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Clearwater candidate appeared on show known for antisemitic, racist content

Aaron Smith-Levin said he wanted to make a point about Scientology, but regrets his decision to discuss it on Rick Wiles’ TruNews show.
Aaron Smith-Levin, right, is interviewed by Rick Wiles, left, on the TruNews website.
Aaron Smith-Levin, right, is interviewed by Rick Wiles, left, on the TruNews website. [ TRACEY MCMANUS | Times ]
Published Oct. 28, 2021|Updated Oct. 28, 2021

CLEARWATER — Since launching his YouTube channel in 2015, Aaron Smith-Levin has used the platform to talk about alleged abuses within the Church of Scientology.

A Scientology defector who is running for City Council in the March 15 election, Smith-Levin said he believes in educating anybody who will listen about alleged fraud, exploitation and forced estrangement in the church, which has its spiritual headquarters in downtown Clearwater.

Recently, that audience included far-right conspiracy theorist and end-times pastor Rick Wiles. On Monday, Smith-Levin posted a video breaking down an interview he gave to Wiles’ TruNews web show, which has a record of virulent antisemitism and has been banned for its rhetoric by platforms like Facebook, YouTube and PayPal.

In November 2019, Wiles called the first impeachment of President Donald Trump “a Jew coup” orchestrated by Jewish “deceivers” who “do whatever they have to do to accomplish their political agenda.”

Smith-Levin told the Tampa Bay Times he had never heard of Wiles before agreeing to go on his show. And when he accepted the invitation, he was unaware the pastor is “a purveyor of wild conspiracy theories and antisemitism,” he said.

He called it “a mistake to speak with TruNews without first looking into their background.”

On Wednesday, Smith-Levin deleted his video where he talked about his interview with Wiles after it had gained more than 7,700 views on YouTube and 500 on Facebook.

“I denounce and condemn antisemitism in the strongest possible terms,” he said, noting his paternal grandfather was Jewish.

Smith-Levin said a representative of TruNews reached out to him after viewing a previous video on his Growing Up in Scientology YouTube channel. The video explained his view that Scientology attempts to infiltrate Christian groups and conservative political circles. In his interview with Wiles, Smith-Levin said some members of Scientology falsely claim to also be Christian.

Smith-Levin explained that this strategy is used as a way to build allies in religious circles in the event that Scientology’s tax exempt status is ever challenged due to allegations of criminal activity.

Smith-Levin was raised in Scientology and began working on church staff at age 12. His family was torn apart by Scientology’s policy of disconnection, or forced estrangement. He defected in 2013.

“My message about how and why Scientology is working to infiltrate Christian groups and conservative political groups is an important message I want to deliver to all people of faith,” Smith-Levin said, “but I regret doing so on a platform that I know now also forwards antisemitic propaganda.”

Civil rights groups have warned of the dangers of normalizing extremists like Wiles.

“Public figures and community leaders appearing on extremist, antisemitic and conspiracy platforms may give the appearance of legitimizing an extremist message and could be helping to spread a problematic rhetoric to wider audiences,” said Sarah Emmons, Florida Regional Director of the Anti-Defamation League.

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In February 2020, 24 Democratic members of Congress sent a letter to Trump condemning Wiles and demanding the then-president revoke TruNews’ press access to the White House.

The representatives’ letter noted that Wiles has repeated antisemitic conspiracy theories that Jews are attempting world domination. He has also expressed racist and anti-LGBTQ rhetoric. In 2018, Wiles said that the United States has “a brown invasion that has come in.” In April, Wiles called COVID-19 vaccines a plot to carry out “global genocide.”

Smith-Levin is running for Seat 5, which will be vacated by council member Hoyt Hamilton due to term limits. So far only Smith Levin and community activist Lina Teixeira have filed paperwork to run for the seat, although candidates have until December to do so.

In announcing his campaign in September, Smith-Levin said he is running on a platform that the city should urge the IRS to review and revoke Scientology’s tax exempt status.


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