Guilty pleas in Calif. shul arsons


LOS ANGELES, Sept. 9 (JTA) — Two brothers, both self-proclaimed anti-Semites and white supremacists, have pleaded guilty to fire-bombing three synagogues in the Sacramento area two years ago.

Benjamin Matthew Williams, 33, considered the instigator in the attacks, faces 30 years in federal prison. His brother, James Tyler Williams, 31, is to receive 18 to 21 years when the sentences are pronounced in November.

The torching of the three synagogues in the pre-dawn hours of June 18, 1999, marked the opening of that year’s “summer of hate,” which included an arson attack on a Sacramento abortion clinic that the Williams brothers also claimed.

Subsequent months saw a shooting spree that wounded five at a Los Angeles-area Jewish community center and a white supremacist’s killing rampage in the Midwest.

Following their conviction in federal court on the fire-bombings, the Williams brothers will be tried in state court for the killing of a gay couple two weeks after the Sacramento arsons. Prosecutors said they will seek the death penalty in that case.

Hardest hit by the synagogue attacks was Congregation B’nai Israel, a 150-year-old Reform temple that sustained more than $1 million in damages.

Substantial damage also was suffered by Congregation Beth Shalom, also Reform, in suburban Carmichael, and Kenesset Israel Torah Center, an Orthodox synagogue.

In a news conference following Friday’s guilty pleas, Louis Anapolsky, president of B’nai Israel at the time of the arson, said, “The wounds that were inflicted, which ran so deep, today are beginning to heal.”

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.

While he was held in prison, the elder Williams initiated a series of media interviews in which he declared his readiness to be executed as a “Christian martyr” whose death would spur increased attacks on Jews, homosexuals and other minorities.

Following the synagogue attacks, a unity rally of all faiths and races in Sacramento drew 5,000 people and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to help repair the shuls.

By coincidence, California Gov. Gray Davis appeared at Congregation B’nai Israel two days before the guilty pleas. He chose the venue to sign into law a bill prohibiting insurance companies from canceling, failing to renew, or raising premiums on policies of organizations that file claims based on hate crimes.

The bill was introduced after Congregation B’nai Israel was denied renewal of its property insurance after it filed a claim for $1 million in damages during the firebombing.

The new law will go into effect Jan. 1 and will protect religious, educational and nonprofit institutions and organizations.

Tamar Galatzan, Western States associate counsel for the Anti-Defamation League, praised the new law.

“The damage done by hate crimes cannot be measured solely in terms of physical injury or dollars and cents. When an insurance company blames the victim for being targeted — by canceling or not renewing a policy — the perpetrator’s message of hate and exclusion is reinforced,” she said.

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