Last week, concerned St. Petersburg residents reported receiving antisemitic fliers on their doorsteps. The notes began by condemning progressives for promoting communism, and conservatives for only worrying about money, before launching into vitriol aimed at Jewish people and their allies.
They featured Nazi symbolism and promoted replacement theory, the white nationalist ideology that has inspired several mass shootings. A QR code at the bottom linked to an antisemitic film.
Still, Florida Holocaust Museum Chairman Mike Igel remains passionately optimistic.
Igel credits his grandparents for his hopefulness. They survived the Holocaust, and as Igel puts it, he is a “miracle” that “shouldn’t be here.” He elaborated that it’s not appropriate for him to be pessimistic when non-Jewish allies risked their lives to ensure his family’s survival.
As PBS reported in April, antisemitism hit a record high in 2021. The Anti-Defamation League recorded 2,717 antisemitic incidents in 2021, a 34% increase from 2020. However, even in a country that averaged seven such occurrences daily last year, Igel believes many more people stand on the side of love rather than hate.
“I think it’s less about whether it’s going to be here because it just is,” said Igel. “The core question for all of us is – what are we going to do about it because it is here?”
State senate candidate Eunic Ortiz reported in a social media post that notes in the Greater Woodlawn neighborhood of the city were placed in plastic bags with a rock and then thrown onto doorsteps. Igel, a staunch supporter of the First Amendment, finds it ironic that people employ Nazi symbolism while spreading hatred under the guise of free speech.
“If they (Nazis) were in power, they would be suppressing people’s right to speak their mind,” said Igel. “I have often commented that anti-Semites are an interesting bunch because you can meet one who will say that the Holocaust didn’t go far enough, and meet another that will say it never happened.”
Residents reported finding antisemitic fliers in the Historic Uptown neighborhood and along iconic Beach Drive in May 2021.
Three weeks later, someone spray-painted a swastika and the message “Jews are guilty” along the 1st Avenue South side of the Florida Holocaust Museum, in downtown St. Pete.
Igel noted that less than two weeks before the latest fliers wound up on city doorsteps, a group of antisemitic protestors waving Nazi flags descended upon the Tampa Convention Center during a Turning Point USA summit.
“It is continuing to happen, and I think the most important thing is how as a community are we responding,” said Igel. “And I don’t mean that as a trite little thing – the community needs to take action. This isn’t something that belongs in our community.”
Igel said he is not surprised that antisemitic tropes, many of which are thousands of years old, persist throughout the region and nation. However, because St. Pete is such a welcoming and respectful community, he views the incidents as an opportunity for the city to show itself as “the beacon of inclusiveness that we are.”
While Igel said the community has been supportive following the latest incident, he believes it requires more. He still feels a sense of complacency among residents who, after initial feelings of disgust and empathy, quickly return to their daily lives.
People might not realize how they can help, said Igel, and the good news is there are answers. He encourages people to contact the museum for guidance on becoming an “upstander,” what it calls people that do the right thing regardless of the circumstance. He also urges parents and students to request further Holocaust education in the classroom.
“The lessons of the Holocaust are those of what can happen when people don’t step up for the right thing,” explained Igel. “But it’s also what happens when they do.
“It’s the wonderful miracles that happen when people stand up and do the right thing.”
Igle believes that as those lessons become an increasing part of the community consciousness, it will help press the small group of people focused on spreading hate even further into the societal fringe.
When vandals defaced the FHM last year, the city came together for a vigil, and several leaders from a wide range of faiths spoke in unity with their Jewish counterparts. Igel said he strongly supports those events, emphasizing that is what the community needs.
Hate doesn’t exist in a vacuum, Igel added, and it is his experience that anti-Semites do not embrace other minorities. He added that when the community is ready to come together to say “no” yet again, he is certain the museum will support another event.
“I think it’s important and incumbent upon other organizations to stand by organizations like the museum and to stand with their Jewish neighbors to say that this isn’t ok,” said Igel. “Because this isn’t just a Jewish problem. That’s a problem for St. Pete, not the Jews in St. Pete.”
For more information on the Florida Holocaust Museum, visit the website here.