Meet Tanya Gersh — Target Of Neo-Nazi Scam Who Fought Back And Won $14 Million

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Meet Tanya Gersh — Target Of Neo-Nazi Scam Who Fought Back And Won $14 Million

Tanya Gersh is a realtor in Montana who was living a quiet life with her husband and kids. Then in 2016, she took a phone call from a neighbor of hers who was also the mother of infamous neo-Nazi Ricard Spencer. Spencer's mother wanted some advice about selling a building and Tanya obliged. A few days later, Tanya, who is Jewish, found herself the subject of a campaign of sustained harassment after the hate website The Daily Stormer accused her of threatening Spencer's mother. She and her family received hundreds of threatening calls and messages over the next several years. Gersh sued the website and its founder Andrew Anglin. This week a judge found in her favor and ordered Anglin to pay her $14 million dollars. 

Who is Tanya Gersh and what happened? Read on for all the details. 

1. “The happiest person alive”

Tanya Gersh and her husband and sons live in Whitefish, Montana. She worked as a realtor in the small town and her friends often comment that she was the happiest person alive, according to a profile in Esquire. In 2014, a known alt-right leader and racist neo-Nazi named Richard Spencer bought a building in the town, where his family already owned some property. The purchase was controversial because Spencer is such a reviled figure, but Gersh kept away from the controversy, fearful of being targeted by Spencer's followers, who follow Hitler's dictates of hating Jewish people.

In 2016, Spencer's mother Sherry called Gersh for some advice: Richard had given a high-profile speech, bringing attention back to the Whitefish property, and Sherry wasn't comfortable with the fallout or with her son's views. She asked Tanya for advice and Tanya suggested selling the building and donating the proceeds to charity. “I told her what I would do if it were my son. And that would be to sell the building and maybe donate some money to a human rights cause and make a public statement saying she didn’t believe her son’s ideologies," recalled Gersh.

Sherry agreed and started making plans to sell the building, using Gersh's firm to represent her. Days later, however, she told Tanya that she was going to use a different realtor. That was the last time the two women spoke. 

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2. Internet troll mob

Not long after Tanya and Sherry last communicated, Esquire reports that Sherry posted an article on the website Medium saying "My name is Sherry Spencer, and I am Richard Spencer’s mom." The now-deleted post, continued, “I had no intention of selling [my building] ... until I started receiving terrible threats in the last couple of weeks. These threats came from Tanya Gersh.” There has been some suspicion that the post was actually written by Richard Spencer but neither he nor Sherry has commented on the authorship of the essay, according to Esquire. After the Medium post, the whole story gained the attention of the website The Daily Stormer, which is considered a hate vehicle by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The site's founder, Andrew Anglin, posted an article headlined "Jews Targeting Richard Spencer’s Mother for Harassment and Extortion—Take Action" and he rallied his readers to start harassing Tanya. 

3. The Daily Stormer

The Southern Poverty Law Center describes The Daily Stormer as "dedicated to spreading anti-Semitism, neo-Nazism, and white nationalism, primarily through guttural hyperbole and epithet-laden stories about topics like alleged Jewish world control and black-on-white crime." The name of the site was inspired by high-ranking Nazi Julius Streicher’s World War II-era anti-Semitic weekly newspaper, Der Stürmer. (Streicher was convicted of war crimes at Nuremberg and later hanged.) Some of the headlines that show up on The Daily Stormer include “All Intelligent People in History Disliked the Jews” and “Talking Monkey Harriet Tubman to Replace Indian-Killer Jackson on $20 Bill.” The site has an extremely loyal readership, some of whom refer to themselves as the Stormer Troll Army or Stormers and perpetrate serious online harassment when Anglin calls them to action, such as he did with Tanya Gersh. In 2017, Anglin even called for his followers to march in Whitefish, writing "We were initially planning to march to Tanya Gersh’s home, but we decided it would be too cold. We will instead simply march through the center of town...They will rue the day, as they see two hundred skinhead Alt-Right Nazis marching with a guy from Hamas carrying machine guns through the center of their town!”

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4. Defending Richard Spencer

The Stormers went all-in on harassing Gersh after Anglin accused her of harassing Spencer's mother. Richard Spencer is a leader in the racist rightwing world and is sometimes credited with inventing the term alt-right. He gained national attention for his controversial 2016 speech where he led his supporters in chanting "Heil Trump! Heil our people! Heil victory!” while raising his arm in a Nazi salute, according to Esquire. But even before that, he had been a significant presence in racist, right-wing circles. He was fired from American Conservative magazine for being too radical in his racist views and he has been the head of the right-wing National Policy Institute since 2011. The NPI's mission is "to elevate the consciousness of whites, ensure our biological and cultural continuity, and protect our civil rights. The institute ... will study the consequences of the ongoing influx that non-Western populations pose to our national identity,” according to the SPLC.  Spencer became a household name in 2017 when a video of a masked man punching him in the head went viral on the internet and spawned a million "Punch Nazis" memes. 

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5. Constant online harassment

After Anglin published contact information for the entire Gersh family, trolls started attacking them from all directions. Tanya received constant phone and email messages harassing her. Sometimes she would pick up the phone to hear nothing but the sound of gunfire, according to Esquire. When you hear gunshots through a phone, it's very … stunning. I think that's the best word. Because they imply that after a gun is fired ... I understood that I was supposed to be the target. They wanted me dead.” The family chose to hold their son's bar mitzvah at an undisclosed location outside of Whitefish because they feared an attack on the ceremony. They have kept a set of suitcases packed at all times in case they needed to flee violence. But they decided to fight back against the troll mob the best way they knew how: NBC reports that in 2017 they sued Anglin under Montana's Anti-Intimidation Act in April 2017, saying she and her family were subjected to hundreds of threatening and anti-Semitic hate messages.

6. $14 million in damages

Last month, a federal magistrate found in favor of the Gersh family and ordered Anglin to take down the articles and pay the family $14 million in damages, the highest allowable under the law, a finding upheld by a federal judge as well. But Aglin isn't likely to cooperate; the racist leader has gone underground and his whereabouts are unknown. He refused to sit for a deposition in April 2019 and he never appeared in court. However, the precedent set by the case is clear: online harassment is a serious problem and it will not be tolerated. "This lawsuit has always been about stopping others from enduring the terror I continue to live through at the hands of a neo-Nazi and his followers, and I wanted to make sure that this never happens to anyone else," Gersh said after the ruling. John Morrison, an attorney for Gersh, followed up, saying, "This is a big win for our client, but it also sends an important message that hateful harassment by bigots will not be tolerated in Big Sky Country."

In a statement after the ruling, Tanya said, "Don’t be afraid to take a stand against hatred and don’t let hateful people define who you are. We will not let them win.”

Rebekah Kuschmider has been writing about celebrities, pop culture, entertainment, and politics since 2010. Her work has been seen at Ravishly, Babble, Scary Mommy, The Mid, Redbook online, and The Broad Side. She is the creator of the blog Stay at Home Pundit and she is a cohost of the weekly podcast The More Perfect Union.