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Light in darkness

The Jewish festival of light will be celebrated this week near the end of a year marred by rising anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, new anti-immigrant government policies and deepening political divisions.

The murders of 11 innocent people at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh shocked the nation as the worst loss of life from anti-Semitic violence in this country. The trends of hatred, bias and scapegoating that embolden such violence have found support in wider audiences and in the highest levels of government and wealth.

Montana college campuses saw anti-Semitic leaflets and graffiti this fall. Posters recruiting young white men for a white supremacist group appeared in Billings. Montana State University Billings faculty members received disturbing phone messages.

"Anti-Semitism animates the white nationalist movement," said Rachel Carroll Rivas, co-director of the Montana Human Rights Network. "We have to step in when we see those things happening and speak up for our neighbors and fellow human beings."

Until 2016, the Montana Human Rights Network had been receiving about a dozen complaints per year of discrimination or hate aimed at people because of their identity. But in 2017, the reporting exploded with more than 200 complaints, and more than 100 have been received this year. Those figures don't include the several hundred horrific threats phoned and emailed in early 2017 to Jewish residents of Whitefish after white nationalist trolls targeted those Montana citizens and their children.

In Montana, most racial discrimination is against Native Americans, according to complaints received by the Montana Human Rights Network. Sometimes there are assaults; more often there is discrimination in rental housing, hotels, restaurants or retail stores. Rivas recalled news stories about a convenience store limiting how many Browning students could enter when the team bus stopped. Busloads of white students were not subject to the same restriction.

Hate crime laws were intended to address "specific targeting of people because of their identify, groups of people who have been discriminated against for hundreds of years," Rivas explained. The latest FBI report on hate crimes includes 15 reports in Montana for 2017 — nine involving race, four involving religion and two involving sexual orientation. Law enforcement agencies aren't required to report hate crimes to the FBI, so reporting is incomplete.

Extreme anti-immigrant groups are gaining wider acceptance in the United States, according to a report released last week by the Anti-Defamation League, which recommended: "Before the extreme ideas of the anti-immigrant movement fully take root, the government, media and general public must take the necessary steps to make sure the demonization of immigrants and bigotry that underlie it do not become further entrenched in our society."

Countering the anti-immigrant hysteria will require public policies that protect migrants and refugees as well as building trust between law enforcement and immigrant communities and working to make communities welcoming to immigrants.

Words do matter. Leaders in America and in Montana must speak clearly, forcefully and specifically against discrimination. Montanans saw such a powerfully positive response when our state's top leaders publicly condemned the attacks on Jewish Whitefish residents.

Twenty-five years ago, vandalism at the home of a Jewish family, along with vandalism and intimidation against Native Americans and gay individuals, spurred Billings residents to unite in saying: Not in our town. It's time to renew that commitment to reach out and protect our neighbors.

We urge Montanans to confront hate with love. Let's embrace our neighbors who have suffered discrimination. Let us be inclusive in our personal and professional lives. Let us respect the dignity and worth of each human being. Let us teach our children that human worth is not determined by race, sexual orientation or religious faith.

Elsewhere on today's Opinion page, retired Rabbi Uri Barnea writes about the moral imperative of protecting life, which is part of Hanukkah's ancient teaching. At the beginning of Hanukkah, in the month of Christmas, let's celebrate our shared values of life, liberty and happiness. Let's light candles to dispel the darkness of fear and bigotry. The Montana way is helping neighbors, respecting their privacy, sharing our bounty with those less fortunate. That's what we must do to defeat hate with love.

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