KKK flyers in Maryland: Faith groups decry hate campaign linking Jews to illegal immigration

Scattered around Main Street in Ellicott City, dropped on driveways in Eldersburg and on sidewalks, lawns and cars in Sykesville, Glen Burnie, Lothian and South Baltimore, the flyers from the Ku Klux Klan spewed a hateful and increasingly familiar message:

That an alleged influx of criminal, uneducated and burdensome immigrants from Mexico is part of “The Jew’s Open Border Policy.”

It is a sentiment that has circulated recently in right-wing circles, often under the guise of an unfounded conspiracy theory that Jewish philanthropist George Soros is funding a caravan of immigrants from Central America — something President Donald Trump has said wouldn’t surprise him.

And, most horrifyingly, the online postings of Robert Bowers, accused of killing 11 worshipers in a Pittsburgh synagogue last month, were filled with racist, anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant invective, including the allegation that a Jewish nonprofit was bringing “invaders” into the country to kill “our people.”

That a similar message has landed on doorsteps in Maryland has unnerved many, touching as it does on a topic of historic resonance for the Jewish population in particular, many of whose families came to America fleeing persecution in Eastern Europe and Russia or, after the Holocaust, as the survivors of the Nazi extermination attempt.

“I do think there are certain parts of the country that are nationalistic and anti-immigrant,” said Beth Millstein, president of the Jewish Federation of Howard County. “That is not Maryland. That is not Howard County.”

She said the Jewish community is welcoming to people seeking to come to the United States from other countries. “We were immigrants ourselves. We are particularly sensitive to the plight of the immigrant.”

Bowers specifically was consumed with a Silver Spring-based group, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, or HIAS.

“HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people,” Bowers had said on a social network site, Gab, that has been popular with white nationalists and neo-Nazis. “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”

Bowers had a “wildly inaccurate” image of the group that is one of nine agencies that the U.S. turns to for assistance in resettling refugees, said Bill Swersey, senior director of communications for HIAS.

The group — which originated in New York in 1881 and moved to Maryland a couple of years ago — apparently drew the attention of Bowers and his ilk because it sits “at the intersection of anti-Semitism and anti-immigrant sentiment,” Swersey said.

“We have nothing to do with the caravan itself,” he said. “We do feel strongly that if there are people who seek asylum, there should be an orderly process to determine who the legitimate asylum seekers are. We feel very strongly that people who claim asylum need to have their application heard.”

Swersey said that while the KKK flyers do not specifically name HIAS, they are troubling because they “certainly insinuate” a Jewish plot to flood the U.S. with immigrants.

In Maryland, the flyers usually have appeared in plastic bags, weighed down by birdseed. A call to the the phone number listed on one flyer obtained by The Baltimore Sun was returned by a man identifying himself as Edward Bell and the “Grand Dragon” of Pennsylvania. He said flyers are recruitment tools, and media coverage of them tends to increase calls from people who might want to join.

He defended the flyers’ message, saying “the Jews want to take over the world” and support immigration from Mexico into the U.S. as a way to “bankrupt” the country and “dumb” it down through intermarriage.

Millstein said the flyers cannot be ignored, and to be silent in the face of such talk is to be complicit. “First and foremost, it’s always important to stand up and say it’s not OK,” she said.

She lauded the response from police and county government. On Sunday, the Howard County executive, Allan H. Kittleman, and the councilman who represents Ellicott City, Jon Weinstein, issued a joint statement decrying “this disgusting display of antisemitism, racism and intolerance.”

Millstein said the federation will continue to work with other groups in the county, which has a long tradition of interfaith dialogue, as a way of continue to promote tolerance and inclusion of all groups.

Soros’ philanthropic group, Open Society Foundations, has denied that either it or the Hungarian-American billionaire funded the caravan. Multiple media fact-checkers have found no evidence that they had, but a video purportedly showing people in Honduras being given money to join the caravan was tweeted by a Republican congressman from Florida who asked, “Soros? … Time to investigate the source!”

Trump retweeted the video saying, "Can you believe this, and what Democrats are allowing to be done to our Country?" The video was later found to have been shot in Guatemala, where a journalist said he was told local merchants had collected money to give to the migrants, according to the fact-checker, Politifact.

The flyers have appeared after months of harsh political rhetoric and uncertainty over the future of immigration to the U.S. — from children being separated from their parents at the Mexican border, to the Trump administration seeking a rule change that would ban those who have used public benefits such as food stamps from potentially being eligible for legal status, to the president saying he wanted to end birthright citizenship.

Messages such as what the KKK flyers promote add to that, said Sean Schneider, executive director of Center of Help, which has worked with the immigrant community in Anne Arundel County for almost two decades.

“There’s an increase in fear because of the tonal shift,” Schneider said. “We’re at a low point as far as the atmosphere.”

The fear has prompted clients to refuse to apply for benefits that they qualify for, such as food stamps for their children who in some cases are citizens, Schneider said.

Center of Help staff try to “maintain positivity” and keep clients informed of their rights and benefits.

Groups that work with immigrants say the recent turmoil has served to convince them of the necessity of their efforts.

“We’re really as dedicated, if not more,” Swersey of HIAS said, “to the work we do.”

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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