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Tanya Gersh 04

Tanya Gersh, left, walks arm-in-arm with her father Lloyd Rosenstein following a hearing at the Russell Smith Federal Courthouse on Thursday afternoon in Missoula.

It was a chilling experience sitting the courtroom listening to Tanya Gersh tell her story of harassment by the neo-Nazis. No one — Jew, Christian, Muslim, white, black or any shade skin color, Native American, foreigner, regardless of gender or sexual identity, or member of any minority — should experience the spew of hate, harassment and bullying she experienced. No one. Period!

What sort of person, or group, so damaged feels the need to spew hate, stoke fear, and to do so anonymously and cowardly, cloaked in the damage of their own dark souls?

As Tanya Gersh's friend, I felt compassion for her and her family for the pain they endured. As a fellow Jew, her story resonates within my psyche and the history of our people. With the multiple drops of anti-Semitic leaflets in Missoula over the years, Gersh's experience, the murderous attacks on Jews in California and Pittsburgh, and other anti-Semitic incidents too numerous to list, now is the first time I have ever felt afraid being a Jew.

Tanya Gersh is a brave woman. She is a beacon of light.

By coincidence, two days later, the Wall Street Journal published an opinion piece by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Hirsi All says "I was born in Somalia and grew up amid pervasive Muslim anti-Semitism. Hatred is hard to unlearn without coming to terms with how you learned it." The title is "Can Ilhan Omar Overcome Her Prejudice?"

Former Neo-Nazi and skinhead leader Christian Picciolini has a similar message. Picciolini has spoken twice in Missoula and his story had been told on "60 Minutes." His journey is a perfect example how one can be susceptible to the worst of human nature and with struggle rise above it. There was a time I would have been in fear of Picciolini. Having met him in person, heard his story, knowing the healing work he undertakes, I now welcome him into my home.

What is the message for all of us? Is there one? Perhaps, it is for us to have courage and be brave. Gersh took great risk to take her case public. Hirsi Ali and Picciolini looked into the mirror, confronted themselves and transformed their lives.

My suggestion is for each of us, as a member of the human family, to do this as well: look into our own hearts and search for the divine message of mutual respect and embrace of our fellow human beings. That is the message that speaks not just to us, but speaks to all of humanity.

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Edward Brown is a Jew living in Missoula, a member of the Southern Poverty Law Center that represented Tanya Gersh in court, and a longtime advocate for human rights. 

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