From Lynchings to Mass Shootings: The History of Deadly Attacks on Jews in America

Lethal attacks on U.S. Jews in their homeland have been very rare, with Saturday’s mass shooting in Pittsburgh more than doubling the total number of fatalities – but white supremacists have targeted the community over the years

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The lynching of Leo Frank on August 17, 1915 by the "Knights of Mary Phagan." Over the following months, more than half of Georgia's 3,000 Jews emigrated from the state.
The lynching of Leo Frank on August 17, 1915 by the "Knights of Mary Phagan." Over the following months, more than half of Georgia's 3,000 Jews emigrated from the state.Credit: George Rinhart / Corbis via Getty Images
David Green
David B. Green
David Green
David B. Green

Although anti-Semitism has been a steady presence throughout American history, until Saturday’s mass shooting attack on the congregants of a Pittsburgh synagogue that left 11 dead, the attacks have more often than not been nonphysical. Swastikas and offensive slogans were painted on the walls of synagogues, and bomb threats issued to Jewish community institutions.

If the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacists carried out an estimated 3,500 lynchings of African-Americans in the century following the Civil War, the number of Jewish victims of the virulently anti-Semitic organization can be counted on a single hand.

The first known “lynching” of a Jew in the American South was actually a shooting – of merchant Samuel A. Bierfield, who, together with a black clerk from his general store in Franklin, Tennessee, was shot to death on August 15, 1868, during Reconstruction. No one was ever convicted of the killings, and the background and motive remain murky, although the nascent Ku Klux Klan was apparently involved.

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Leo Frank, on the other hand, was literally lynched, and there is no doubt that his Jewish identity played an integral role in his fate.

The Ku Klux Klan in their regalia parading through the streets of Tulsa, Oklahoma, September 21, 1923.Credit: AP

Frank was a New York Jew who had come to Atlanta, Georgia, to manage a family-owned pencil factory. When a teenage white woman, Mary Phagan, was murdered at the factory in April 1913, the police considered several suspects before deciding to charge Frank.

His arrest and subsequent trial and conviction elicited a wave of anti-Semitic sentiment in the South, and Frank was sentenced to death. His appeals, which went as high as the Supreme Court, all failed. But the day before his scheduled execution, the Georgia governor commuted his sentence to life in prison. That night, a group of 28 men calling themselves the “Knights of Mary Phagan” kidnapped him from a state prison and drove him to Phagan’s hometown, where they hung him from a tree on August 15, 1915.

No one was ever tried for Frank’s killing, and in the period that followed, more than half of Georgia’s 3,000 Jews emigrated from the state.

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Two consequences of the Frank affair were the decision by the Jewish fraternal organization B’nai B’rith to form the Anti-Defamation League, in 1913, and the subsequent revival of the KKK by some of the same Georgians who had participated in the Frank lynching.

Rabbi Perry Nussbaum talking with newsmen in the living room of his home, which was firebombed on November 21, 1967.Credit: Bettmann Archive / Getty Images IL

Anti-Semitic rhetoric ran high in the United States during the Depression and the lead-up to World War II, with the radio preacher Charles Coughlin, a Catholic priest, giving weekly broadcasts that reached an estimated 30 million Americans.

Dubbing his political movement the National Union for Social Justice, Coughlin played on the economic hardship of his listeners, for which he placed much of the blame on “Jewish bankers.” It was only after the U.S. entry into World War II, which Coughlin opposed (there is even evidence that he received indirect funding from Nazi Germany before the war), that he was forced off the air.

It was only during the period of the civil rights movement, beginning in the 1950s, that hatred of Jews began to take expression in organized violence.

Most notable was the bombing of Atlanta’s oldest Jewish congregation, the Hebrew Benevolent Congregation (aka The Temple), by white supremacists on October 12, 1958.

The Reform synagogue’s rabbi was an outspoken advocate of civil rights, but The Temple was not the only shul to be attacked during this period. In 1957-58, there were in total eight bombings or attempted bombings of synagogues – all of them carried out by people connected to the racist National States’ Rights Party. Even in these cases, though, damage was limited to the synagogues’ physical structures, with no people hurt or killed. That is in contrast to the far more murderous attacks against Southern blacks during the same years, which often targeted individuals as well as black churches.

Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske, left, looking at flowers left by passersby at the Jewish Federation Building in Seattle, Saturday, July 29, 2006.Credit: AP

A decade later, in 1967, two bombs were directed at Congregation Beth Israel, in Jackson, Mississippi, the first six months after the congregation moved into a new building in an ecumenical service that included the participation of both white and black Christian clergy. A month later, Beth Israel’s rabbi, Perry Nussbaum, an anti-segregation activist, had his home attacked in a bombing. Although he and his wife were asleep inside at the time, both escaped serious injury.

On October 8, 1977, a white supremacist, Joseph Paul Franklin, killed one Jewish man and wounded another two when he took aim at people emerging from Brith Sholom Kneseth Israel, in St. Louis. This was just a single chapter in a spate of shootings Franklin carried out that left 20 people dead over a three-year period, earning him the nickname The Racist Killer. (He also bombed a Chattanooga, Tenn., synagogue in 1977.) Despite being arrested in 1980, Franklin was only executed for his crimes in 2013.

Between 1988 and 1990, Conservative synagogue Bet Shira in Miami was subjected to vandalism, and had its windows shot out and smashed. No one was hurt in the attacks, all of which were carried out by teenagers.

Hatred of minorities

It is during the past two decades that anti-Semitic attacks have taken a significant human toll, the perpetrators largely being individuals who suffered from a combination of apparent mental disorders and hatred of minorities, but their access to incendiary devices and firearms has made it easier for them kill people.

A woman wiping her tears away during the funeral of Pamela Waechter in Bellevue, Washington, July 31, 2006.Credit: AP

Most of these attacks have been on synagogues and Jewish community centers. On June 18, 1999, three synagogues in Sacramento, California, were set afire by two white- supremacist brothers, Benjamin Matthew Williams and his younger brother Tyler, who two weeks later went on to murder a gay couple in nearby Redding. In the case of B’nai Israel, the synagogue’s library was destroyed and its sanctuary seriously damaged. (Six years earlier, the same synagogue had been firebombed by a white supremacist teenager.)

In 2000, another Pittsburgh-area synagogue, Congregation Beth El, had its windows shot up, as did Congregation Ahavath Achim in nearby Carnegie, Pennsylvania – in both cases by Richard Baumhammers, a mentally disturbed white supremacist. Prior to his attack on Beth El, Baumhammers had entered the home of his Jewish neighbor Anita Gordon, a member of Beth El, and shot her dead, and then set the house on fire. Baumhammers’ killing spree left four others dead, all members of minorities.

That same year, two New York State synagogues were subject to arson attacks: On October 8, on the eve of Yom Kippur, Conservative Congregation Adath Israel, in Riverdale, New York, was firebombed by a group of Palestinian men, and five days later Orthodox Temple Beth El, in Syracuse, suffered serious damage when two Palestinian Americans set it ablaze.

Over the past 12 years, a half-dozen shootings at U.S. Jewish institutions have resulted in fatalities. On July 28, 2006, Naveed Afzal Haq forced his way into the offices of the Seattle Jewish Federation. Carrying two automatic handguns, among other weapons, and shouting that he was “angry with Israel,” Haq shot Pamela Waechter to death and wounded five other women in the building, before surrendering to police.

U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum security guard Stephen Tyrone James was the sole victim of neo-Nazi James von Brunn, after the 88-year-old man entered the museum with a 22-caliber rifle and began firing on June 10, 2009. Von Brunn was soon wounded by other guards and died in prison in 2010 while awaiting trial.

A helicopter flying over the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, June 10, 2009. Credit: AP

A Jewish community center and retirement home in Overland Park, a suburb of Kansas City, Kansas, were the targets of an April 2014 pair of shootings by neo-Nazi leader Frazier Glenn Cross (aka Frazier Glenn Miller). Three people were killed during Cross’ rampage – all of them non-Jews, as it happened. Later, anti-Semitic material was found in Cross’ home. He was sentenced to death in November 2015.

Last year, of course, saw Jewish communities across the United States sent into various levels of lockdown when bomb threats were phoned in to some 2,000 Jewish institutions there and also in the United Kingdom, Australia and several other countries. None of the threats resulted in an actual physical attack, and the wave of threats was brought to an end in March 2017 when Michael Kadar, an American-Israeli teenager living in Ashkelon, was arrested by Israeli police. The 19-year-old was convicted of making threats against organizations and individuals worldwide, including the Israel Embassy in Washington, last June.

In this Sunday, April 13, 2014 image from video provided by KCTV-5, Frazier Glenn Cross, also known as Frazier Glenn Miller, is escorted by police in an elementary school parking lot in Overland Park.Credit: AP

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