Reigns of Terror in AmericaRoundup
tags: terrorism, Pittsburgh, antisemitism
On Friday, May 9, 1958, Rabbi Jacob M. Rothschild, of the Hebrew Benevolent Congregation, in Atlanta, delivered a sermon called “Can This Be America?” Crosses had been burned and men had been lynched, but Rothschild was mainly talking about the bombs: bundled sticks of dynamite tied with coiled fuses. In the late nineteen-fifties, terrorists had set off, or tried to, dozens of bombs—at black churches, at white schools that had begun to admit black children, at a concert hall where Louis Armstrong was playing, at the home of Martin Luther King, Jr. One out of every ten attacks had been directed at Jews, at synagogues and community centers in Charlotte, in Nashville, in Jacksonville, in Birmingham. In March, 1958, about twenty sticks of dynamite, wrapped in paper yarmulkes, had exploded in an Orthodox synagogue in Miami. The blast sounded like a plane crash.
“Our first duty is not to allow ourselves to be intimidated,” Rothschild told his congregation. Five months later, some fifty sticks of dynamite exploded at his temple, Atlanta’s oldest, blowing a twenty-foot hole in a brick wall, toppling columns, shattering stained-glass windows. “We bombed a temple in Atlanta,” a man claiming to be from the “Confederate Underground” said, when he telephoned the press that night. “Negroes and Jews are hereby declared aliens.”
Rothschild grew up in Pittsburgh, in Squirrel Hill. His family went to Temple Rodef Shalom, just blocks away from the Tree of Life Synagogue, where eleven people were recently shot and killed during services. Robert Bowers, the man charged in the case, had repeatedly posted on social media about a Jewish aid organization he thought was helping refugees cross the U.S.-Mexico border. The shooting followed a series of mail bombs sent to prominent critics of the President, allegedly by Cesar Sayoc, Jr., a Florida man whose white van was plastered with Trump stickers. In the days after these atrocities, Donald Trump announced his intention to end birthright citizenship—to declare, by executive order, that millions of U.S.-born children are aliens. Can this be America?
Rothschild, the liberal from Pittsburgh, moved to Atlanta to take up his pulpit in 1946, the year that a white-supremacist organization was founded in the city. The Columbians asked potential members three questions: “Do you hate Negroes? Do you hate Jews? Do you have three dollars?” On Yom Kippur in 1948, Rothschild sought to stir his congregation out of its silence. “There is only one real issue,” he said. “Civil rights.” The reign of terror Rothschild decried in 1958 had begun four years earlier, after the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, when White Citizens Councils began forming across the South to oppose desegregation. And then the bombings started, targeting the institutions that hold societies, and nations, together: schools, houses of worship, newspaper offices.
Standing at the site of the Atlanta temple blast, Mayor William B. Hartsfield declared, “Every political rabble-rouser is the godfather of every sneaking cross-burner and dynamiter at work in the South today.” In the Atlanta Constitution, the syndicated columnist Ralph McGill wrote, “To be sure, none said go bomb a Jewish temple or a school. But let it be understood that when leadership in high places in any degree fails to support constituted authority, it opens the gates to all those who wish to take law into their hands.” The F.B.I. investigated, as Melissa Fay Greene recounts in a book about the bombing, and five men were arrested. The American Nationalist, a California newspaper, ran a story that announced, “SYNAGOGUE BOMBING A FRAUD: Jewish Groups Use Bomb Incident to Confuse Gentiles.” Only one man, George Bright, was ever tried; he was acquitted. McGill won a Pulitzer Prize. “If you call that a prize,” Bright scoffed. “Pulitzer was just a Jew.”
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