The Last Time America Faced an anti-Semitism Wave This Great - and the Lessons We Can Learn

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Philadelphia Police walk through Mount Carmel Cemetery after more than 100 headstones were vandalized, February 27, 2017.
Philadelphia Police walk through Mount Carmel Cemetery after more than 100 headstones were vandalized, February 27, 2017.Credit: Jacqueline Larma/AP

The spate of bomb threats against Jewish institutions across the U.S. that has become a weekly phenomenon since the first round on January 9, 2017 recalls another period when synagogues and other Jewish facilities were targeted by bombers.

The 29 messages received at Jewish community centers and day schools on Monday brought the total of such threats up to approximately 90 over the past two months. Fortunately, to date, no bombs have been reported to have been found. That’s in contrast to a spate of incidents in the American South in 1957 and 1958, when the bombs were real, and some of them went off. 

The first incident occurred on November 11, 1957, when a caretaker at Temple Beth-El, in Charlotte, North Carolina, found six sticks of dynamite in the synagogue sanctuary. None of the explosives detonated, just as the 30 sticks of dynamite discovered three months later, outside Temple Emanuel, in nearby Gastonia, North Carolina, failed to explode, due to a bad fuse. 

On the same day the following month, however, on March 16, 1958, bombs went off at a synagogue’s religious school and a Jewish community center in Florida and Tennessee at hours when no one was present. A month later, in Jacksonville, Florida, a man claiming to represent the “Confederate Underground” called a newspaper to take credit for the simultaneous bombings of a Jewish community center and an all-black high school there. The attacks would continue, he said, until segregation was restored throughout the south. (At the same time, a caller warned a rabbi in Jacksonville that Jews would die if they didn’t leave Florida, “except Miami Beach.”) Nobody was hurt in any of the incidents.

It was a moment in American history when white supremacists could have felt they were losing ground. Starting with the Supreme Court Brown Vs Board of Education ruling in 1954 (which found the policy of “separate but equal” to be unconstitutional), a series of court decisions and popular movements were bringing down the Jim Crow laws that had kept the south segregated nearly a century after the end of the Civil War. Although southern Jews were by no means united in supporting the civil rights movement, large numbers of them were involved in the efforts, including in the movement’s leadership, and many of the same people who feared for the future of the white race viewed Jews as undesired aliens too.

Early on the morning of October 12, 1958, the Hebrew Benevolent Congregation, a Reform synagogue founded in 1868 by German-Jewish immigrants, and known popularly as “The Temple,” was rocked by an explosion. The young rabbi of the institution, Jacob Rothschild, was an outspoken advocate of equal civil rights and spoke frequently on the topic at the synagogue, to the discomfort of some of his congregants. (The incident showed up in Alfred Uhry’s play and later movie “Driving Miss Daisy,” when the title character, based on the author’s grandmother, is informed by her black chauffeur that her synagogue has been bombed. She is incredulous, telling him that it must have been a mistake: “I’m sure they meant to bomb one of the Conservative synagogues or the Orthodox one. The Temple is Reform; everybody knows that.” To which Hoke, the driver, responds, “A Jew is a Jew to them folks. Just like, light or dark, we all the same nigger.”)

Shortly after the attack, a local wire service received a phone call from someone calling himself “General Gordon of the Confederate Underground,” who claimed responsibility for the explosion and threatened that, “this is the last empty building we will bomb. Negroes and Jews are hereby declared aliens.”

The bombing of “The Temple” not only helped unite synagogue members around their rabbi and the cause he had embraced, it also elicited a great deal of attention and sympathy from Atlanta’s non-Jewish population. Perhaps the most touching gesture came from the inmates of a local African-American prison, who took up a collection for the synagogue’s building fund, and asked the prison chaplain to pass it along to Rabbi Rothschild. 

Atlanta’s mayor, William Hartsfeld, rushed to the scene of the bombing to survey the damage (which ended up exceeding $100,000 in value), and initiated a drive to raise funds to help the police in their effort to find those responsible. When President Dwight D. Eisenhower was informed, that same Sunday morning, of the terror attack, and asked for a response, he said, “I think we would all share in the feeling of horror that any person would want to desecrate the place of worship of any religion, be it a chapel, a cathedral, a mosque, a church, or a synagogue.” Several days later, after police had charged five members of the white supremacist National States’ Rights Party with the crime, he referred to them as a “bunch of Al Capone gangsters.” 

None of those charged were convicted of the crimes: An initial trial resulted in a mistrial, a second one in acquittal. But the public outcry, at all levels of society, and the increased vigilance of law-enforcement authorities, brought this particular wave of anti-Semitic incidents to an end. 

The bomb threats of 2017, all of which were reportedly phoned in by automatic dialers, making tracing the perpetrators far from simple, should be disturbing not so much because they reveal that American society still has undercurrents of racism, but rather because they are another sign – a very dangerous one – that the holders of white-supremacist and anti-alien prejudices feel increasingly comfortable giving vent to their sentiments of hatred. The recent incidents of grave desecrations at Jewish cemeteries in St. Louis and Philadelphia would seem to be additional examples. 

The ADL, which has been tracking anti-Semitic incidents since 1999, has reported a steady decline between 2006 and 2015. Last year, however, the number of overall incidents rose, and the number of violent incidents jumped by 50 percent, from 36 to 56. 

Last June, when the ADL reported the numbers for 2015, its CEO, Jonathan A. Greenblatt, announced that the advocacy group intended to start tracking online expressions of anti-Semitic harassment, something it had not previously seen the need to do. According to Greenblatt, “The issue has grown exponentially in recent years because the Internet provides racists and bigots with an outlet to reach a potential audience of millions.” He also noted “the anonymity afforded by certain platforms which facilitates this phenomenon.” 

One doesn’t need a doctorate in history to understand that attacks – even verbal – on Jews one day, African-Americans another day and Muslims on a third will eventually be extended to all minorities. And if politicians and law-enforcement agencies don’t act against prejudice, and do so swiftly and unequivocally, the mixed signals communicated to the public are likely to give the racists the little encouragement they need to rear their heads. 

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