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Montana Jewish Community Is A Model For Others Who Are Harassed

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

How did members of a Jewish community respond when a neo-Nazi website targeted them? The Jews in question are in and around Whitefish, Mont. Their synagogue now has armed security guards, and they have also engaged the local government and a human rights group. Montana Public Radio's Aaron Bolton reports their tactics are now seen as a model.

AARON BOLTON, BYLINE: In 2016, The Daily Stormer website targeted Whitefish Jews for a perceived slight against a prominent white supremacist who lives in the area. Publisher Andrew Anglin shared the personal information of several Jewish locals, and supporters made death threats against them.

CHERILYN DEVRIES: What white supremacists try to do is stir up chaos. And so by everybody running around not knowing what to do, then they're actually in charge.

BOLTON: Cherilyn DeVries heads Love Lives Here, a local human rights nonprofit that helped push back against the cyberattack, which included a call for white supremacists to gather in Whitefish for an armed march. Some locals responded on social media by asking people to come physically block the march, setting up a potential violent conflict. The harassment campaign drove Love Lives Here to work closely with local police, city government and businesses in this tourism-dependent area. Visitors bureau and city spokesperson Lisa Jones says they successfully encouraged protesters to put on a counter event away from the march.

LISA JONES: And there was a good energy about it instead of being on the street where there could potentially be conflict.

BOLTON: The Nazi march never materialized. Three years later, Love Lives Here continues to coordinate with city leaders and police on how to respond to harassment in a way that calms tensions and denies hate groups publicity. When racist graffiti appeared in a park in the neighboring city of Kalispell, Love Lives Here's Cherilyn DeVries asked Kalispell city council for the kind of coordination the group gets in Whitefish.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DEVRIES: When it comes to white supremacy, we seem to have a revolving door in the Flathead Valley. Leaders keep coming in and thinking they can get a following.

BOLTON: Only a couple of council members expressed support. But the group's offer got a warmer response from the local chief of police and city manager. Hate groups hoping to find supporters are persistent in this part of the Northwest. State and national human rights groups say communities speaking in a unified voice can shut them down. They're pointing other communities to Love Lives Here's tactics. And this fall, a chapter formed at nearby Coeur d'Alene, Idaho.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in Hebrew).

BOLTON: On the first night of Hanukkah this year, Jews in Whitefish gathered in an undisclosed location under watch of armed security. Hilary Shaw paused to celebrate another year since the attack.

HILARY SHAW: And it's important for us to take a moment and hold tight to each other, honor one another's recovery, honor one another's healing.

BOLTON: Andrew Anglin, the organizer of the online troll storm, was ordered earlier this year to pay one of the Jewish victims $14 million in damages by a federal judge. Shaw hopes that might serve as a warning. More importantly, she says the congregation is moving on.

SHAW: We will be the congregation that survived this event, that was strengthened by it, that was harmed by it, and it's part of who we are now.

BOLTON: A sign of that strength, she says, is the ever growing number of Jewish households that joined the congregation both during and after the attack. For NPR News, I'm Aaron Bolton in Whitefish, Mont.

(SOUNDBITE OF KID LOCO AND CLAUDE ROCHARD'S "CLAIRE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.