Last week, I testified via telephone before the North Dakota Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. I was one of six people to speak before the committee; we were each allotted ten minutes. The purpose of the briefing was, in their words, “for the North Dakota Advisory Committee to better understand the issue of hate crimes in North Dakota, including practices and policies in place or needed to address the problem.” It was a disaster. I and other speakers were disregarded and attacked. This article from the High Plains Reader does a really good job of setting the scene.
I have had a constructive discussion with the coordinator in Washington and some destructive exchanges with a couple of the committee members. I won’t get into any of that. I realize now that my and others’ testimonies are too important to be limited to just the committee. So, I am publishing my remarks here, for everyone to read.
I will add that I have been quite reluctant to post the text, in part, because neither my parents nor my in-laws know about some of the stuff I document. We didn’t want to scare them. I realize now that the public good of this testimony outweighs my family’s personal concerns, so to them, I offer my apologies for putting them through this.
Invited Testimony: North Dakota Advisory Committee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights, June 19, 2019.
My name is Jack Russell Weinstein. I am a Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Institute for Philosophy in Public Life, at the University of North Dakota.
I would like to thank the committee for agreeing to hear my testimony today. I was invited to do so last week by the Director of High Plains Fair Housing, an organization dedicated to stopping housing discrimination. It is noteworthy that my invitation came via the informal networks of friendship and not through the official bodies that are aware of the facts I will recount today. This kind of backdoor advocacy is indicative of the patterns I will describe. The basic point of my testimony is that the Grand Forks police, the city, and the University of North Dakota, have no interest in investigating hate crimes, nor do they have any intention of supporting its victims.
My estimate is that there are 30 to 40 identifiably Jewish households in the entire state; we are a small group. This is consistent with my experience at UND where I have been faculty advisor to the Jewish Student Organization for eighteen years. There are no more than 15 Jewish students out of about 11,000, at any one time. There are fewer faculty. I often joke that UND is one of the only universities in which being Jewish is an affirmative action category. In fact, right before I was offered the job, a colleague in our department surreptitiously said to me, and I quote, “you know, it’s funny, when we first advertised for the position, we all said to one another, it would be nice to get a Jew.” In short, when things go wrong, there are very few people Jews can turn to. Things do go wrong.
13 years ago, someone drew a swastika on the sidewalk outside of our house. My wife and I were out of town and called the Grand Forks police, but the dispatcher refused to help, telling me that if I were worried, I could call 911 in Seattle, where I was at the time. He hung up.
I happened, just by luck, to work with the wife of the Police Captain. I called him at home and he agreed to investigate. The perpetrators turned out to be two middle-school boys who lived about four blocks away. We did not know them nor their family. They supposedly targeted us to get the boy next door in trouble. It was labeled a prank and no one was punished.
We kept the incident to ourselves for seven years until a couple of high-school students went to a hockey game dressed in Ku Klux Klan outfits. My understanding is that there were black players on the opposing team and the kids wore the costumes to intimidate them. Again, the act was dismissed as a prank, so I wrote an Op-ed to explain why it needed to be taken more seriously, and I told the story of the swastika. As I explained, the issue wasn’t simply the perpetrators, it was the whole neighborhood. The kids hadn’t met us, but knew we were Jewish. They knew this because their parents were talking about it, who knew it because our neighbors were. Unbeknownst to us, we had been gossiped about and condemned. When the Op-Ed was published, I was accused in and out of the newspaper of being unreasonable.
A few years after the swastika at our house, I found myself assisting a first-year student on campus, who was being targeted for being Jewish. He was verbally and physically harassed for weeks, enduring messages of hate in his hall and elevator. He went to dorm officials. They did nothing. Neither did the housing director, nor the police. When I was finally told about it by another Jewish student, I sent close to thirty emails to every official you can imagine, and days later, received a singular e-mail indicating that the incident was “an administrative matter.” Four days before I got that, the student had moved out of the dorm under the protection of a very large friend.
The Jewish Student Organization went public and I wrote a letter of support to the newspaper. In response, the administration called me “strident” and “militant,” describing me as a crackpot trouble maker. The president refused to acknowledge that the vandalism involved swastikas, claiming it was simply an ambiguous shape. Of course, the public attention led to a rash of “unambiguous” swastikas graffitied around campus. Calling attention to antisemitism always leads to more.
What we see here is a pattern: when faced with anti-Jewish hate crimes, the Grand Forks community dismisses it, the authorities ignore it, and the spokespeople attack the messengers. There is no follow-up, reconciliation, or education. The victim is revictimized, always in the public eye, and made more vulnerable. The authorities flat-out refuse to call it a hate crime. Of course, things were, thankfully, different when a local Somali Café was firebombed a couple of years ago—an incident I assume you have been made aware of—but there were detailed surveillance films of the perpetrator and no one could get away with dismissing it, even if they wanted to. Taking it seriously didn’t depend on just the testimony of a Jew.
Fast forward to last year, a couple days after the slaughter at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, when someone threw a rock through a window at our home. There was no proof that the two incidents were connected, but we were confident they were, as was everyone else we told. We called the police.
The officer who came out to speak to us was empathetic and patient. It did not escape our notice that she was a woman with a Native American last name. We got the sense that she understood these sorts of things happen and that they are scarring. So, it was particularly upsetting when the follow-up phone call from the assigned investigator was really just an exercise in dismissing our concerns. He lectured me condescendingly and refused to take seriously that the incident was triggered by the ubiquitous media coverage of attacks on Jews.
I pushed, telling him how frustrated I was with the Grand Forks Police’s unwillingness to take my concerns seriously, detailing a story I don’t need to get into here, in which police implied they’d arrest me for insisting that they respond to a threat against my daughter and her friends. The girls were celebrating an eleven-year old’s birthday party at a hotel and were accosted by drunks for singing happy birthday. In response to my story, the investigator claimed he felt attacked. In other words, I and my family, the victims of numerous hate crimes, whose names, faces, and address are well-known to the community, was accused of attacking a police officer for giving evidence on the phone, while he, a man with a gun, was safe in a police station, surrounded by other men with guns. Again, this is what happens in North Dakota. The victim becomes the accused and nothing ever changes. The police neither grow nor learn; they are above mistakes. I filed a formal complaint, which I can send to the committee, but the leadership found in favor of their own.
These are the big incidents. I am skipping over the swastikas drawn on our synagogue door and the years of enduring plastic Santa Clauses being left on its stoop, the complaints from my students when I dare teach a Jewish philosopher, or snide comments and stereotyping when I speak up for myself or pursue professional advancement.
I want to be fair. I am also passing over the kind and wonderful neighbors who did come to our assistance, the staff at my daughters elementary schools who reacted to her concerns as a Jewish student, and those at her middle school, who work tremendously hard to support their diverse refugee population.
I recognize that in a diverse society, there will always be people who act on hate. The true long-term problems are the officials and bureaucracy that conspire to dismiss, obfuscate, hide, and intimidate victims. I am an economically secure senior professor with a job that protects my free speech. Yet, I know that I cannot rely on my university to take my concerns seriously. I am lifelong best friends with a woman who retired as a Sargent, after 20 years in the New York State Police, so I am predisposed to be sympathetic to law enforcement. Yet, I am certain that I cannot trust the Grand Forks Police. I am nothing but pessimistic about what it means to be a Jew in North Dakota.
Finally, when someone with my economic and social advantage feels as vulnerable as I do, it is a clear sign as to how powerless people feel who aren’t as lucky. If it is this difficult for me to be heard, it must be impossible for those without the voice, security, education, or social capital that I have. I therefore speak today, not just for myself, but because there are others who are too frightened or have been made too afraid and vulnerable to file a formal police complaint or to come before the committee and testify.
Footnote: I write above that there are 30-40 “identifiably Jewish households” in the state; this needs to be explained. The Jewish Year Book reports there were 400 individual Jews in North Dakota in 2018. I think that’s high, but I use their number as a starting point,. The majority of Jews in the state are recent converts, who easily pass as non-Jewish, and are therefore significantly less identifiable and therefore, less vulnerable. Once I adjust for people who have visible Jewish traits, who look Jewish, or who have known Jewish last names like mine, I would estimate 30-40 households that can be easily identified as Jewish, by strangers. This may be a little low, but I am confident that it is in the ballpark.
10 comments on “What’s it like being Jewish in North Dakota? My testimony.”
Jack your friends and people who look up to you are behind you. Keep speaking up to our avoidant culture in North Dakota. Keep pushing for progress it important and worth it. Thank you for not being silent.
Thank you, Scott. Your support is always appreciated, as is your open-mindedness. Despite your remark, I think it is I who look up to you.
All my solidarity. I’m subscribed to your Why Radio podcasts and I just read this. I’m Jewish myself and I live in Chile. I generally keep a low profile qua Jew.
I am one of the Editors of the American Jewish Year Book and the lead author of the article on US Jewish population included in that volume since 2004. I would take issue with your estimate of the Jewish population of North Dakota. Here is what we have:
Grand Forks 150
While our estimates are just that (estimates), based on the fact that there are two operating synagogues, B’nai Israel in Grand Forks and Temple Beth El in Fargo, both of which have elaborate websites and significant buildings, it is more likely that our estimate of 400 for the state is more reasonable than your estimate of 30-40 active families. We could be a bit high (or low, for that matter) but i think our ballpark is closer than yours.
We are always interested in improving our estimates. If you want to find our how many households belong to teach synagogue and let me know. I can work on refining that estimate.
Thank you for this. I appreciate both the comment and the work you do.
I have been a member of B’nai Israel for 18 years, including being the Vice President and sitting on the board. I also deigned and maintained the website you refer to, until a few years ago. There are _NOT_ 150 people in the synagogue.
On an average once-per-month Friday night service, there are about 10-15 people in attendance. (We fly in a student rabbi from Cincinnati once per month, because we can’t afford to employ one. At a lay-led service, there are about six people in attendance). On a busy Yum Kippur, with out-of-town guests, there can be as many as 40. When my daughter became bat mitzvah, we had 88 people, which filled the shul to capacity. 75% of those people were not Jewish.
The B’nai Israel Facebook group (which I also started) has, in it’s lifetime, 171 likes. I no longer administrate it, so I can’t give you the exact number, but of my 28 “friends” who have liked the page, only 8 actually live here. 19 of the others have been in residence at one time or another.
I would guess the Beth El experience is similar but double, because of the difference in the city’s population. And no, there are not 50 Jews in Bismarck. There just aren’t.
I think you fundamentally misunderstand the numbers in North Dakota. Jews here are transient. They come as students or work a job a few years and leave as soon as they can. In the 18 years I have been here, B’nai Israel has hosted no more than a half dozen Bar/Bat Mitzvot. The only other one celebrating a child who was born in Grand Forks was in (approximately) 2005. In the entire Grand Forks public school district, there are five or six students.
Why stay in North Dakota? There are many many better places for Jewish people in the USA.
Very true, wish they would leave since the kvetching never stops and they continually stir up trouble; California is a nice place Jack, why not head to LA?
Thank you for sharing your story. I lived in Minot for three years. I adored the Hebrew cemetery and wished for much more Jewish culture. It didn’t dawn on me until recently that Minot did not and still does not have a synagogue. A Hebrew cemetery without a synagogue. I’m crushed by this realization.
I’ve been looking for more information about the Jewish people of North Dakota and your article is one of the few things I’ve found. It’s truly upsetting that antisemitism still exists today. It’s even more upsetting to know that you have to carry the burden with such isolation. It was brave of you to come forward as well as helpful. Thank you again.