Net Hate in Neverland
When Mickey Ben-Tovim drives by Peter Pan Gifts, a small seashell shop in Delray Beach, he slows his Ferarri and squints through the windows cluttered with conchs and cowries, searching for a man he wants dead.
"He's truly one of the more vile individuals you'll ever come across," says Ben-Tovim, an Israeli-born Sarasota computer programmer. "I have on occasion thought about causing him bodily harm, but then I thought, you know, I'm not going to risk my freedom for his. But I was a Marine Corps sniper. If I had the urge to kill him, I would've done it a long time ago, and no one would ever find out."
For at least a decade, 74-year-old Alex Seredin, owner and proprietor of Peter Pan Gifts, has spent his nights posting Internet messages filled with his hatred of Jews. A search on his e-mail address produces thousands of messages laced with all-caps profanity and the word kike.
Using a variety of pseudonyms such as "El Conquistador" and "Strider," all of which trace back to the same BellSouth account, Seredin is a regular presence on messageboards dedicated to Jewish culture and Holocaust denial. Under "Serwad," his oldest nom de guerre, he writes with unflagging passion about the sins, as he sees them, of Israel and Jewry.
In a typical message, titled "HOLOCAUST IS THE JEW LIE AND DOWNFALL," Seredin explains that anti-Semitism is the fault of Jews themselves: "I am not against the Jewish people, but I really think they should know that those of us that are not Jewish, do not sit around all day every day thinking about being Jewish," he writes. "And that the idea to introduce oneself as Hello my name is David and I'm a Jew at EVERY encounter is really what engenders anti-Semitism, let alone that is very tiresome."
Many of his posts quickly degenerate into short, profane volleys with other newsgroup regulars, with Seredin demonstrating that he has a short temper and an oddball vocabulary of racial slurs.
"HOW ZIONAZIS FUCK AMERICANS" reads one post. "WATCH OUT KIKE WE ARE COMING" reads another. "PALESTINIANS SHOULD EXPEL ALL THE BLOODY KIKES" runs a third. "IF THEY DO NOT WANT TO LEAVE THEY SHOULD BE GIVEN PICK AND SHOVEL!"
By posting dozens of messages like these every day, Seredin has earned a storied reputation as one of the most venerable and irrational racists in the newsgroup community.
"There are 200 million Islamo-fascists who are bent on destroying our way of life, and Seredin is one of those people who buys into it," Ben-Tovim says. "It's anger it's all anger."
"His posts all sound alike," says Susan, a Usenet regular from Maryland who has been sparring with Seredin for years. "They're all the really frothing at the mouth, English not quite perfect. And then he starts making sexual slurs. He usually speaks about the clit. He says clacker, which I think is supposed to mean the same thing. He resorts to this when he's backed into a corner. He's vociferous and gross about it."
The war became a dirty one long ago. Ben-Tovim and others tracked down Seredin's home address and business and published them on the messageboards, along with his private telephone number and the name of his wife, Mona.
"I'm getting worried about Alex," one poster wrote in late 2005. "The anger. The upper case. This is an urgent message to anyone who lives in Delray Beach, Florida. Stop by Alex's home and shop and see how he is doing! Here are the coordinates."
Seredin, who refused to be photographed for this article, has fought back with similar tactics but has never managed to shift attacks away from himself. Ben-Tovim says Seredin serves a useful purpose in the Usenet ecosystem. "Alex is so outrageous that he's actually a very good example of how ignorant anti-Semitism is," he says. "He's a very good way of making all anti-Semites look bad. He shouldn't be silenced he should be exposed."
The fact that he spends his days selling seashells to aging Floridians out of a store named for a beloved children's storybook character makes him curiously compelling to everyone on the messageboards.
"I wonder what the heck he is doing," Susan says. "Sitting in the back waiting for customers, typing between sales?"
On a recent lazy summer Monday afternoon, Alex Seredin is behind the counter at the center of his large, whitewashed roadside shop, attending to a belligerent gray-haired customer while tinny piped-in country music tinkles above.
"Just let me see it!" his patron barks as Seredin handles one of the many shells she is buying. Square-faced, with a cap of white hair and a large round belly under his lavender T-shirt, Seredin responds good-naturedly with a genial "ho, ho, ho" as he hands it back to her. He looks exactly like a tropical Santa Claus after a good shave.
His jolliness soothes his customer. Pawing over her purchases, she becomes pleased. "This is really going to look kitsch!" she murmurs, delighted.
"There are some real treasures here. It's a wonderful place for kids," Seredin calls after her in his wheezy Eastern European accent. "Have a good day, my dear."
Though it's officially after business hours, a trickle of customers keeps coming in to wander through the rows of baby sharks floating in bottles of electric-blue liquid, tubs of $1 starfish husks, and shells of every variety. Seredin buys the shells in bulk, shipped over from Indonesia and Malaysia, and resells them to beachcombers looking for souvenirs. He purchased the store from its original owner in 1996, when Seredin and his wife followed the snowbirds from Ottawa to Florida and decided to roost.
When the last curious shell-seeker has wandered out, Seredin bustles to the back of the shop, a cozy alcove that houses a computer, a refrigerator, a desk, and several colorful portraits of Muslim religious figures. He pours two cups of green tea out of a thermos, then settles down to explain why he hates the Jews.
Seredin, who is Muslim, was born in Nemenikuce, a village in the former Yugoslavia, and grew up hop-scotching among various European countries. He talks of working as a Partisan boy-spy for Yugoslavia's president-for-life Tito and of fleeing to Italy, then Australia, with his father. He produces discharge papers for his eight-year term of service with the Royal Australian Air Force, which he spent as a mechanic in Cambodia from 1957 to 1963. He reminisces about teaching school in Egypt and running a real estate business in Canada.
He is a riveting storyteller, sprinkling his recital with literary references and charming anecdotes. He barks like a sea lion when he describes how he once kept one as a pet ("he had very bad breath") and does an impression of Tito hiding in a cave, doling out cups of hot soup to his ragged supporters.
But Seredin's narrative always circles back to a central story, the one that motivates every one of his thousands and thousands of hate-filled posts.
"My grandfather, in Ukraine, was a very wealthy man," Seredin says. "My father was the youngest of 17 kids. One day, they came. The Jewish communists. They came and shot all the children in the back of the head. My father, who was away from the house hiding, saw it with his own eyes."
It is impossible, Seredin admits, to prove that his family was massacred by Jewish members of the Cheka, the Soviet secret police, in Ukraine in 1923. He shows letters from his grandfather, written in a neat and impenetrable Cyrillic, that he says describes the horror firsthand, and says the Ukrainian government recognizes that a slaughter took place in Ukraine at that time and place but only in vague terms. Still, Seredin insists that it happened to his family.
Seredin is fully aware that a Ukrainian holocaust perpetrated by Jewish death squads is dismissed as an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory by most historians. That official denial is the source of his anger, he says, and it's why he insists on shouting out his story despite the costs.
"I told them the story of my family killed by Jews," Seredin says, "and they called me a liar, and they called me a Nazi.
"All I am doing is telling them the truth about myself. Nowadays, telling the truth is the biggest crime you can have. All this crap that you see out there is coming from prejudice because people don't have an open enough mind to possibly consider that I might be right."
In the Usenet world, Seredin is having a hard time making his case for a Jew-perpetrated Ukrainian holocaust.
"It's the same story Jews killed 19 members of my family in rural Russia, Jews killed 25 members of my family, blah blah blah," Ben-Tovim says. "He's claimed to have fought in WWII, the Korean War, Cambodia, flown for the Royal Australian Air Force. The lies just keep coming."
Ben-Tovim is intimately familiar with Seredin's many stories because he has compiled a long list of all of Seredin's postings that contain factual contradictions that he calls "The 'wit and wisdom' of Serwad aka Alex Seredin." A sampling:
"I'm a direct descendant of Tamerlame."
"I'm a direct descendant of Kublai Khan."
"I like Jews."
"ANY KILLING IS NOT A JOKE EXCEPT FOR A JEW!"
"Human? Jews are not humans!"
"I am NOT an anti-Semite!!!!!"
Ben-Tovim says he's posted the list of Seredinisms thousands of times in various newsgroups. "He has never replied to it," he says.
Seredin explains that any contradictions posted under his name are the fault of others posting under his e-mail address and that everything he says is true. "So far as I am concerned," he says, "I do not make the stories up."
"[That's] an outright lie, as I have traced every post directly back to his BellSouth account," Ben-Tovim retorts. "I have an IP trace on him at all times."
Discrediting Seredin has become a Usenet pastime. Susan, the Jewish-issue message-board regular, says that while Ben-Tovim has led the charge against Seredin, the rest of the Usenet world has looked on with amused disgust. "People either ignore Alex or other people will poke the bear with the stick," she says. "He sounds to me like he is an old guy whose brain just doesn't quite work anymore."
But even as his Internet enemies dismiss Seredin as an old kook, others admit a sense of trepidation. "My one worry is that even though I think he's a harmless wacko, there might be a .45 under the desk," Susan says.
It's not an unreasonable fear. Seredin has referred to his "Glock" in postings. "But I was bluffing I hate guns," he says, laughing.
"There's only so hard I'm going to push, because I do not want to be responsible for having pushed him over the edge," Ben-Tovim says. "When he starts raving, he just becomes a lunatic. Truly a lunatic. I'm not so sure that he wouldn't become dangerous."
Perhaps. But it's Seredin's detractors who regularly threaten violence and Ben-Tovim who passes by Seredin's shop from time to time. And if his neighbors ever decide to lay their disapproval at his doorstep, Seredin plans to greet them with open arms.
"The first thing I'll do is make a pot of green tea," he says.
It hasn't been easy to expose "the chief Nazi of Delray Beach," as he's been called. Outside of cyberspace, South Florida's population doesn't seem aware that one of the Internet's most notorious anti-Semites is quietly selling seashells in their midst. In fact, City Link Magazine, a weekly produced by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, featured Peter Pan Gifts as "The Best Place to Buy Tacky Souvenirs" last fall, a notice that infuriated Seredin's enemies.
"Alex Seredin has been spewing obscene anti-Semitic hate in Usenet newsgroups for years to the utter indifference of the local community where this jackass does business, even getting some favorable publicity in a dimwitted local newspaper," Israpundit wrote. "Kind of makes you wonder whether there'd be the same indifference to a bigot spewing anti-black or even anti-Islamic hysteria. Instead, a neo-Nazi nut with a garbage mouth spews hate on the Internet and nobody gives a damn."
Another blog, Mediacrity, urged South Floridians to expose Seredin:
"People down there have to get moving. Write the Jewish community, the newspapers and the churches. Let them throw up picket lines around this guy's store. Hand out leaflets with his rants on them. Pass out brochures at hotels and other tourist businesses."
A small groundswell against Seredin followed. Someone reported Peter Pan Gifts to the RipOff Report, an online watchdog website. Several Usenet regulars, including Ben-Tovim, say they reported Seredin to the FBI. Seredin's enemies urged one another to report him to the South Florida media and to the Anti-Defamation League. Seredin received death threats and says that a gang of men in yarmulkes sauntered into his store one day, browsed, and left without saying a word. He blustered back, posting that lawsuits, the FBI, and the Delray Police Department would respond to anyone who threatened him or his business.
Seredin insists that he isn't anti-Semitic and that he harbors no genocidal ill will toward Jews in general or even the Jews he says killed his family. By way of proof, he describes his many Jewish friends and talks of his wife's membership in Jews and Muslims and All, or JAM, a local peace group. He speaks fondly of the group's founder, 87-year-old peace activist Florence Ross, who gained a measure of international fame in 1986 when she told Russian and American delegates at a peace conference that they were "behaving like little boys," earning her the nickname "The Grandmother With Balls."
"She likes me," Seredin says of Ross, who is Jewish. "We have had some good conversations. She says to me, 'Oh, I wish all the Palestinians and Israelis would just come across and hug each other.' I say to her, 'You know that will never happen. You have to have justice before you start lovey-doveying. '"
Ross, who hadn't heard of Seredin's Internet activities, says she's talked with the Seredins at JAM meetings but isn't friends with the couple. "They've never been openly anti-Semitic in my presence. I feel strongly that they are good people, but their minds are closed."
When told of Seredin's fondness for the word kike, Ross becomes peppery. "Why does he come to JAM meetings? We're all about compassionate compromise!"
Like Ross, most of South Florida appears ignorant of Seredin's secret life as an Internet hatemonger.
Delray Beach police have never heard of Seredin, and local Jewish groups say his name is unfamiliar. The South Florida branch of the Anti-Defamation League, which protects minorities of all religious persuasions, has heard of Seredin because he has appealed to them for help and protection. The South Florida ADL didn't answer New Times' questions about Seredin, and Seredin says that when he contacted the ADL, he was told he would get no help.
The South Florida chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a group that protects Muslims from discrimination, has also never heard of Seredin but that's because Seredin doesn't want them to.
"Jewish people are constantly crying about how hard it is," he says. "That's the reason why I didn't go to CAIR, because I didn't feel like copycatting them. I would be doing just the same thing."
Altaf Ali, head of CAIR's local branch, says he would defend Seredin's right to free speech but not before taking him to task for being a bad Muslim.
"Even though what he's saying is hateful in nature, it's protected," Ali says. "It doesn't give someone the right to come and kill him. But if you are engaged in hate speech, you have to be prepared to embrace the consequences. If he ceases and desists from displaying hate and bigotry, well then, I'm pretty much sure the death threats would stop. If you're a Muslim, according to the teachings of our religion, you are not supposed to slander anybody. These kinds of behaviors tarnish the image of Islam."
Although locals don't condone Seredin's hate speech, they also don't seem interested in starting an anti-Seredin campaign. No one has boycotted or leafleted his store. And none of his detractors seems to have ever set foot in Peter Pan Gifts.
"If I lived in Florida, I would be tempted to see the place," Susan says, "and I would be curious to see what he looks like, but just the idea gives me the creeps."
In fact, the only Floridian who really seems to care about Alex Seredin's anti-Semitism is his worst enemy: Mickey Ben-Tovim.
"I'm one of the only Jews who knows Alex that's actually in Florida," Ben-Tovim says. "Most of them tend to be retired New Yorkers who aren't plowing around on Usenet."
But Ben-Tovim is oddly addicted to Alex Seredin. An Israeli Jew whose mother survived the Holocaust, his decade-long war with "Alex," as he calls him, became a personal crusade when his own life was falling apart, and now he can't let go.
"I lost a son 21-year-old boy," Ben-Tovim says. "He was dead in his bed. He died of an aneurysm in his heart. I had just gone through losing both of my parents in a matter of 60 days. My wife started drinking a lot. I had a lot of pressure and frustration on me, and Alex was the dartboard. I just went and signed on and found a few of his posts and started going after him. I just torture him mercilessly."
Seredin himself is equally trapped. So why doesn't he just stop using the word kike in favor of some more diplomatic term? He says he can't.
"How many times have they called me 'raghead' or 'sand nigger'? I don't see no harm, when someone calls me a sand nigger, to call them a kike. They're throwing it at me; I throw it back at them."
Asked if he'll ever stop logging on to the Internet newsgroups for hours every night, he sighs. "Maybe I should. Sometimes, I think I should stop writing on the Internet. But it feels like retreating from the truth."
Then he perks up and chuckles.
"At least, I think it's been some good publicity."
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