[Updated August 14, 2022 at 9:05pm ET: on Saturday, August 13, more antisemitic, racist, conspiratorial flyers were found in the Hempstead area of Nassau County; this weekend also marked the fifth anniversary of the deadly, white nationalist “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia]
In the past few weeks, as waves of heat and weather have rushed Long Island, several major news incidents surrounding a central theme of hate have also drawn focus to the region. According to local authorities on history and hate on the island, there are also many precedents to consider.
As Anton Media Group and many other outlets reported in recent weeks, dozens of anti-semitic fliers were distributed in three Nassau communities on or around July 22. Several versions of the flier have been seen in multiple states, calling the Biden Administration or abortion or Disney or Covid “[in] every single aspect [Jewish].” Ones found in Oceanside and Rockville Centre included headshots of high-ranking Biden administration or military members, labelling them as Jewish and/or (in bright letters) transgender people.
As of press time for this issue, the Nassau County Police Department has not provided any updates on the search for the person or persons who left white-supremacist, anti-semitic propaganda on lawns and cars. The New York office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation did not reply to requests for comment.
Four days later, a pride flag was targeted at Oceanside Lutheran Church, where one was previosuly stolen last September. The church’s pride flag, meant to show welcome to all, was then targeted twice in one day last month. News 12 Brooklyn reported: “At around noon [on July 26], one person tried to pull a pride flag down – but couldn’t – instead, left the flag with a tear in its side. At around 7:30 p.m., someone else came and was able to steal the flag.”
The same day, Adam Rawnsley and Seamus Hughes broke a story for Rolling Stone that drew international attention, relating to the June arrest of former U.S. Marine Matthew Belanger, 25, of Selden, who’s been under federal investigation for more than a year.
Court documents revealed that Belanger, who was charged with illegally obtaining two rifles in Port Jefferson with help from an unnamed New York police officer, had previously been planning to attack and then alternately burn down an unnamed Long Island synagogue, and to commit and promote mass acts of sexual and reproductive violence. Belanger is facing trial in Honolulu, Hawaii, where he was stationed as a U.S. marine at one of several bases on Oahu until his other than honorable discharge in May 2021 for “extremist activity,” now known to include participation in a group called ‘Rapekrieg.’
Until his arrest in New York in June, Belanger had been living back on Long Island with his mother and stepfather, one of whom may be an alleged co-conspirator in his case, based on documents reviewed by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser; the pair may also now be relocating to Florida.
As Kevin Knodell reported for the Star Advertiser, “Federal prosecutors in Honolulu allege there is also ‘substantial evidence’ that [Belanger] was planning an attack on a synagogue in New York, has ‘engaged in live exercises for to practice such an attack,’ and ‘made plans to engage in widespread homicide and sexual assaults to decrease the number of minority residents in the United States’…[while a] July 14 court memo by a federal agent with Joint Terrorism Task Force Pacific also alleges Belanger intended to rape ‘white women to increase the production of white children.’”
On August 4, Long Island received national attention again when Robert Fehring, 74, was sentenced in Central Islip to 30 months in federal prison for mailing threats to shoot, bomb, or otherwise attack LGBTQIA events and groups (and even a Fire Island ferry) over a period of eight years.
While this particular wave of neo-Nazi-influenced incidents may be shocking to many of us, historians and reporters as well as modern-day activists suggest that today’s hateful behaviors in Nassau and Suffolk aren’t a far cry from some of the worst violence and hate in living memory. In fact, it’s not even a long drive to find a history of promoting hatred, and of maliciously and violently condemning everything from melanin and homosexuality to disabilities and birth control, here on the island.
As the Kupferberg Holocaust Center at Queensborough Community College explained for a recent exhibition, “In the mid-1930s an organization called the German-American Bund established fifteen summer camps throughout the United States, including one in then-bucolic Yaphank on Long Island … [The] many thousands that joined the Bund (not to be confused with the Jewish socialist group of the same name) were all supporters of the Nazi regime in Germany, its leaders, and its policies, including an openly expressed hatred for African-Americans and Jews.”
And while Camp Siegfried, located fifteen minutes from Selden in Yaphank, closed down in 1939, a widely publicized lawsuit in the mid 2010s established that the German American Settlement League, a since-gone-quiet organization that owns the land where a community of houses sits, was still observing internal by-laws stipulating that residents be “of German extraction.”
As Cleve R. Wootson reported for the Washington Post in 2017, “One [historical] photo, which was included in the lawsuit, shows men in Italian Blackshirts uniforms marching at Camp Siegfried beneath a Nazi flag … [others] showed people sitting at picnic tables wearing Nazi military uniforms. The lawsuit also included a newspaper interview with Henry Hauck, the manager at what was then called Camp Siegfried. The reporter asked if camp members and visitors supported Nazi ideas. ‘Generally speaking, yes,’ Hauck replied, ‘but only as they concern Germany, not the United States.’”
Nazi-related ideologies were also upheld, and often quite ugly, behind the scenes at the camp, too. Arnie Bernstein, author of Swastika Nation, explained to the New York Daily News in 2016 that the camp’s 1930s leaders were encouraging young people there to have sex, or even to commit sexual assault on one another, in order to “produce Aryan children.”
Today, Long Island community leaders say that the ongoing rise in hateful incidents should push residents to recognize the trend, acknowledge it, and push back on what is, in fact, a very broad-ranging source of hate and violence.
“There is hate and far-right, white-supremacist politics taking hold and becoming more emboldened to take action, and that is an issue,” said Nassau resident Nia Adams, an anti-racism activist and organizer with Justice League NYC. “Following this very disturbing [flier] drop, we local organizers are still strategizing on next steps with emphasis and importance on centering community safety.”
Aiden Jay Kaplan, LMSW, Assistant Director of Operations and Programs at PFY, which supports LGBTQIA youth and education on Long Island, also commented by email, “PFY strongly stands against messages of hate that target any marginalized or oppressed community. Long Island residents deserve to feel safe, affirmed, and respected in their homes, neighborhoods, and communities.”
“Imagery and language designed to ‘out’ LGBTQ+ people or use their identities in a defamatory way are damaging to that person, to the LGBTQ+ community as a whole, and to our allies,” he continued. “The service members mentioned in the flyers that are circulating have extensive experience in their fields of practice; their transgender identities do not limit their abilities or impact their service. PFY proudly provides free Community Education and Professional Trainings to schools, organizations, and groups across Long Island.”
Rabbi Dr. Moshe Weisblum of Congregation Beth Tikvah similarly emphasized a collective, neighborly approach to this kind of insidious hate. “At this time of need, we must stand together and resist ANY expression of bigotry against ANY minority in this country,” he commented by email.
“We have a pivotal responsibility: individually and collectively, to denounce antisemitism and demonization of Jews, and attacks on any group based on race, religion, color, sexual orientation, [gender identity] or national origin. Each of us should be alarmed by the silence of the nation that vowed never to forget the murder of millions at the hands of hate … Please don’t stay silent!”