The Southern Poverty Law Center, an independent civil rights organization in Montgomery, Alabama that serves as a leading clearinghouse for information about hate and hate crimes, recently issued a report on the resurgence of right-wing militias in the United States. “They’re back … appearing in large numbers around the country,” the report stated. “And once-popular militia conspiracy theories are making the rounds again.”
The Jewish Week spoke to Mark Potok, director of the center’s Intelligence Project, which monitors groups like the militias. Before coming to SPLC, Potok spent nearly two decades as a journalist, working for USA Today, the Dallas Times Herald and the Miami Herald.
Q: The SPLC report on the “Return of the Militias” cites only a few attacks — or planned attacks — on Jewish sites since 1995. Are Jews no longer a target of the right-wing militias?
A: There actually have been quite a number, from synagogues burned to the  Buford Furrow shootings to the fatal attack on the Holocaust Memorial Museum on June 10. That said, with the election of Barack Obama, the radical right has chosen to focus on what is widely seen as the “threat” of the country being run by a black man. This trend has been exacerbated by the shifting racial demographics of the country, especially the Census Bureau forecast that whites will lose their national majority in America in 2042.
Who poses the chief threat against the Jewish community in the U.S. today? Neo-Nazis like the man who shot up the Holocaust Museum in Washington a few months ago? Muslims who plotted against synagogues in Riverdale?
It’s a hard call, but my sense is that white supremacists pose a greater threat to the Jewish community in the U.S. Obviously, that’s not true in other countries.
How frightened should Jews and Jewish organizations be?
I think we need to be vigilant, not frightened. The dangers are a) criminal violence to a relatively small number of people from the radical right, and, b) the distortion and poisoning of serious political discussion on any number of issues as a result of the mainstreaming of radical-right propaganda and conspiracy theories. Jews, of course, are very much a target of these conspiracy theories, and so they should be concerned.
A black man in the White House is fueling the paranoia of the racist militias, your report says. What would happen with a Jew as president or vice president?
I doubt that it would cause a major backlash on the order of what we’ve seen with Obama. Of course, the neo-Nazi right would be furious, but I don’t think it would extend too far beyond that.
Before coming to the SPLC, you covered hate groups and radicals for almost two decades as a reporter. Is hate growing?
I do think it’s growing and has been for some years — hate against the federal government, minorities and Jews, as well.