Keila Szpaller

(Daily Montanan) A Montana state senator’s agreement to have coffee with a religious leader might not have been worth a mention a few years ago.

Now, in a time when people are entrenched in their political views, it may be a small but meaningful reminder Montanans can still, sometimes, talk with each other.

This week, Sen. Jeremy Trebas retweeted a post on social media — since deleted — that implies Jews sacrifice babies.

In a letter to the Great Falls Republican, the Montana Jewish Project said harmful tropes like the one he reposted were used as a justification for the mass murder of Jews, which “horrifically reached its apotheosis in the Holocaust, when 6 million Jews were killed.”

“We expect better of you, Senator Trebas,” said Montana Jewish Project Director Rebecca Stanfel in the letter. “We ask that you immediately remove this offensive message on your X account and apologize for spreading vitriolic antisemitism.”

Trebas took down the post.

In an interview with the Daily Montanan, he said he intended to make a point about the way abortion and religion intertwine, and he didn’t intend to spread antisemitism.

“I realize it didn’t precisely get across the point I was trying to make,” Trebas said. “So I removed it.”

Trebas has not apologized. He said he is open to discussion and Stanfel’s invitation to talk.

“Rebecca and I will have some coffee in the future,” he said.

***

Antisemitism has been rearing its head in the U.S. in recent years and in Montana. The ADL, formerly the Anti-Defamation League, counts more than 70 hate and white supremacist incidents in Montana since 2022.

White supremacists recently demonstrated in front of the Har Shalom synagogue in Missoula, and a vandal or vandals placed racist propaganda in public library books in Great Falls. In Bozeman, Montana State University is under federal investigation for antisemitic discrimination.

“Many antisemitic and hate-based incidents go unreported, but we’ve seen a sharp increase in antisemitic rhetoric and activity in recent years and post-Oct. 7 (when Hamas attacked Israel) in the region and nationwide,” said Miri Cypers, with the ADL’s Pacific Northwest region, in an email.

Rabbi Emerita Laurie Franklin, who retired from Har Shalom in 2022, said she was horrified to see a screenshot of the tweet of the negative stereotype of child sacrifice, which goes back to the Middle Ages.

“Just to see it rear its head again in contemporary public life is unsettling, strange and bizarre,” said Franklin, also founding member of the Montana Association of Rabbis. “And it seems to me it comes from a prejudicial view of Jewish religions and actually lack of knowledge about it — or rejection of knowledge.”

But she also offered a suggestion to quell antisemitism, related misinformation and the ensuing harm it can cause to the Jewish community.

“We have to keep talking to each other,” Franklin said.

She said she does so at the Montana Legislature when issues come up related to religious freedom, and she speaks out on other topics too.

“I would love to be able to enter into dialogue with people who are willing to listen and be listened to,” Franklin said. “I think that’s always valuable if it can be made to happen. It’s not always possible.”

For example, Speaker of the House Matt Regier never did agree to talk with Stanfel after he canceled a scheduled prayer of Rep. Ed Stafman, a rabbi, during the legislative session.

In an opinion piece, Regier, a Kalispell Republican, said people need to push back against antisemitism, but he didn’t explain the reason he took Stafman, a Bozeman Democrat, off the schedule.

Stanfel said in an interview this week, she had reached out to Regier when she was heading to his area in the hopes of having coffee, but he did not respond to her.

Now, however, she and Trebas will get together, and Stanfel said she also doesn’t want to lose sight of the substantial support the Jewish community in Montana has received in the midst of the harassment — from people of other faiths and likely some who don’t claim any religious affiliation.

Bishop Laurie Jungling, for example, of the Montana synod, Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, said her church recognizes the hate Jews have experienced at the hands of Christians, including Lutherans, over the course of history.

“So we really want to make an effort, a conscious effort, to support the Jewish community in Montana and care for them,” said Jungling, who leads congregations in Montana and northern Wyoming.

***

The post from Trebas evolved on social media.

First, Sarah Marian Seltzer, an editor of Lilith, a Jewish and “frankly feminist” magazine, said this in an X post:

“Just a friendly reminder that banning abortion violates Jewish women’s ability to practice our religion.”

Rabbi Franklin shared how abortion fits into the context of the Jewish religion.

“Judaism is a religion that really values life and procreation, but also values the life of the woman over the developing fetus,” Franklin said.

She said it is permissible to end a pregnancy if the woman is in distress, which includes physical health and can extend to mental health.

“It’s actually a carefully worked out religious view which both recognizes the value of life and particularly the value of the woman who is bearing potential life, which is not yet realized,” Franklin said.

On social media, however, a different account that pushes Christian nationalism added an image of child sacrifice to Seltzer’s post with this: “If child sacrifice is a core tenant (sic) of your religion, you don’t worship Yahweh, You (sic) worship Moloch.”

The Montana Jewish Project said Molok refers in modern times to a god who demands child sacrifice.

Trebas reposted it.

He told the Daily Montanan he recognized in hindsight the validity of the argument the post was propagating antisemitism, although he disagreed it would lead to the harassment of the Jewish community.

“If I need to, I categorically reject any nationalism or antisemitism or anti-Jewish sentiment. I do mean it,” Trebas said.

He said he believes abortion is wrong, but he doesn’t believe it’s as much of a religious issue as some people do. In reconsideration, he said the post didn’t make that point well.

“I’ll try to be more precise in the future,” Trebas said.

He also said this: “I’m open to discussion.”

***

After Trebas reposted the trope, Stanfel sent a letter to him asking him to remove it and inviting him to talk with the Montana Jewish Project and learn about Jewish life in Montana and recent threats.

“I am sure that in your capacity as a Montana state senator, you are aware of the rapid increase of antisemitism we are experiencing,” Stanfel wrote. “According to the ADL, antisemitic incidents tripled between 2020 and 2023 — and this was before the Hamas terrorist attacks in Israel on Oct. 7.

“In the past two weeks, some of Montana’s Jewish congregations have received bomb threats. Earlier this month, in Great falls, whose residents you represent in the Montana Senate, a neo-Nazi organization leafleted the city’s library with racist and antisemitic materials.

“There is never a good time to fan the flames of antisemitism. Now, when the safety of Jewish Montanans is at risk, it is particularly dangerous.”

In an interview, Stanfel said she’s seen an uptick in antisemitic messaging, which leads to an uptick in antisemitic activity, “which is very concerning.”

One week earlier, Gov. Greg Gianforte, a Republican, participated in a menorah lighting in Bozeman. His office released a statement acknowledging a “surge in antisemitism across the country and world.”

“Montana stands in light with the Jewish faith and people, and we stand firmly against the darkness of antisemitism,” Gianforte said.

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat, also earlier responded to threats in part by asking the Department of Homeland Security and FBI to provide additional assistance and resources to synagogues and local law enforcement.

“I want to make very clear to you that this threat is not isolated to major cities and urban areas,” Tester said in his letter. “We are seeing a rise in anti-Semitism in rural states like Montana.”

Stanfel said she would have liked to see a response to Trebas’ post from elected leaders such as Senate President Jason Ellsworth, a Hamilton Republican. He did not respond Thursday to messages from the Daily Montanan.

“It feels irresponsible, it feels cavalier, it feels callous, it feels cruel to let this go unmentioned, unnoticed,” Stanfel said. “It’s OK. It’s just another day on someone’s Twitter feed.”

In a condemnation of Trebas’ repost, the Montana Human Rights Network pointed out the same conspiracy about child sacrifice came up during the legislative session this year at a hearing on a bill — sponsored by Rep. Stafman — to support the religious right to access abortion.

The bill, House Bill 471, died, but Franklin, Montana Human Rights Network board president, also commented in an interview on the public hearing.

“It just seems that among certain segments of our Montana community, there are people who are very, very hostile to religious freedom and very hostile to the idea that Judaism, for example or even other groups within Christianity, might find abortion to be acceptable under certain circumstances. And there is a demonization of those who would hold a view different from theirs — a very serious demonization — and that is disturbing.”

In an email, University of Montana Professor Tobin Miller Shearer said holding members of an institution accountable for reprehensible behavior matters.

“We have lots of historical examples … of lax enforcement leading to subsequent greater transgressions,” Miller Shearer said.

He pointed to the sexual assault crisis at the University of Montana roughly a decade ago.

“Just think for example how differently things would have played out had the administration at the time held responsible those who allowed instances of sexual assault to take place without consequences for the perpetrators,” Miller Shearer said.

He also said this: “Although not a given – history is never predictive; only indicative – failure to condemn problematic behavior of any kind often has led to more egregious and inflammatory behavior at a later point.”

***

All the same, Stanfel said Montanans have rallied around their Jewish neighbors as well.

More than 3,000 small donors helped the Montana Jewish Project purchase the old synagogue in Helena, as did other congregations, she said.

And when former Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, invited the Montana Jewish Project to speak at his bar in Helena for his “soapbox” series, Stanfel said the place was filled with 90% non-Jews, and some made offers.

“‘We’re willing to circle your building and protect you if you’re ever having an event,’” she said people told her.

So she said it’s important to call out elected officials when they spread antisemitic conspiracies on the internet, and it’s also important to be mindful of all of the history of Montana.

“We live in a state that has always, since the 1860s in Helena, has always welcomed and supported and had the backs of Jewish Montanans,” Stanfel said.

In an email, Rev. Janet Potter, with the First Presbyterian Church of Helena, said people can learn lessons from history. When hatred and division are on the rise, she said, political leaders have an opportunity to build unity instead.

“Two years ago I toured Vad Vashem, The World Holocaust Remembrance Center, in Tel Aviv, Israel,” said Potter, interim pastor. “I was appalled to read the large displays on how Hitler was inspired and motivated by racism in the United States.

“To see hatred and antisemitism on the rise today is both heartbreaking and distressing. This has no place in Montana or the United States.”

Bishop Jungling, who is based in Great Falls, said at least in her denomination, worshippers practice pluralism, and they learn from other religions.

“We’re here to love one another and support one another and respect and protect the dignity and worth of other people, our Jewish neighbors certainly included,” Jungling said.

She said the heritage of Christianity is built using Jewish resources, such as the Old Testament and many other practices, “so we are interrelated.”

“We all experience God. We just do so in different ways, and we all have something to add to that journey of knowing and experiencing God,” Jungling said.

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