For at least three years running, WalletHub has ranked four Montgomery County localities as among the most ethnically diverse in the nation: Germantown, Gaithersburg, Silver Spring and Rockville. People of color make up the majority of residents of the county.
Jewish people account for about 10% of the county’s population, based on data from the Greater Washington Jewish Community Study and the U.S. Census. That proportion is easily three times the national average.
Several county schools have adopted the Anti-Defamation League’s “No Place for Hate” program and leaders such as County Executive Marc Elrich have declared that, “Diversity is our strength.”
Yet Montgomery County has faced sporadic bursts of hate and bias incidents against minority groups. These have included discrimination against Asian American residents at the height of the coronavirus pandemic and, most recently, multiple acts of antisemitic vandalism and protests against drag performers.
Ken Jassie, a professor of art history and the Holocaust education coordinator at Montgomery College, said the hateful episodes are indicative of the county’s diversity.
“You wouldn’t expect [Montgomery County] to have such incidences, but, in a way, part of diversity is that you also have people whose ideas are … not very productive or constructive or even hateful who are there, too,” he said. “That’s sort of testing the limits of what tolerance is. … There’s not ever 100% good [people]; there’s always some people who act in ways that are not acceptable.”
Graffiti found spray-painted Dec. 17 on the Walt Whitman High School sign in Bethesda marked at least the fourth instance of antisemitic vandalism in the county since August. According to the Anti-Defamation League’s tracker, antisemitic incidents in the county spiked from three in 2021 to 15 in 2022. The number of antisemitic incidents tracked by Montgomery County police has varied widely, from a low of 23 in 2015 to a high of 38 in 2017; last year 29 such incidents were recorded.
Protests have been staged this year at events in the county produced by Drag Story Hour, part of an international program in which drag performers read stories to children in libraries, schools and bookstores. The readings are intended to create safe spaces for queer families and to promote literacy while having fun, organizers say.
During the summer, anti-LGBTQ protestors disrupted a number of the story hour events throughout the country, including two incidents in Silver Spring. In October, members of the right-wing Proud Boys made an appearance at a Drag Story Hour event at Brookside Gardens wearing skeleton-face masks and carrying signs that read “Science is real boy or girl” or “Groomer” crossed out with a red “X.”
According to Beth DiGregorio, president of Drag Story Hour DC Metro and surrounding areas, people she encounters always seem surprised when they hear about the protest, especially an appearance of the Proud Boys, due to how diverse Montgomery County is.
During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, incidents of discrimination against the Asian community proliferated, across the U.S. and in the county. A 2021 Bethesda Magazine article reported that Chinese and Filipino business owners faced anti-Asian hate and often lived in fear. In early 2021, two incidents occurred in which women of Asian descent were followed home from their Montgomery County restaurants and robbed at gunpoint.
Although these three groups have been the most prominent targets of vandalism and violence, other local groups, such as Black and Muslim communities, have faced verbal hate in the county, according to Jim Stowe, executive director of the county’s Office of Civil Rights.
“It has just been a season, probably the last 18 months or so, that we’ve noticed that increase in this activity,” he said. “There are things that are happening throughout the community. [I’m] not sure there’s an exact reason for this increase.”
Gil Preuss, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington in North Bethesda, says the antisemitism in the county originates at the national level.
“Whether it’s more on social media or other things where people have been willing to espouse antisemitic ideas or praise for Hitler … that’s in the public space across the whole country,” he said.
According to Montgomery College’s Jassie, antisemitic ideas are amplified not only by the use of social media but also by prominent people who generate the ideas.
“I think what really made this issue come to the fore is when you happen to have these two threads where we have celebrities, entertainers, whatnot, bringing antisemitic ideas into the mainstream, and also political leaders at the same time,” he said.
One notable example is the rapper Ye (formerly Kanye West), who was briefly restored this fall to Twitter, where he shared antisemitic sentiments. He was recently welcomed to former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate; the two dined with Holocaust denier Nick Fuentes.
Jassie said because these people command a large audience, their followers will listen to their ideals even if they aren’t rational–thereby legitimizing the discourse.
Coming down from the national level, Pruess said, “we see some specific actions locally within our own community. So, it takes this question about what’s happening in the country more broadly and makes it very specific about our own lives where we live day to day, the communities in which we are part of.”
The national scale of antisemitism has increased the anger and frustration of Montgomery County’s Jewish community members, according to Pruess.
He said there has been a fairly strong response from county leadership condemning antisemitic actions, but there is a larger question that needs to be asked to prevent future acts.
“What is there that we could do to reduce the likelihood that someone would even do this?” he said. “Can we have more effective education? It’s 77 years after the Holocaust, and maybe people don’t think at all about where hate can lead. Do we need to have more effective education about hate or about the Holocaust? That’s, for me, the larger question of what we can do as a community, within our school system, within our organizations so that this idea of really kind of hating any group — I mean in this particular case it’s the Jewish community — but kind of as a collective hate is seen as illegitimate.”
On Thursday, Whitman students staged a walkout and called for Montgomery County Public Schools to require more Holocaust education in the curriculum.
In terms of education, Jassie works with colleagues to bring pieces from the Montgomery College’s Portraits of Life exhibition, which highlight Holocaust survivors who live in Montgomery County, into Montgomery County Public Schools and to present Holocaust survivors to speak to students.
“People, especially young people, need to know about the Holocaust, antisemitism and hatred and discrimination and bigotry and what that leads to, or what that can lead to,” Jassie said.
Montgomery College also annually holds a Holocaust Commemoration, which Jassie said will be held Feb. 28, 2023.
Stowe said the best thing that county residents can do to address hate is to face it head-on.
“We must as a community speak out, as individuals speak out, as neighborhoods speak out against [hate] and not let them go back without being challenged,” he said. “So that would be the call to action for our community that we must always respond in a way that shows, again, that we are unified in that particular regard. … At the end of the day all of us agree that this community is one for which we believe in the Montgomery County way.”
Jassie said the real concern lies in if these hateful incidents continue or get worse. He referenced media reports of an incident earlier this month in which a 63-year-old man was assaulted in New York’s Central Park by a fortysomething man who made antisemitic statements, as well as to an attack in November at an LGBTQ club in Colorado Springs, Colorado, in which an assailant killed five people.
“There’s words and there’s statements that people make, and then there’s vandalism and then what often follows are violent acts, as in assaults,” he said. “The trajectory [of violent acts] in the last five years is generally going up. [There] was actually an attack on an older Jewish man in New York City the other day, someone who was attacked from behind suffered injuries. Whether it’s Asian people being assaulted or, of course, shooting in Colorado Springs in the LGBT club, that the trajectory of this expression of hatred does tend to lead, inevitably, to violent acts.”
The Jewish community and drag performers have amped up their security in light of attacks locally and throughout the country. The county in January awarded $700,000 in grants to protect houses of worship and nonprofits, and it conducts assessments and classes such as Securing Houses of Worship training.
“All the organizations and Jewish organizations need to continue, we need to lead our lives, and we need to … live and educate and engage and pray and do all the things that we wanted to,” Pruess said. “At the same time, we need to think about security. More and more synagogues have armed guards in front of them, more organizations. … These days you can’t really go into a Jewish organization that doesn’t have explicit security. It just doesn’t happen because people are afraid of the potential for an attack. And we’ve just seen that too often in this country.”
The drag community usually has the Parasol Patrol, a group formed to protect drag performers and attendees at story hour readings. The group creates a rainbow wall of flags and umbrellas to shield families from the visual of the protesters and, if necessary, plays loud Disney music to drown out their shouts.
DiGregorio said she would like to see more from local leadership in the future.
“We’ve has a whole lot of support from the community, not just the queer community, but the community at large and a lot of politicians and businesses,” she said. “But what we haven’t seen is any action on that front from people in positions of power. So all of the organizing that has been done to protect the people at these events have all been community organized, just local people who want to help, and it would be nice to see in a more official way of protecting the event attendees, the children and the performers from a legal standpoint.”
Recently, MCPS added six LGBTQ-inclusive books to its supplemental curriculum for pre-k through fifth grade, Bethesda Beat reported. DiGregorio said such initiatives are a step in the right direction.
“I think that getting gender-inclusive training for teachers and staff so that they can present a more gender-inclusive education would make a huge difference in the community,” she said. “I think that a lot of negative stereotypes people have and negative opinions they have is just because they don’t know anyone, that they don’t know any better because they’ve never met a queer person to know what they’re actually like.”
Regardless of how hate has slipped through the cracks, leaders and advocates insist it has no place in Montgomery County.
“Hate is not welcome here,” Stowe said. “No form, no fashion, no how. We’ve got to figure out how we … combat that. One of the things that we’re trying to do is always speak out against it, not let it go by without there being some comment by some group that might suggest that’s the case here. No hate allowed here in Montgomery County.”