LOS ANGELES (Jun. 22)
Under a giant banner reading “Sacramento United Against Hate,” some 4,000 citizens of all faiths and colors have dedicated themselves to the fight against bigotry as their answer to arson attacks on three Sacramento-area synagogues.
More than 2,500 people crammed into the Community Center Theater on Monday night, while 1,500 more listened in an overflow auditorium during a two-and-a- half hour rally that participants described as “electric” and “the most emotional experience of my life.”
The audience rose to its feet as California Lt Gov. Cruz Bustamante declared, “Tonight all of us belong to the three synagogues,” and as Sacramento Mayor Joe Serna said, “When I hear of synagogues burning, then I am a Jew.”
There were more standing ovations as the representative of a black housing association presented the first $10,000 check for a proposed municipal museum of tolerance, and when Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, observed that in future years, Sacramento would be held up as a model of how a community must respond to bigotry.
Not far from the emotional scene, more than 100 federal agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the FBI were painstakingly combing the three synagogue sites for evidence to link the hate crimes to their perpetrators.
Last Friday’s predawn attacks targeted Congregation B’nai Israel and Congregation Beth Shalom, both Reform temples, and the Kenesset Israel Torah Center, an Orthodox synagogue. Total damage was estimated at close to $1 million.
At two of the sites, arsonists left leaflets that blamed the “International Jew World Order” and the “International Jewsmedia” for the war in Kosovo.
“We are Slavs, we will never allow the International Jew World Order to take our Land,” read one flier. “We fight to keep Serbia free forever.”
Hardest hit was B’nai Israel in downtown Sacramento, whose library was gutted with the loss of 5,000 books, some hundreds of years old. Also destroyed were 300 videotapes on Jewish history, which the congregation had been collecting for its 150th anniversary celebration in October.
B’nai Israel is believed to be the oldest American synagogue west of the Mississippi River.
At Beth Shalom, vandals broke in through a side window and started a fire on the bimah, or dais. Earlier this year, the temple’s walls had been defaced by painted swastikas.
Kenesset Israel was the target of a Molotov cocktail, which had been lobbed through a sliding glass door.
Politicians swiftly condemened the attacks.
The California State Assembly on Monday unanimously approved a resolution calling the fires one of the worst acts of anti-Semitism in American history. Vice President Al Gore on Monday condemned the arsons as “cowardly.”
During a smaller noon rally on Monday, in a park across from B’nai Israel, organizers handed out signs with the slogan, “Sacramento Together, United We Stand.”
Vice Mayor Jimmie Yee, a Chinese American whose home was firebombed in 1993, urged Sacramentans to display the sign in their homes, businesses and cars, “to rekindle the light of reason and demonstrate your solidarity with persons of the Jewish faith.”
The idea of a tolerance museum, first proposed by Rabbi Brad Bloom of B’nai Israel, drew quick support from Serna.
“The way to stop (hate crimes) is through education,” the Sacramento mayor said. “If we can issue bonds to build ballparks, we should build a museum of tolerance in this city.”
Serna and state Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg promised to enlist the help of corporations, labor unions, local government units and community groups to pay for the museum.
The museum proposal was welcomed by the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, whose director, Liebe Geft, flew to Sacramento to meet with officials.
To help meet the immediate needs of the three synagogues, more than $10,000 has been donated by organizations representing the Japanese and Chinese communities, Buddhist and Christian churches, political leaders and private citizens, the Sacramento Bee reported.
The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development has offered low- interest loans to help the synagogues repair the damage, under the 1996 Church Arson Prevention Act. Andrew Cuomo, HUD’s secretary, visited B’nai Israel with California Gov. Gray Davis and called it, “an attack against all Americans.”
Other offers of help have arrived from all parts of the country. “We’ve been overwhelmed by offers of moral and financial support from as far away as New York and Florida,” said a spokesman at the Sacramento Jewish Federation.
The ADL offered to help replace B’nai Israel’s torched books and videos on the Holocaust from its own collection.
The Jewish Community Library in Los Angeles is also planning to send books, said John Fishel, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, who said he is open to requests for financial assistance.
Concern for the security of synagogues in other California cities was expressed by Jewish officials, who noted that there had been 39 arson attacks on Jewish houses of worship and other institutions in the past five years.
The statistics were cited by the ADL’s Foxman, who described the Sacramento attacks as “one of the worst since we began keeping records 20 years ago.”
In San Francisco, Rabbi Doug Kahn, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, said he had contacted the police’s Hate Crime Unit to request a level of heightened alert for Bay Area synagogues.
In Los Angeles, Fishel said that he had met with the Board of Rabbis on Monday and “everyone was aware of the need to take special precautions.”
On the crime scenes in Sacramento, the investigations were led by the elite 15- person National Response Team of the ATF, a mobile platoon of chemists, structural engineers and police dogs. They were joined by 55 other ATF personnel and 30 FBI agents.
No arrests have been made.
Investigators are paying close attention to anti-Semitic fliers found at two of the attacked synagogues.
The flier left behind at Kenesset Israel denounced the “North Atlantic Terrorist Organization,” adding that “The fake Albanian refugee crisis was manufactured by the International Jewsmedia to justify the terrorizing, the bestial bombing of our Yugoslavia back into the dark ages.”
The text was accompanied by a cartoon of bombs raining down on President Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
ADL has been monitoring hate groups in the Sacramento area for the past few months and found them using similar propaganda themes, blaming Jews for the NATO bombings of “Serbian Christians.”
However, the Sacramento Bee reported Tuesday that the FBI is warning not to jump to conclusions about the fliers.
“These fliers may eventually be proven to be connected to those responsible for the fires, but even if they are connected, they may contain misstatements about their actual motives and identities,” FBI spokesman Nick Rossi told the Sacramento newspaper.
The Rev. Dobrivoje Milunovic, pastor of Sacramento’s Serbian Orthodox Church of the Assumption, said that the 250 families in his church had “nothing to do with this act of terror, this act of hate.
“Our prayers and thoughts are with the members of the Jewish congregations whose temple have been burned.”
The three arson attacks occurred within a 35-minute span, starting at 3:24 a.m. last Friday. Given the distance between the synagogues, investigators thought it unlikely, but not impossible, that the same person could have set all three fires.
The North American Boards of Rabbis is offering a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of those responsible for the arsons. Private individuals have offered similar rewards, totaling $35,000.
A solidarity fund to aid the three synagogues has been established. Checks, payable to The Unity Fund, can be sent to The Unity Fund, Jewish Federation of the Sacramento Region, 2351 Wyda Way, Sacramento, CA 95825. For more information, phone (916) 486-0906.
Federal authorities are asking anybody with information on the arsons to call 800-435-7883 or 888-ATF-FIRE.