Teaneck’s sword-wielding Nazi fighter
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Teaneck’s sword-wielding Nazi fighter

Talia Lavin’s journey into the dark web of white supremacy

Talia Lavin, sword in hand
Talia Lavin, sword in hand

When Talia Lavin set up a dating profile on WhiteDate.net, she didn’t mention that she grew up in Teaneck.

In fact, the writer, who worked for the Jewish Telegraph Agency and the New Yorker before embarking on the Nazi-hunting career she describes in her recent book, “Culture Warlords: My Journey Into the Dark Web of White Supremacy,” presented a fully fictional profile on the dating site.

As she describes in “Culture Warlords,” to create the profile for “Ashlyn1488” she “thought about the ideal mate of a male Fox News viewer, then twisted her twenty degrees to the right and plopped her in the Midwest.” The result was “Blonde, gun-toting, based on a farm-slash-compound just outside Amber, Iowa, and totally fictional.”

That’s a far cry from her real self, as she describes in the book’s introduction: “I’m a schlubby, bisexual Jew, living in Brooklyn, with long brown ratty curls, the matronly figure of a mother in a Philip Roth novel, and brassy personal politics that aren’t particularly sectarian but fall considerably to the left of Medicare for All.”

Ms. Lavin’s exercise in online dating proved successful in helping her understand the white supremacists she researched for the book. She asked her would-be WhiteDate.net suitors to write her “a love letter to your future white wife.

“The results were like a car crash between Nicholas Sparks and Mein Kampf,” she writes.

Later on, this experience in online Nazi dating helped her strike up a five-month flirtation with a 22-year-old Hitler-admiring Ukrainian she finds on an extremist chat group.

“In order to get him to reveal his face, I ask him to ‘prove he’s not a Jew,’ and he offers to send me a photo of his foreskin,” Lavin writes. “I decline and ask to see his nose instead.”

He sends her a picture of his face, and then a picture of his car. She Googles his license plate and identifies him. Soon, an investigative website, Bellingcat, publishes her findings: “Revealed: The Ukrainian Man Who Runs a Neo-Nazi Telegram Channel.”

Ms. Lavin looks back with satisfaction: “I had outed a violent Nazi—perhaps one with the potential to become a mass shooter—and sown dissension and fear in the ranks of extremists,” she writes.

Ms. Lavin first started writing about the far right after the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2019. The ‘Jews do not replace us’ chants and the visible swastikas jolted me out of an undue complacency that I had,” Ms. Lavin said in an interview.

In her book, she describes how “I lived a quietly separatist life in suburban New Jersey, one in which every meaningful personal relationship I had was with a Jew.”

Looking back, “I have a lot of nostalgia for it,” she said, in an interview from her Brooklyn apartment. “I really lived a very cloistered and sheltered life in every way. I didn’t have non-Jewish friends until college. That’s part of the reason why I reacted so intensely to anti-Semitism.”

She knew the stories of Old World anti-Semitism. She grew up around her mother’s parents, Holocaust survivors from what then was Galicia and Poland and now is Ukraine. She went to the Yavneh Academy in Paramus, and then was in the first graduating class of the SAR High School in Riverdale.

“In 2003, my senior year of SAR, I got pretty annoyed at what I perceived as the perfunctory programming around Yom HaShoah,” she said. “They would show us the same sort of maudlin slide shows, play these shmaltzy songs, light a candle, daven a bit. For me it felt very half-assed. I felt we weren’t doing justice to the people who were killed and the community that was destroyed.

“I asked to take over Yom HaShoah programing. I wound up working with teachers who produced lessons on different Holocaust-related topics such as the Jews of Salonika and pre-war Jewish literature in Eastern Europe. I staged a screening of ‘The Dybbuk.’ I went and read yizkor books and gave a little speech.”

After SAR, she went to Harvard, where she majored in comparative literature and studied Russian and early modern Hebrew literature. “My focus was on the weirdo guys who were living in Eastern Europe and basically decided they would create a modern literary milieu in Hebrew, for all these quixotic reasons — some of which I find politically disturbing, like all this stuff of Yiddish being the language of weakness and subjection,” she said. She translated a book on literary theory by Micah Joseph Berdichevsky, and a play by Shaul Tchernichovsky. “It’s not the world’s best play,” she said. “It’s a very florid pastoral in a language that hadn’t been a spoken language for a thousand years.

“I was fascinated by these guys, by the audacity of writing a secular work in Hebrew, recreating a language for these nationalist reasons of virility, and doing it in Odessa. They were watching the Ukrainian and Polish nationalist movements form and responding to that.”

Ms. Lavin spent several summers in Ukraine and Russia, including one working for the Jewish museum in Odessa. “It felt meaningful to walk through the streets of Odessa under the same trees that Berdichevsky had written about,” she said. “I was walking in the footsteps of my heroes. Like me they grew up in the arms of the yeshiva. They grew up frum. That’s how they knew Hebrew.

“I felt similarly. I grew up modern Orthodox, but I became unobservant probably by the end of my freshman year in college. Yet I felt such an intense connection to the immersive heritage I’d grown up with.

After college, Ms. Lavin got a Fulbright grant to spend a year in Ukraine. While she was there, she repeatedly visited the small village her grandfather came from. “Each time I would go out and say — in my broken Ukrainian — take me to the oldest person, I want to talk to them about the Jews,” she said. “People told me, oh, they shot the Jews in the forest. I was alone — I was ballsier at 22 than I am now. It was all a very formative experience for me.”

Ms. Lavin discovered the disturbing world of 21st century Nazis when she worked as an intern at the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “I was monitoring our website,” she said. “There were days a lot of our top hits were from Stormfront.org,” a top neo-Nazi website. “What was going on?

“I knew other people in Jewish media who would get these obsessive anti-Semitic Jewish comments.”

And then there was the matter of cleaning up the JTA comment sections. “Anonymous figures gave graphic descriptions of what they wanted to do to our writers: murder, dismemberment, torture,” Ms. Lavin writes in her book. “There they were, the anti-Semites, in real time.”

A few years later, she worked as a fact checker for the New Yorker and contributed occasional pieces to the magazine. In early 2018, she wrote a piece about the Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website named after Hitler’s favorite newspaper. The Daily Stormer’s outrageous commentary in the wake of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, and the murder by automobile of anti-racist protester Heather Heyer, got it booted from its internet providers. Ms. Lavin wrote about the site’s migrations, and then about her difficulties in finding out who actually was willing to provide internet services to Nazis.

“And after chasing the Daily Stormer as far as I could go, I was left with a troubling question,” her article concluded. “Who, in the face of open neo-Nazism, wants to ‘stay neutral’? And is enabling this type of rhetoric, and perhaps inspiring further real-life violence, all that neutral after all?”

She joined an informal coterie of people who worked to expose online Nazis. This activity was an avocation; unpaid online labor in the war against the online fascists. Then she made a mistake: She tweeted that an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent had a Nazi tattoo; she soon took down the post, writing: “some vets said this ICE agent’s tattoo looked more like a Maltese cross than an Iron Cross (common among white supremacists), so I deleted my tweet so as not to spread misinformation.”

But the right — from the neo-Nazi Daily Stormer to Fox News’s Laura Ingraham — went on the offensive, with Ms. Ingraham calling Ms. Lavin and a colleague “little journo terrorists.” Ms. Lavin resigned from her fact-checking job at the New Yorker — and soon began to work full time on her book. What had been sporadic explorations of the Nazi fringes of the internet became “trawling around for at least three or four hours a day, very intensively, for nine months,” she said. “The immersiveness of the book research was very intense. It was not an easy thing. It definitely had a corrosive and difficult effect on me.

“I found myself very hypervigilant, depressive, just seeing the marks of hate everywhere — its metastasis and growth. It’s a difficult thing to go through. I found myself with all this anger and nowhere appropriate to put it except on the page.

“There’s a very big focus on Jews in the white supremacist movement,” she continued. “Lots of stuff about the physical characteristics of Jews. As an outspoken antifascist writing about the far right, sometimes the commentary was about me directly. Sometimes I found myself looking in the mirror and seeing what they saw. It sort of warped my own sense of self. It made me turn their loathing into self-loathing to a degree.”

“Culture Warlords” was well received, getting good reviews and recommendations from the New York Times, Time Magazine, Kirkus, USA Today, the Jewish Journal, and Ms. Magazine, among others.

“One of the marvels of this furious book is how insolent and funny Lavin is; she refuses to soft-pedal the monstrous views she encounters,” the New York Times reviewer wrote.

Talia Lavin with her grandparents at her bat mitzvah.

“Righteous indignation meets techie magic to shine light on one of America’s most malignant warts,” Kirkus Reviews said in a starred review.

“One interesting wrinkle in the reception to my book was a neo-Nazi marine who made an anti-Semitic comment on my Instagram after the book announcement, and whom I subsequently outed by name on Twitter,” Ms. Lavin said. “He is under investigation by the Marines at the moment. It’s an unbelievably widespread problem in the military and law enforcement, and while I have real skepticism about the ability of these institutions to control, contain, or even, frankly, respond to what amounts to an inner metastasis, the fact that the problem is even being openly discussed is a change.”

Since the publication of her book, Ms. Lavin teamed up with other activists to launch “Deplatform Hate,” with the goal of kicking the far right off the internet.

Among its early successes: Pressuring PayPal to ban GiveSendGo, a far-right crowdfunding site; getting the DLive streaming site to ban to ban white nationalist Nick Fuentes permanently; and getting Zello, a walkie-talkie app, to ban more than 2000 militia channels.

Ms. Lavin defends the practice of canceling the accounts of extremists.

“When you allow for an efflorescence of hate, and hate recruitment on the internet, you’re inevitably setting yourself up for real life violence,” Ms. Lavin said. “We’ve seen so many right-wing murders over the past number of years.”

Ms. Lavin sees herself as a proud heir to an antifascist tradition that goes back to movements in Mussolini’s Italy a century ago; its members would get into street fights with Mussolini’s black shirts.

“The term antifa, which stands for anti-fascist, the reason it has the sort of exotic European sounding moniker is it’s a German contraction of Antifaschistische Aktion, some of the earliest anti-fascist fighters fighting the Nazis in the thirties,” she said. “People who consider themselves antifa draw on that heritage.”

“The first group in the U.S. to take on the moniker was Rose City Antifa, which was founded in Portland in 2007 to shut down a White Power punk festival in the city. They’ve been working since then to counter far-right organizing,” she said.

“And then there’s Antifa, the all-purpose conservative bogeyman. When they talk about George Soros funding it, they’re putting forth George Soros as the bogeyman for the anti-Semitic idea of the International Jew. The way he has become a symbol of nefarious puppeteering control hearkens back to a long tradition of Judeo-Bolshevik red Jew-baiting. This conservative furor is really easy to understand. It’s appealing to have a shapeless, formless enemy that is quote funded by a Jew to pin the blame for any social unrest. The idea that Black Lives Matter protests are really Antifa, all funded by the specter of the Jew, is deeply racist as well as inaccurate. It hearkens back to the civil rights-era idea that Black people are simply too stupid and too passive to organize for their own rights and there must be some nefarious outside influence.

“The bogeyman version of antifa bears no relationship to the reality of antifa work. The handwringing about an occasional well-placed punch to the kisser when a Nazi shows up sieg heiling in your town is very silly. There’s so much rhetoric. Antifa is burning down cities? That’s just not true. That’s not what antifa does. Antifa says that if the Proud Boys are showing up to my town, I’m going to get together with my friends and make sure they don’t feel welcome.

“Probably the bulk of antifa activity is research. It’s saying, here are some folk who showed up at this far right demonstration. Let’s see if we can suss out who they are, how can we connect their online presence and the genocidal things they say and connect it to their real life. We’re  not going to their house to take retribution against them, but rather to make their community aware, make their employer aware. We’re trying to enact a social cost to this out-and-out bigotry and membership in hate groups. A ton of antifascist activity is infiltrating right wing groups to gain information and sabotage them from within,” she said.

And indeed, how she undertakes this internal sabotage is one of the threads Ms. Lavin chronicles in “Culture Warlords” — along with a generous helping of theories and histories of anti-Semitism and neo-Nazi organizing.

So how does a freelance Nazi hunter relax?

With swordplay, of course.

“I acquired my first sword at age 14 at a Lord of the Rings convention,” Ms. Lavin said. “I always had an affection for bladed weaponry, but it lay dormant for a long time. During the course of writing the book, a beloved comrade gave me a replica of Anduril, the sword Aragorn carried in Lord of the Rings. Then it was off to the races.

“As I was reading propaganda by people who wanted to kill me and my family, the idea of being surrounded by weapons felt vaguely comforting. My bed in the apartment is bristling with blades at this point. If someone came at me, I would at least have a shot of bonking them with a long blade. Also, they look cool and I enjoy taking pictures with them and I think every woman should own a sword.

“It’s a little complicated because an apartment isn’t the ideal place to practice with a three-foot blade. I’ve taken my sabre to the park a couple of times, always with the fear I would be arrested. I did acquire a giant sword that’s about four feet tall that has a giant magen david on the pommel that I’m very happy about. I can do a couple of moves. My current go-to is to grab it and bonk them with a large piece of metal.”

How has her book been received back home?

“Overall the response has been fairly positive, though I think I’m a bit more to the left than many people in the community. Most people can say Nazis are bad. It’s just that the book makes some connections anti-feminism, homophobia, transphobia, and the sort of militant eliminationist anti-Semitism of the far right that might be uncomfortable for some. I haven’t gotten any hate mail from Teaneck, though, so that’s a win.

“Growing up as a queer kid in Teaneck wasn’t the easiest thing. Lots of repressed crushes on female classmates, hiding myself in tortured poems, etc. At one point at SAR High School some boys stole my journal and read it aloud among themselves like a real-life Harriet the Spy situation. But overall people formerly of Teaneck and current residents have really embraced the book, and the word from my folks is there has been some kvelling over the reviews. It feels a bit like a prodigal daughter’s homecoming.”

One last thing: “If anyone could pick me up some schnitzel, I would like that.”

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