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The mother from Montana who became a leader in fighting a neo-Nazi

Dan Coleman
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Published: 17 September 2021

Last updated: 4 March 2024

DAN COLEMAN tells the story of how real estate agent Tanya Gersh took on and helped defeat alt-right antisemite Richard Spencer

“HOW HAS A MOTHER from Montana become a leader in fighting antisemitism?” This is the question posed by the LinkedIn profile of Tanya Gersh, a real estate agent in Whitefish, a small resort town in the Rocky Mountains that’s a gateway to the jagged peaks, lakes and glacier-carved valleys of Glacier National Park.          

The answer to Gersh’s rhetorical question garnered attention across the US on September 5 when the New York Times profiled her central role in a struggle against antisemitic extremism, a struggle waged by her, her rabbi, Whitefish mayor John Muhlfeld and a community against one of America’s most notorious right-wing extremists and his mother.

Richard Spencer, who Vanity Fair has characterised as a “loathsome, alt-right skunk”, is a notorious neo-Nazi, antisemite and white supremacist. Spencer is the founder of altright.com and directs the National Policy Institute (NPI), a white supremacist think tank. The latter operated out of the $US3 million Whitefish summer home owned by Spencer’s mother, Sherry. And that’s where the trouble began.

According to the Times, shortly after Donald Trump’s 2016 victory, a video of Spencer’s “racially charged” address to an NPI conference went viral. Concerned Whitefish residents met to discuss protesting in front of the NPI headquarters. It was then that Gersh heard from Sherry Spencer, who expressed interest in selling the property.

A few weeks later, Ms Spencer published a piece in the American online publishing platform Medium claiming that Gersh had threatened that “if I did not sell my building, 200 protesters and national media would show up outside — which would drive down the property value — until I complied.” The post in question is no longer available, marked by Medium as “under investigation or in violation of the Medium Rules.”

At this point, Andrew Anglin, editor of the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer, caught wind of the matter and decided that Gersh was a Jew worth going after. Anglin called on his followers to rally and march in Whitefish.

As reported by Matthew Gault in Medium, “Anglin planned the march to coincide with Martin Luther King Jr. Day and had named the event the James Earl Ray Day Extravaganza” after King’s assassin because, as Gault put it, “Nazis are assholes.” The march was to end at Gersh’s home.

When Whitefish refused to issue a permit for the march, Anglin announced that it would be held on the pavements rather than the streets. He called on his readers to unleash “an old-fashioned troll storm” on the area’s Jewish residents, disseminating contact details for Gersh, her family and other Jewish leaders in the area.

Tanya Gersh (Facebook)
Tanya Gersh (Facebook)

Among them was the then 81-year-old Rabbi Allen Secher, who had retired to Whitefish. Secher is the founder of Love Lives Here, a local group dedicated to dismantling racism. He was a Freedom Rider during the 1960s Civil Rights Movement and was one of the rabbis who marched and was arrested with Dr King. He told Jewish Journal there were “Hundreds [of messages], not just a few. Hundreds, and the cyberattacks are brutal.” The abuse included threats like “The ovens are waiting” and “Too bad they only killed six million.”

Gersh has, in the ensuing years, suffered from panic attacks, waking up in tears without explanation. But she remains upbeat.

The response in Whitefish and across Montana was inspiring, particularly given the dark rise of bigotry during the Trump era. According to the Times, “Montana’s governor, attorney-general and congressional delegation issued a bipartisan open letter, making it clear ‘that ignorance, hatred and threats of violence are unacceptable and have no place in the town of Whitefish, or in any other community in Montana or across this nation.’”

Locally, volunteers distributed thousands of paper menorahs which Gersh said could be seen “in every window in Whitefish.” Rabbi Francine Green Roston of Glacier Jewish Community/B’nai Shalom Synagogue organised a chicken and matzo ball soup get-together as a demonstration of unity.

“You could say they chickened out,” Roston quipped to the Times after no neo-Nazis showed up to march.

In April 2017, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a non-profit legal advocacy organisation specialising in civil rights and public interest litigation, filed suit in federal court against Anglin, seeking to hold him to account over “a harassment campaign that has relentlessly terrorised a Jewish woman and her family with antisemitic threats and messages.”

Two years later, judge Jeremiah Lynch ruled in Gersh’s favour, awarding her $US14 million in damages. SPLC said the decision, “made clear that this type of conduct will not be tolerated and that those who engage in it will have to pay up.”

Meanwhile, Anglin and Spencer are among those facing trial for inciting violence in the planning and execution of the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 which led to the death of counter-protester Heather Heyer and numerous injuries.

For Spencer, the Daily Beast suggests we might “break out the world’s smallest violin” as he has seen his business dissolved, his wife divorce him (accusing him of physical, emotional and financial abuse), and has  been fined $US2.4 million by an Ohio court for his role in Charlottesville.

Lately, Spencer has not been seen much around Whitefish. Gersh told the Times, “I have bumped into him, and he runs. That’s actually a really good feeling.” Roston added, “Richard Spencer wanted this to be his happy vacation place where he could play and have fun, and people would just live and let live. Then he started suffering social consequences for his hatred.”

Roston now lectures other groups on how to respond to hate campaigns. “The best way to respond to hate and cyberterrorism in your community is through solidarity,” she told the Times. “Another big principle is to take threats seriously and prepare for the worst.”             

For Mayor Muhlfeld those lessons are clear. “You have to act swiftly and decisively and come together as a community to tackle hate and make sure it doesn’t infiltrate your town.”

Gersh has taken her story on the road and committed to serving as a resource to other communities. Her talk in Charlotte, North Carolina, earlier this year was billed as an “inspirational story of triumph over evil.”

According to SPLC, Gersh has, in the ensuing years, suffered from panic attacks, waking up in tears without explanation. But she remains upbeat.

Her LinkedIn declares that “Tanya won't let being a victim define her. Her courage and strength to not let hate win, and to assure this never happens again, is a message she has become passionate about sharing. The lawsuit is over, but her work has just begun.”

READ MORE
Neo-Nazi website founder accused of ignoring $14M judgment
(Seattle Times)

Photo: White Nationalist leader Richard Spencer chants back at counter-protesters at a "Freedom of Speech" rally in Washington, June 2017 (Reuters/Jim Bourg)

About the author

Dan Coleman

Dan Coleman is a former member of the Carrboro, North Carolina Town Council, and a former political columnist for the Durham (NC) Morning Herald. He is the author of Ecopolitics: Building A Green Society. He lives in Melbourne.

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