An Explosive Reality

Steven Haberfeld is a trained conflict mediator in northern California, specializing in interethnic disputes. His particular specialty is disputes that pit disgruntled ethnic minorities against big bureaucracies.

He’s been at it for decades, first as a United Farm Workers organizer in California, later as head of an urban-renewal program in an Israeli development town. Now 57, he’s been living for the last decade in Sacramento, running an agency that mediates Indian tribal conflicts with the federal government.

None of this prepared him for his latest clash, though. As president of Kenesset Israel Torah Center, a local Orthodox congregation, Haberfeld was rousted from his bed in the pre-dawn hours of June 18 to learn that his synagogue had been firebombed. Go mediate that.

Kenesset Israel was one of three Sacramento synagogues torched last Friday morning, all within minutes of each other. Law enforcement sources are calling it a “coordinated” attack, involving “fairly sophisticated” incendiary devices. No anti-Semitic attack of this scale or complexity has occurred in America in years, if ever.

This being California, some local Jews were reacting with a sort of laid-back, philosophical shrug. Haberfeld, for example, says he and his fellow congregants are “taking it in stride.” The converted frame house where they prayed is completely gutted, leaving the congregation homeless. Haberfeld says it’s all “part of Jewish life, both historical and contemporary.”

Not that he takes it lying down. He’s just less indignant than some because he’s not shocked. “What is characteristic of our synagogue,” he says, “is that we all have relatives and friends in Israel. So we’ve been living with this thing for some time in one form or another. We don’t expect not to be bombed.”

Leaflets found at two bomb sites claimed credit in the name of “Slavic” militants. They blamed “the International Jew World Order” for NATO’s bombing of Serbia. But sources close to the investigation say Serb émigré involvement is unlikely. Evidence points to organized groups of white supremacists long active in the Sacramento area. It looks like the same old haters. Only the excuse is new.

New, too, is the unprecedented outpouring of sympathy from non-Jews: two solidarity rallies, collections taken up by Methodist, Japanese-American and black groups, and countless citizens displaying in their windows a “Chai” solidarity poster published by the local daily paper.

“If it’s the Jewish community today, it could be the Asian-American community tomorrow and the African-American community the day after,” says Beryl Michaels, director of the Sacramento Jewish Federation.

Not surprisingly, most local Jews aren’t responding with the same equanimity as Steven Haberfeld. Many voice unvarnished outrage. Rabbi Brad Bloom of Congregation B’nai Israel, a Reform temple that suffered more than $800,000 in damage, publicly compared the attacks to Kristallnacht, the night in 1938 when Nazis torched most of the synagogues in Germany. He wasn’t the only one making the comparison.

But the outrage is sparking its own backlash. A good number of local Jews, it appears, were steamed at the Kristallnacht comparison. “It’s obscene, and it cheapens the memory of the Holocaust,” says Hillard Fahn, a member of a leading Sacramento Jewish family and a close observer of the community. “Kristallnacht was an attack by Germany on its Jewish community. What happened here was an attack by a small group of idiots, which was condemned immediately by the non-Jewish community, the police and the mayor.” In fact, Fahn says, the outpouring from the general community “only showed how much of a fringe element these people are.”

The debate in Sacramento mirrors a broader national debate over the extent of anti-Semitism in America, ignited by the publication in May of the American Jewish Committee’s annual survey of Jewish public opinion.

The survey showed a level of Jewish anxiety about anti-Semitism that many observers found surprisingly high. Professional monitors of prejudice, from the Anti-Defamation League to the General Social Survey of the University of Chicago, have found anti-Jewish bias dropping precipitously in recent years. Virtually every available measure — institutional discrimination, popular attitudes, anti-Jewish vandalism — shows American anti-Semitism at historic lows.

Yet Jews surveyed by the AJC chose anti-Semitism over intermarriage by 2-1 as the greatest threat to Jewish life in the United States. One-third said U.S. anti-Semitism is “currently a very serious problem,” and nearly two-thirds said it was “somewhat of a problem.”

Many commentators see the anxiety as a sign that too many Jews are out of touch. “My impression is that most Jews go through most of their lives without ever having anti-Semitism directed at them,” says Leonard Fein, national social action director of the Reform movement. And, yet, they remain convinced that it’s rampant. “My interpretation is that they remember what they were taught in Hebrew school.”

The bombings in Sacramento point to another possible interpretation: that the Jews are onto something. Even paranoids have enemies.

“It’s a sobering reminder that the classic scapegoating is still with us,” says Abraham Foxman, national director of the ADL, which has published several recent studies showing anti-Semitism in decline. “When there’s a problem between others, they find a way to blame us. This isn’t news.”

There may be some real news here, though. The Sacramento bombings hint at the emergence of a new kind of anti-Semitic attack, in which Jews are not scapegoats but genuine targets. These attacks become increasingly likely as national Jewish organizations get more involved in high-stakes diplomatic battles abroad.

It’s true, for example, that Jewish organizations played a leading role in pressing for NATO action against the Serbs. President Clinton acknowledged that publicly. So did the president of Albania. It’s conceivable that a few Serb hotheads might hear about it and decide to take action, if they haven’t yet. Not out of mindless prejudice, but as people who have a bone to pick, and choose terror as their weapon of choice.

We’ve already seen a wave of terror attacks on American Jewish targets apparently because of the Jewish community’s role in U.S. Middle East policy-making. As Jewish organizations increase their role in more arenas — Switzerland, Poland, Sudan, Iraq — the likelihood of attacks increases geometrically.

What can individual Jews do? Stay informed. Most Jews in Sacramento don’t know about the national organizations’ role in the Balkans. That’s wrong. Find out what all those agencies are doing in your name. If you think they’re wrong, protest. If you think they’re right, watch your back.

J.J. Goldberg writes a weekly column for The Jewish Journal.