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Government, Politics & Issues

‘Hitler Was Right,’ Mary Miller Said. Months Later, Illinois Jewish Leaders Say Pain Remains

Karen Uban, vice president of the United Hebrew Temple in Benton, Illinois stands by the stained glass windows that were damaged by vandals.
Derik Holtmann
/
Belleville News-Democrat
Karen Uban, vice president of the United Hebrew Temple in Benton, Illinois stands by the stained glass windows that were damaged by vandals.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published by the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

Shortly after U.S. Rep. Mary Miller of Oakland said in a January speech that “Hitler was right” about youth indoctrination, Illinois Jewish leaders arranged a Zoom call. They hoped to help her understand the pain caused by the comments she delivered on the steps of the United States Capitol, the day before insurrectionists breached the building.

“We wanted to put names and faces to people in the region to be a resource,” said Karen Aroesty, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League’s St. Louis office.

The freshman Republican from the 15th District listened to leaders in the call, Aroesty said. But she’s not sure what Miller took away from the conversation.

“I’m disappointed in Congresswoman Miller,” Aroesty said. “I don’t know that she really made the connections that I would have liked to hear her make about the impact of what she said.”

Three months later, Jewish leaders fear Miller’s lack of understanding will lead to an increased acceptance of antisemitic views that have always been an undercurrent in the region. While it’s impossible to draw a direct causal link between the congresswoman’s speech and extremist activity in the 15th, Jewish communities remain on edge.

After Miller’s comments on Jan. 5, the ADL shared a list of 12 antisemitic incidents and 17 instances of white supremacist propaganda in the 15th District in 2019 and 2020 with Miller’s office.

To the south of Miller’s district in October, vandals broke into the United Hebrew Temple in Benton, shattering stained glass windows and ransacking the sanctuary. It was the third such incident at the synagogue since September. Nine days after Miller’s speech, a white supremacist group hung a banner with a racist and anti-immigrant slogan on a monument in Danville honoring World War I veterans, according to ADL’s map of hate incidents. Danville is in Vermilion County at the northern edge of the 15th.

A spokeswoman for Miller’s office said the congresswoman, who was in her district in early April before returning to Washington, D.C. this week, did not have time in her schedule to be interviewed for this story. The BND attempted to reach her through communications staff multiple times over the course of nearly two weeks. Her office did not respond to a list of written questions.

Hate groups in Illinois

The ADL, founded in 1913 to combat hate against Jewish people, has been criticized most recently by the right for what it describes as a left-leaning ideology.

The group’s midwest regional director, David Goldenberg, said its main goal with elected officials is to share information about extremist activity. ADL wanted Miller to become aware of “what was going on in and around her district,” he said.

There are at least three known white supremacist groups ADL Midwest has connected to harassment and the distribution of fliers and propaganda in the 15th, based on reporting from the public: Loyal White Knights, New Jersey European Heritage Association and Patriot Front.

A hate group distributed propaganda on campus at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston disparaging Black History Month in February 2020, according to the ADL. In Marshall last year, two white supremacist groups on three separate occasions distributed propaganda blaming Jews for abortion, gun control and an “anti-christian agenda.” These are just a handful of the 31 incidents the ADL documented throughout southern Illinois in 2020.

Goldenberg wasn’t aware if Miller’s office planned to do anything with the information the ADL shared.

“You’d have to ask her,” he said.

The Zoom call, which also included representatives of the Jewish Federation and the American Jewish Committee in Illinois, was likely difficult for Miller because challenging the speech may have put her on the defensive, Aroesty said, though she recognized Miller made herself and staff available for it.

“What do you want her to say? You want her to say, ‘OK, I see the light and I am going to be entirely different in the future,’” Aroesty said. “I think if we thought we’d get that kind of response, we’d be incredibly naive.”

Miller’s colleague to the south, Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Bost of the 12th Congressional District, said he spoke with Miller after her comments and doesn’t believe she “meant anything personal by it.” But he said it’s also essential to support Jewish communities, especially during a time when they feel threatened.

“We need to make sure there’s a clear message sent,” Bost said. “We need to make sure we understand the concerns they face.”

Jewish history in southern Illinois

Antisemitism is embedded in southern Illinois history. Prohibition brought out bootleggers — some of Jewish heritage such as Charlie Birger — who clashed with the Ku Klux Klan, which advocated Jew-hatred and racism but temperance when it came to alcohol.

For the most part, however, Jews “were the small town doctors and dentists, and the shoe store owners, and the clothing store owners,”said Karen Uban, vice president of the vandalized United Hebrew Temple in Benton.

Like the rest of the population in the 15th, the Jewish community has dwindled. Researcher and author Sybil Mervis, one of roughly a dozen Jews left in Danville, said their contributions to the community have been largely forgotten in the city that now numbers roughly 31,000, down about 15% since 1980.

“Jewish communities existed in southern and central Illinois for over 150 years. The first Jews came to Danville in about 1850,” Mervis said. “Nowadays unfortunately these communities have diminished, and as a result, ignorance about Jewish life and culture has taken root.”

It has left a more homogenized group of people who weren’t exposed to people unlike themselves, said her son Michael Mervis, 57. Born and raised in Danville, he now lives in Indiana running Mervis Industries, the recycling firm founded more than a century ago by his great-grandfather. Companies such as General Motors — which closed its Vermilion County plant in 1995 — gradually left southeastern Illinois. The people followed.

“You lose the vibrancy that comes with diversity because you don’t have that breadth of people that you have in more thriving areas,” Michael Mervis said.

Comments such as Miller’s would have been “unthinkable” 30 years ago, he added. It’s not just an issue of antisemitism. He worries about recent anti-Asian attacks and hatred toward any other cultural or ethnic group.

“I look the other direction and begin to ask what point does this stop? At what point do some of these groups start pushing for these agendas? At what point do they begin to turn on people who are a similar religion but a slightly different view?” Michael Mervis said. “Unfortunately there’s the possibility that there’s no end to this.”

Understanding white supremacy in Illinois

Interrupting white supremacy comes down to education, Aroesty said.

Hate and extremism start with stereotyping and other small aggressions, the kind of things people let go. Without intervention, that behavior can eventually lead to violence.

Hate groups operate on a similar scale. Their efforts start small, easy and cheap: slapping propaganda stickers on lampposts or distributing fliers on a university campus.

“It’s designed to intimidate, spread fear and hateful messages, and it serves as a gateway to these extremist ideologies,” Goldenberg said. “There are those who are predisposed to certain ideologies and it can take root where they live. Then there are others who look for vulnerabilities in communities.”

Without reporting from the public, it can be difficult to track white supremacist efforts. And public reporting is not a scientific method. Increased awareness could cause an uptick in reporting but not necessarily indicate real growth in incidents.

Nor are white supremacist groups necessarily centralized or operating in person. Several of the groups identified as active in southeastern Illinois, for instance, are based on the east coast.

“The individuals who committed these acts were not card-carrying members of extremist groups,” Goldenberg said. “They were people who were influenced by these different extremist groups.”

Miller could send a message to constituents that she supports the Jewish community by introducing a nonbinding resolution in Congress promoting early Holocaust education, or something similar, Aroesty said. Educating people about why it’s wrong to use Holocaust analogies for any reason other than talking about Holocaust history could prevent speeches like Miller’s in the future, she added.

Supporting technology and lessons in the classroom that bring Holocaust survivor voices alive could also be an effective move for Miller, Aroesty said.

Jewish leaders remain hopeful their call will make Miller think twice in the future, but without further evidence, they’re not convinced.

“She heard from plenty of different voices, but I suspect in the long run we’re not going to be anything but disappointed,” Aroesty said. “We need to empower and learn affirmatively and early on so we reduce these numbers of incidents and that people can come into these conversations not being so defensive and vulnerable, but willingly learning.”

Uban said she believes love still outweighs hate in southern Illinois. Donors raised thousands within weeks to repair the Benton temple and install security equipment, she said. Much of the support came from Christian churches.

“They’re not Jewish, but they just reached out because something struck a cord with them, because this is not right,” said Uban, a member of the synagogue for 40 years.

“We’re always going to have a certain percentage of people who are so stubbornly opposed to anything different at all that you’re going to have trouble with them,” Uban said. “But a lot of people have problems because they simple don’t understand.”

“We’re still having Passover like we have for 3,300 years. So, I’m happy to say we’re not going anywhere.”

Kelsey Landis is a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

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