Lunatic fringe

Jews can't let crackpots like Buford Furrow convince them that anti-Semitism is rising in America.

Published August 12, 1999 8:00AM (EDT)

When Buford Furrow surrendered Wednesday, he reportedly told police he had emptied an assault rifle on a Jewish day camp in Southern California as a "wake-up call to America to kill Jews." What Furrow accomplished with his despicable act, to the contrary, was to unite American Jewry by reawakening the single reliable source of identity left in an ever more fragmented community: the fear of anti-Semitism.

Several months before Furrow's attack, and a similar assault on Orthodox Jews as well as other minorities in the Chicago area, the American Jewish Committee released some startling poll results. The survey found that 62 percent of American Jews named anti-Semitism their greatest danger. Intermarriage was a distant second, at 32 percent.

Such a finding seemed inexplicable in a nation where 34 Jews serve in Congress -- including both senators from Wisconsin, that overwhelmingly Christian and heavily German state, as well as from California, site of Furrow's rampage -- and where the rate of interfaith marriage hovers between one-third and one-half by various estimates. But the primal fears borne of two millennia of exile, culminating in the Holocaust, yield only begrudgingly to the reality of American tolerance -- some might say ardor -- for Jews.

What has been striking about the reaction to the most visible and odious recent instances of anti-Semitism is the behavior of gentiles. A spate of bigoted vandalism four years ago in Billings, Montana, stirred 10,000 Christian households to display logos of a menorah in solidarity. The arson of three synagogues in Sacramento, Calif., in June brought 1,500 non-Jews, including 200 clergy, to a public meeting.

Yet against all this evidence of decency there persists a belief in many Jewish hearts, minds and institutions that anti-Semitism is immutable and omnipresent. Anti-Semitism persists, of course, and the proof has come in this summer's wave of hate crimes. But it persists on the loony margins, far from the American mainstream that 50 years ago gladly tolerated anti-Semitic quotas at Ivy League colleges, white-shoe law firms, tony neighborhoods and elite social clubs. Those actions harmed perhaps the majority of American Jews, if in insidious, bloodless ways.

Jews will be giving an undeserved power to one crackpot like Furrow -- a would-be mental patient with an assault rifle and a headful of white-supremacist dogma -- if they make him stand for anything larger than a tiny, albeit toxic, margin of American life. They will invest him with the very sense of importance the avenging Aryan surely craved when he bravely sprayed 70 bullets at unarmed children.

I am hardly immune to the panicked impulse to believe that America harbors a multitude of Jew-haters. My children go to day camp at a Jewish community center much like the one Furrow attacked, and the shootings terrified me. On the morning after, police officers monitored every arriving vehicle at their camp. Strolling through the hall on the way to my 5-year-old daughter's "Campfire Time" sing-along, I was interrogated by the camp director. The canvas bag holding my camcorder, I later realized, must have looked mighty suspicious.

But shouldn't reflex give way to reason? It is one thing -- and quite a sensible thing -- to track such fanatical groups as Christian Identity and the Order, as the FBI, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League already do. It is another to let bigots become the only catalysts for Jewish identity.

A history of dispersal, oppression and persecution taught Jews a truth that might be distilled this way: I am what I'm not. In other words, only hatred by gentiles gives being Jewish meaning. Too many Jews identify not by positive factors -- religion, ethnicity, culture -- but by believing that only fellow Jews can be trusted. And when the American Jewish community is riven as it is now, torn asunder by the countervailing forces of assimilation and fundamentalism, then the default setting of self-definition is to be an anti-anti-Semite.

A few months ago, I was paging through my local Jewish newspaper. It included an interview with a Hadassah leader. Asked to name the biggest problem in the Jewish community, she said, "They do not realize the extent of the danger from the fanatic right wing. I use the Nazi definition of a Jew -- to me a Jew is anybody that a Nazi would consider to be a Jew." She meant, of course, to make a plea for communal unity. Reading her words, however, I could not help but wonder if she had just given Hitler his posthumous victory.

Her reductive formula, one heard routinely among American Jews, spares them the anguish of balancing the parochial and universal elements of their existence, of figuring out how to be part of both a tribe and a nation. When Buford Furrow is convicted and locked away, however, the larger crisis for American Jewry will remain.

Much of the coverage of this week's shootings has harked back to the 1984 murder by white supremacists of Alan Berg, a Jewish talk-show host in Denver. Then and now, the reportage reified an image of Denver as a hotbed of anti-Semitic sentiment -- an image readily believed by that majority of American Jews who live on the urban coasts.

But Denver, in fact, elected a Jew named Wolfe Londoner mayor more than a century ago. It sent another Jew, Solomon Guggenheim, to the Senate at roughly the same time. When the Ku Klux Klan briefly controlled Denver's political establishment in the 1920s, Jews and Catholics together routed them from office.

And in the years leading up to Berg's murder, Denver's Christians, far from hating Jews, were falling in love with them at a staggering pace. Seventy percent of Denver's Jews in their 20s were wedding gentiles. So which was the truer barometer of American opinion -- or, to put it another way, the greater threat to Jewish continuity -- one murder, or thousands of mixed marriages?

The San Fernando Valley, site of Tuesday's attack, typifies the kind of upper-middle-class suburbia that, once resistant to Jews, no longer thinks twice about selling them homes and sending their own children to Jewish Community Center day-care programs. And maybe that hints at the larger meaning of Furrow's fusillade: Far from proving the resurgence of anti-Semitism in America, it was a dying gasp from a deformed version of Christianity that knows it has lost this nation's acceptance.

By Samuel G. Freedman

Samuel G. Freedman, a professor of journalism at Columbia University, has written for Salon since 1996. His new book, “Breaking The Line: The Season in Black College Football That Transformed the Sport and Changed the Course of Civil Rights,” will be published in August 2013.

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Abe Foxman Anti-semitism