LOS ANGELES, Dec. 2 (JTA) — Two brothers, both self-proclaimed anti-Semites and white supremacists, have been sentenced to lengthy prison terms for the 1999 firebombings of three synagogues near Sacramento, Calif. Following their guilty pleas, Benjamin Matthew Williams, 33, was sentenced last Friday to 30 years in prison, and James Tyler Williams, 31, to 21 years and 3 months. They were ordered to pay more than $1 million in restitution to the three synagogues. The brothers will go on trial next April in the slaying of a homosexual couple two weeks after the torching of the synagogues and an abortion clinic. State prosecutors said they will seek the death penalty. Hardest hit by the arson attacks was Congregation B´nai Israel, a Reform temple that sustained more than $1 million in damages. Last year, the temple celebrated its 150th anniversary. Substantial damage also was suffered by Congregation Beth Shalom, also Reform, in suburban Carmichael, and Kenesset Israel Torah Center, an Orthodox synagogue. At two of the synagogues, the perpetrators left leaflets proclaiming that the "International Jew World Order" and the "International Jewsmedia" started the war in Kosovo. In an emotional two-and-a-half hour hearing in a Sacramento federal court room before the sentences were given, rabbis and other Jewish leaders confronted the convicted arsonists and told them their crimes had strengthened the Sacramento residents´ determination to fight bigotry. After receiving permission from U.S. District Judge Garland E. Burrell Jr. to address the defendants, Rabbi Brad Bloom of Congregation B´nai Israel told them, "Your hatred and anti-Semitism will never prevail. Ironically, it strengthened the determination of the entire community to make no room for bigotry." Following the synagogue attacks on June 18, 1999, a unity rally of all faiths and races in Sacramento drew 5,000 people and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to repair the shuls. Bloom said the Williams brothers represented " a continuum of anti-Semitic perpetrators" from Babylonian and Egyptian times through Russian pogroms and Nazi atrocities. "Yes, we have known the Williams brothers for a long time," media reports quoted Bloom as saying. Len Feldman, vice chairman of Sacramento´s Jewish Community Relations Council, said the firebombing "forced me to explain to my two children a world I had hoped had been left behind." Rabbi Yosef Etzhasadeh of the Kenesset Israel Torah Center lamented the trial´s failure to explore all the evidence, which, he said, might have exposed the brothers´ accomplices. The elder Williams smirked though part of the admonitions. Both he and his brother declined the judge´s invitation to talk about their crimes or express remorse. While being held in prison, the voluble elder Williams initiated a series of press interviews in which he declared his readiness to be executed as a "Christian martyr" whose death would spur increased attacks on Jews, gays and various minority groups. Matthew and Tyler Williams — they are known by their middle names — worked as landscapers in northern California. In a search of their home, investigators found a "hit list" with 32 names, mostly of Sacramento Jewish leaders but also including Marc Klein, editor and publisher of the San Francisco-based Jewish Bulletin of Northern California. The Williams´ arson attacks were the opening shots in a "summer of hate," which included a shooting spree that wounded five at the North Valley Jewish Community Center in suburban Los Angeles, and a white supremacist´s killing rampage in the Midwest.
ADVERTISEMENT: The transgender abba. The first female Hasidic judge. The Argentine-Brazilian-Israeli Jew living in Brooklyn. Help us tell these stories in our new series Chosen. We need your vote to make it happen. Vote today!
Tom Tugend is JTA's Los Angeles correspondent. A veteran journalist, he also writes for the Jerusalem Post, the Los Angeles Jewish Journal and the London Jewish Chronicle.