A Brief History of Anti-Semitic Violence in America
The synagogue attack in Pittsburgh may be the deadliest attack against Jews in American history—but it’s nowhere near the first.
Saturday’s shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, where 11 people were murdered and six more were injured, is believed to be the deadliest attack against the American Jewish community in U.S. history. The massacre is an unprecedented act of violence against American Jews—but it is by no means the first time that anti-Semitism has manifested in deadly violence against Jews in the United States.
American anti-Semitism is as old as America itself. For decades, American Jews have faced social discrimination, acts of vandalism against sacred spaces, and, in recent years, social-media harassment—and the number of reported anti-Semitic incidents has risen dramatically since 2016. Fatal attacks against American Jews have been far less common than these other forms of discrimination. And yet American history is full of episodes of physical violence against Jews and Jewish institutions. What follows is a list, far from comprehensive, of some of the many violent attacks targeting Jews in recent history.
The Leo Frank Affair of 1915
In 1913, a 13-year-old child laborer at an Atlanta pencil factory named Mary Phagan was found dead in the factory’s basement. Leo Frank, the Jewish superintendent of the factory, was convicted of the crime and sentenced to death. In 1915, Georgia’s governor commuted Frank’s sentence to lifetime imprisonment due to a lack of sufficient evidence; Frank was abducted from prison and lynched. Despite the consensus among historians that Frank was innocent, as well as the corroborating claims of a witness, white-supremacist groups today continue to implicate Frank in Phagan’s murder. The controversial Frank case is credited with inspiring the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan movement; it also played a role in the creation of the Anti-Defamation League in 1913.
The bombing of the Hebrew Benevolent Congregation in Atlanta in 1958
On October 12, 1958, 50 sticks of dynamite exploded in the Hebrew Benevolent Congregation, Atlanta’s oldest synagogue. The building sustained major damages, but no one was killed or injured. The attack was one in a series of attacks and attempted attacks on synagogues in the South in 1957 and ’58, spurred on by a rise in anti-Semitic sentiment among white supremacists during the desegregation era. Five men with links to the white-supremacist National States’ Rights Party were arrested and one was tried, but none was convicted.
The attack on Temple Beth-Israel in Gadsden, Alabama, in 1960
Before this weekend, the worst attack in a U.S. synagogue was believed to be the March 1960 attack on Temple Beth-Israel. A 16-year-old threw a bomb into the synagogue; the bomb did not explode, but the bomber shot at congregants as they ran from the scene, injuring two of them.
The 1977 Brith Sholom Kneseth Israel synagogue shooting in St. Louis, Missouri
On October 8, 1977, guests were leaving the synagogue after a bar mitzvah and standing in the parking lot when Joseph Paul Franklin, a white supremacist who fatally attacked a number of Jews and black Americans from 1977 to 1980, opened fire nearby and killed a guest named Gerald Gordon; two others were injured. Franklin reportedly chose the Brith Sholom Kneseth Israel synagogue randomly, out of a phone book. In 2013, Franklin was executed for the murder of Gordon.
The murder of the talk-radio host Alan Berg in 1984
On June 18, 1984, the talk-radio host Alan Berg was shot and killed in the driveway of his home in Denver. Berg was known for his liberal views and for challenging anti-Semites and white supremacists on his radio show. Four members of the white-supremacist group the Order were indicted in his murder, and two were convicted for civil-rights violations against Berg, but not for murder.
The murder of the Goldmark family in 1985
On Christmas Eve 1985, the Seattle lawyer Charles Goldmark, his wife, and their two sons were murdered in their home in what the Anti-Defamation League has called the deadliest attack targeting Jews in the U.S., before Saturday’s shooting. According to a 1986 New York Times report, the family was “bound, chloroformed, beaten with the point of a steam iron and stabbed” by David Lewis Rice, a 27-year-old unemployed steelworker who was a follower of an extremist group called the Duck Club. The New York Times reported that Rice thought the family was Jewish and Communist (they were neither); Rice pleaded guilty and admitted to murdering the family because he thought they were Communists, but denied the reports that he had targeted them because he thought they were Jews.
The murder of Neal S. Rosenblum in 1986
On April 17, 1986, the 24-year-old rabbinical student Neal S. Rosenblum was shot five times on his way home from evening prayers in Squirrel Hill—the same Pittsburgh neighborhood where Saturday’s synagogue shooting took place. There were no suspects for two years after the shooting, but then a prison cellmate of a man named Steven M. Tielsch came forward with claims that Tielsch, who was being held for federal drug-trafficking charges, had been bragging about murdering a Jew. The witness also reported that Tielsch had made anti-Semitic remarks and drawn swastikas on his forehead. Sixteen years later, after four trials, Tielsch was convicted of third-degree murder in 2002.
The Crown Heights riot of 1991
On August 19, 1991, a driver in the motorcade of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic movement, accidentally hit two black children with his car, killing one of them, the 7-year-old Gavin Cato, and severely injuring his 7-year-old cousin, Angela Cato. Tensions erupted in the Crown Heights neighborhood, which was home to both black and Jewish residents, and anti-Jewish riots broke out for several days, culminating in hundreds of robberies and injuries to both police officers and residents. On August 20, about 20 black men surrounded and fatally stabbed a 29-year-old Australian Jewish student, Yankel Rosenbaum. The press coverage of the riots often portrayed them as a scene of mutual clashing between the black and Jewish communities. But one reporter, who covered the violence for The New York Times, later criticized the paper for suggesting that Jews were attacking their black neighbors when he’d seen no evidence of such attacks.
The 1994 Brooklyn Bridge shooting
On March 1, 1994, Rashid Baz shot at a van filled with Orthodox Jewish students traveling on the Brooklyn Bridge. Four students were shot, and one—16-year-old Ari Halberstam—died from injuries. Baz, a Lebanese immigrant, was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 141 years in prison. He initially argued that the motive was a traffic dispute, but in 2007 he admitted to targeting the van of Jewish students because of their religion.
The 1999 Jewish Community Center shooting in Los Angeles
On August 10, 1999, Buford O. Furrow Jr. walked into the lobby of the North Valley Jewish Community Center in Granada Hills, Los Angeles, and fired 70 shots from a submachine gun, injuring five people: a 16-year-old camp counselor, three young campers, and a 68-year-old receptionist. Furrow drove away and then killed a Filipino American postal worker, Joseph Santos Ileto, a few miles from the center. He surrendered to the FBI and was sentenced to life in prison. Furrow had considered other Jewish targets in the Los Angeles area, including the Skirball Cultural Center and the Simon Wiesenthal Center; he allegedly told investigators that he wanted his actions to be “a wake-up call to America to kill Jews.”
The 2006 Seattle Jewish Federation shooting
On July 28, 2006, Naveed Afzal Haq forced his way into the Seattle Jewish Federation offices and shot six women, killing Pamela Waechter, the 58-year-old director of the federation’s fund-raising campaign. The incident was classified as a hate crime and Haq was convicted in 2009.
The 2009 Holocaust museum shooting in Washington, D.C.
On June 10, 2009, an 88-year-old white supremacist, James W. von Brunn, entered the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and fatally shot a security guard before being wounded by other guards. According to a CNN report at the time, von Brunn was a known Holocaust denier who ran an anti-Semitic website and called The Diary of Anne Frank a hoax. Stephen Tyrone Johns, the security guard who was murdered, had worked on the museum staff for six years.
The 2014 Overland Park shootings
On April 13, 2014, on the eve of Passover, a man opened fire at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City and at a Jewish retirement community, Village Shalom, both in Overland Park, Kansas. Three people were killed, two at the community center and one in the retirement community. The shooter, the 73-year-old Frazier Glenn Cross Jr., was a prominent former Ku Klux Klan leader; he was convicted and sentenced to death. The three victims—a 14-year-old boy and his 69-year-old grandfather at the community center, and a 53-year-old woman visiting her mother at the retirement community—were Christian.
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