Jews feel pain of hate in America


Ask about the granddaddy of anti-Semitic acts in America and the answer comes in two words: Leo Frank.

“I would say that was the most significant hate crime against Jews in the United States,” said Aaron Breitbart, senior researcher with the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center. “There were incidents after that of course. You had synagogue fire bombings but in this country I don’t think there is anything that gets more attention among people who studied the issue than the Leo Frank case.”


Frank, a Jewish pencil factory manager accused in the rape and murder of a teenage girl in Atlanta, was convicted of the crime but later his death sentence was commuted by Gov. John Slaton who reviewed thousands of documents and concluded Frank was innocent. “Two thousand years ago another Governor washed his hands of a case and turned a Jew over to a mob,” wrote Slaton in his 1915 commutation order explaining the unpopular decision. “For two thousand years that Governor’s name has been accursed. If today another Jew were lying in his grave because I had failed to do my duty I would all through life find his blood on my hands and would consider myself an assassin through cowardice.”

Slaton, whose term ended days later, had to call out the National Guard to disperse riotous mobs outside the governor’s mansion. Under police protection, the governor boarded a train headed out of state. He never held elective office again.

Frank fared even worse. He was taken from jail and lynched. The gruesome act culminated in gleeful participants posing for pictures next to the young man’s dangling corpse. The original Frank trial, a national spectacle that captured the attention of Jews and Gentiles alike, is credited by some with being the impetus behind the creation of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).

The Frank case was neither the first chapter nor the last in the continuing story of anti-Semitism in the United States. It did however mark a true turning point in the timeline of violent intolerance.

“It was the first wake up call to American Jewry that in this promised land not everything was as promised,” said Abraham Foxman, executive director of the national ADL.

Frank was posthumously pardoned of the crime – 70 years later. Jews still had many years of anti-Semitic attitudes and actions to endure.

Anti-Semitism in America during the World War years

According to Breitbart, anti-Jewish sentiment ran rampant through the decade preceding World War II, with the advent of Father Charles Coughlin’s popular radio program, which often vilified Jews. Coughlin was anything but alone. Breitbart said a 1939 poll found that more than half of respondents felt Jews should be placed under more restrictive laws than other citizens. About a tenth of the public believed Jewish-Americans should be deported.

“In the 1930s there was a tremendous surge of anti-Semitism in this country and it was based to a large extent on the downturn in the economy,” Breitbart said. “The fact of the matter is that whenever there is a downturn in the economy, the bigots come out of the woodwork like roaches.”

“People often ask why the American Jewish community didn’t do more during the Holocaust,” he added. “The main reason is that they were running scared themselves.”

Harold Brackman, a historian who often works with the Wiesenthal Center, agreed. He said that Jewish shop keepers were a particular target during the Harlem riots of 1935 and 1943, noting that Coughlin’s Christian Front organization and others in New York and Boston often created trouble for Jews.

“It really wasn’t safe for individual Jewish children to walk on the streets, or go to school, a synagogue or playground,” he said. “It was really pathological and systematic. The Jewish community in Boston felt under siege.”

The post-war years also saw rampant anti-Semitism. This had special significance in the American South, where the struggle for civil rights was moving front and center and Jews were increasingly finding common cause with Martin Luther King and those backing social justice. The firebombing of a prominent Atlanta Jewish temple in 1958 solidified that relationship for some.

“On the other hand it made Jews extremely fearful throughout the South that if they spoke up they would potentially pay a terrible price,” Brackman said. “It was a moment of conscience where lines were drawn and people had to decide if they were going to take risks for their moral beliefs or run for cover.”

Murder of a Jewish radio host

Hate crimes legislation began to gather steam in the 1970s, first at the local and state levels and, by the 1990s in federal law. For some, well-publicized crimes like the 1984 murder of controversial Jewish media personality Alan Berg by neo-Nazis showed that hate crime laws were a legitimate response to criminal behavior directed at individuals specifically due to their race or religion.

“In the case of Berg, this man had the misfortune to annoy some people on the extreme right and he was machine gunned to death in his own driveway,” said Mark Potok director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s (SPLC) Intelligence Project. “I can’t think of a case like that before then where you had a guy assassinated who at the end of the day was just doing his job. He was just an in-your-face radio talk show host.”

Potok said that the Berg killing was only one aspect of a general transference of blame to Jews for many of the nation’s ills as the far right became more “Nazified” and began to see both blacks and Jews as the enemy.

“For most of their history, these guys have really been restorationists trying to bring back the halcyon era when black people knew their place and that kind of thing,” he said. “They want to go back to a society where people of color don’t exist or are very definitely subordinate. That changed very clearly during the 70s and 80s. That change really culminates with McVeigh.”

The crime of Timothy McVeigh, who was executed for the deadly bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City that killed 168 people including many children, was not an anti-Semitic act but Potok feels it did represent a shift toward a more traditional form of domestic terrorism that targeted institutions rather than individuals.

“Certainly people were killed for ideological reasons but the difference is that before Oklahoma City, the people who were targeted would be directly seen as enemies,” he said. “You kill the guy registering black voters or the white woman going out with black men or if you are the Weathermen on the left you kill a cop or blow up a bank. With McVeigh, it’s totally different. Nobody in that building had anything to do with Waco or Ruby Ridge. It’s a completely symbolic act.”

World Trade attacks reek of anti-Semitism

It was an echo that Potok said would be heard again from a different source in attacks on the World Trade Center in 1993 and 2001. Both attacks were directed against the United States but both had anti-Jewish overtones.

“There was an anti-Semitic dimension to the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center,” Brackman said. “The mastermind Ramzi Yousef said that the center was a nest of Zionist officials.”

Rabbi Ze’ev Smason of Nusach Hari B’nai Zion said that the 1993 attack also had other interesting connections. One of those was El Sayyid Nosair, an Egyptian militant convicted in both the first World Trade Center bombing and the earlier murder of controversial Rabbi Meir Kahane whose strident rhetoric made him a target of religious extremists.

“Given that he was assassinated by Islamic fundamentalists, it was a great foreshadowing of the tragedies that America and the world has come to experience since his demise,” Smason said.

Like Smason, Foxman also noted the growing tide of Muslim extremism that has colored anti-Semitism, especially since the beginning of the 1990s. In 1994, Rashid Baz opened fire on a vanload of yeshiva students in New York City, killing one and wounding three others while in 2002, Hasham Mohamed Hadayet was shot to death by security officers after he used a .45-caliber handgun to kill a ticketing agent and a bystander at the El Al Airlines counter in Los Angeles International Airport. Hadayet chose July 4, his birthday, for the attack. Overseas, El Al has been targeted for even worse attacks. In 1985, terrorists used grenades and semiautomatic weapons to murder 17 people at the airline’s counter in Rome.

Jews remain a target

Still, 1999, termed the “summer of hate” by Foxman, witnessed a spate of anti-Semitic incidents from a more traditional source. In early June, three Sacramento synagogues were set ablaze causing $1 millon in damages, according to the ADL’s website. Independence Day weekend saw a bizarre two-state shooting spree across the Midwest by outspoken white supremacist Benjamin Smith, which claimed the life of an African-American basketball coach and a Korean university student. Smith, who began his rampage by opening fire on a group of Chicago-area Orthodox Jews, wounding six of them, would end it by killing himself when cornered by police. The summer was capped off by the actions of Buford Furrow, who peppered a Los Angeles Jewish community center with 70 rounds from an Uzi wounding five people, three of them children, before leaving the scene. An hour later he killed a Filipino postal worker.

Today, unfortunately, whether from neo-Nazis or Islamic jihadists, anti-Semitic hatred remains a force to be reckoned with. In December, a jury sentenced Naveed Haq, a radical of Pakistani descent, to 141 years in prison for a 2006 shooting spree at the Seattle Jewish Federation, which left one dead and five others, including a pregnant woman, wounded. Last year also saw the murder of security guard Stephen Johns at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. by James von Brunn, an elderly neo-Nazi. Anti-Semitic writings were found in the 88-year-old suspect’s car. Von Brunn, a native St. Louisan, was wounded by museum security during the attack. He died months later while awaiting trial.

“His ability to kill one person really had a profound impact and it was intended to intimidate a larger group of people,” recalled Jean Cavender, director of the St. Louis Holocaust Museum and Learning Center.

Combating the face of hate

That defines well the mission of most who convert hatred into violence. And now, close to a century after the Frank trial, many are still at a loss as to the best way to combat those who would intimidate, harm or kill to express their anger at those of another race, religion or ethnicity. Perhaps there is no one right answer, although opinions are not in short supply.

Persistence is one option. Cavender is quick to point out that Von Brunn’s rampage didn’t stop her institution or others from continuing the mission they exist to fulfill.

“We could not give in to those who sow the seeds of violence and fear,” she said. “Museums kept operating all over the United States teaching about how we need to take action when injustices occur. That was our continuous message during that critical time.”

Optimism with a strong dose of vigilance is another choice. Smason’s thoughts on the topic have a geopolitical flavor. Given the increase in anti-Semitism worldwide, the rabbi believes that the United States is still a secure place for Jewish life. He calls the overall level of anti-Jewish sentiment in the nation “stable.”

“I’ll add a caveat to that in saying that if there is anything that we as Jews can learn from history it’s that we cannot say that it can’t happen here,” he said. “We’re very fortunate and grateful for the kindness of the American people and the American society in which we live. It’s given us a relatively safe haven from the anti-Semitism that we’ve seen historically.”

Rabbi James Bennett of Congregation Shaare Emeth said anti-Semitism has a long and bloody history in the United States. Still, he said that while it can’t be ignored, it shouldn’t be the defining aspect of Jewish distinctiveness. Bennett said he feels that Jews should avoid the temptation to see themselves as merely perennial victims of those who harbor hatred.

“Anti-Semitism has been a part of the Jewish historical experience and the American Jewish experience,” he said. “My personal Jewish identity has not been shaped primarily by experiences of anti-Semitism either of my own or of events during my lifetime. I believe that the Jewish community would be far better served by focusing our energies on the joys and the opportunities and the celebrations that are available to us as Jews as opposed to continued focus on anti-Semitism.”

In the end, perhaps the best defense for hate can be found in the simple application of moral conviction by men and women of good conscious. And here again, the Frank case provides guidance.

“I can endure misconstruction, abuse and condemnation,” wrote Gov. Slaton 95 years ago in the commutation document largely believed to have ended his political career, “but I cannot stand the constant companionship of an accusing conscience, which would remind me in every thought that I … failed to do what I thought to be right.”