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At USF St. Petersburg, foe of hate groups tells of legacy of Simon Wiesenthal

Mark Weitzman of the Simon Wiesenthal Center spoke this week at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.
Published Jan. 28, 2016

ST. PETERSBURG

Mark Weitzman had just begun working at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in New York City when the famous Nazi hunter stuck his head in the door of Weitzman's office.

Wiesenthal took one look at the jumble of paperwork atop the desk and declared, "Ah, now I feel at home."

He sat down to chat, Weitzman recalled with a chuckle, "and it became a conversation that turned into a friendship" that lasted until Wiesenthal died in Vienna in 2005.

Wiesenthal survived the Holocaust and spent the rest of his life tracking down Nazi war criminals.

"When you meet somebody that has had an impact like that on the world … to move in the orbit of that person is an extraordinary opportunity," said Weitzman, who was in St. Petersburg on Monday for a speech to more than 200 people at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. "It leaves you a legacy to draw on."

Since his first encounter with Wiesenthal in the late 1980s, Weitzman has drawn on that legacy as he travels the world to campaign against a resurgence of anti-Semitism and decry the proliferation of hate and extremism on the Internet.

He is the director of the Task Force Against Hate and Terrorism at the Wiesenthal Center and its representative at the United Nations. The center is an international Jewish human rights organization that claims more than 400,000 members.

Weitzman's speech on Monday was sponsored by the university's honors program and the Florida Holocaust Museum. It was part of a lecture series endowed by Debbie Sembler, a former member of the USFSP Board of Trustees, and her husband, Brent, a developer.

In his speech, Weitzman traced an increasingly violent undercurrent of hate in America that has been personified by groups like the Ku Klux Klan, skinheads, Christian Identity, neo-Nazis, the Creativity Movement and Westboro Baptist Church, a small group in Topeka, Kan., known for its antigay protests at public events, including military funerals.

Hate groups have grown steadily since 2000, he said, driven in part by the election of America's first black president in 2008.

The FBI identified 602 hate groups in this country in 2000, Weitzman said. By 2011, the number had grown to 1,018. And FBI hate crime statistics released in December 2014 showed that Jews "were clearly the greatest target (of religious hate crime incidents), even more than Muslims, more than any other religious group," he said.

The Wiesenthal Center used to maintain an annual report on what Weitzman called "digital terrorism." But with the explosion of social media, he said, "we had to stop counting."

Social networking officials say they can't police the postings that flood their sites, Weitzman said, but Facebook has established two research groups to respond to complaints.

"We can call Facebook and say, 'Look at this site; we think it violates your standards,' and if they agree, they'll do something about it," Weitzman said. "If they don't, we'll try again the next time. But at least there is a sense of responsibility to it."

In the interview after his speech, Weitzman said the Wiesenthal Center used to believe that "very few people were radicalized by the Internet. It was a gateway, but someone generally had to make personal contact, for both domestic and international terrorism.

"You can't say that anymore," he said. "There are people who have committed (terrorist) acts who have never met anyone. Their radicalization was completely online. (The Internet) is the most potent tool for violent radicalization that I would say has ever existed."

In his life and travels, Weitzman said, he has encountered anti-Semitism in both diplomats and ordinary people.

Sometimes he reacts, he said, and sometimes he doesn't.

"In general, I don't like leaving those things unchallenged. But it's part of the assessment process. Are you the person to do it? There are people who could make a situation worse when they open their mouth, even if they're right."

Weitzman said he has a friend who is a Muslim scholar who leads a Holocaust and genocide study center at a Catholic school in New York City.

"Only in America, only in New York maybe, (can you) have a Muslim woman heading a Holocaust study center at a Catholic school," he said. "And to me, that sums up where we should be."

Samantha Putterman is a student journalist at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. Contact her at (772) 240-6079.

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