggested by people at Bet Haverim and adding similar from other cultures... also in celebration and defiance!

Will the CHP oppose this because of some perceived, um, discrimination against people driving vehicles on 113? Well, then... propose that they take measures as necessary on the highway to ensure that there are no problems. (But also so far the authorities have not even implied that hanging banners over the highway was illegal, perhaps because it was temporary?)

It's worth deconstructing how various authorities said about this, AND it's important to note who hasn't spoken up. CA-113 is a state highway, but has Dodd or Aguiar-Curry said anything? Have any of the candidates for Council except for Partida?

Finally, there are alternating spellings "antisemitism" and "Anti-semitism" happening in the same articles from writers and different people. It's not just two different spellings. I suggest you Google this issue. I prefer the former spelling.

Finally, PLEASE criticize me as strongly as necessary even though I am Jewish, have murdered family and so on! <3

Ron O

Todd: "So... how do we fight back? The best non-violent reaction would be to propose filling the "bike overpass" [sic, it's a bike-ped overpass] with as many people as it can handle and doing the "Jewish" things suggested by people at Bet Haverim and adding similar from other cultures... also in celebration and defiance!"

I don't know what those "Jewish things" are, but I like the idea. Would that also include "white things" (whatever those are)?

And in reference to the article, are there "white tropes"?

Todd: "Will the CHP oppose this because of some perceived, um, discrimination against people driving vehicles on 113? Well, then... propose that they take measures as necessary on the highway to ensure that there are no problems. (But also so far the authorities have not even implied that hanging banners over the highway was illegal, perhaps because it was temporary?)"

Maybe the overpass will "flatten" the thing out, similar to what happened to the Golden Gate Bridge during its 50th anniversary (due to the weight of the people).

Personally, I think it would be more interesting to interview these people (without any hint of "judgement"), to try to determine the reasons that they believe in what they say. They are people, after all - and (while I don't like to channel Trump) - they're probably not entirely bad in all aspects of their lives.

I'm tempted to channel Trump further, and state that "there's bad people on both sides". (Referring to those who would engage in violence, shut down free speech, etc.)

Sharla Cheney

This is a tactic by white Supremacy groups starting around 2016-18.

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