Lenny Bruce and My Uncle Dave – revised version, posted 1/13/2019

January 13, 2019 1 comment

Six years ago, I wrote an earlier version of this piece which I have now revised and updated substantially. I tried to get the Philadelphia Inquirer to publish it, without success. Jon

When I was 10 years old, I had my first experience with the law. My dad took me to court in downtown Philadelphia. It was the early 1960’s and it was not just any court. It was the court where my uncle, the Honorable E. David Keiser, presided. Uncle Dave was a magistrate in the lower courts in Philadelphia.

I do not remember much about that day but some details remain vivid. It was right after New Years Day. I sat up on the bench with Uncle Dave which I thought was cool.

The only case I remember was a case where the defendant was a transvestite. I think he was being prosecuted for being a transvestite. The case involved some New Year’s eve revelry. For a sheltered kid from the suburbs, this was eye-opening stuff.

One other thing I do remember. My dad pointed out a guy in the back of the courtroom. My dad said.”That’s the bag man”. I did not know about courts or bag men. My dad explained it to me. The bag man was the guy who took bribes and payoffs. Apparently, the magistrate got a cut, as did others.

I puzzled over that. The bagman was so publicly out there and he appeared to be just another part of the normal court proceedings.

Uncle Dave was not a lawyer. Back in those days, being a lawyer was not a necessary prerequisite for becoming a magistrate in Philadelphia. Uncle Dave first got elected magistrate in 1941 and he was continuously reelected through 1965.

My mom told me Uncle Dave was a neighborhood bigshot, kind of a mini-rock star. He circulated and gave away small amounts of money and candy to neighborhood kids. He and his girl friend Tina lived in the same building as my grandmother at 2601 Parkway in Philadelphia.

I found out some years back that the legendary comedian Lenny Bruce had appeared before my Uncle Dave. It turned out that Lenny has a long bit about his Philadelphia bust and court appearance on his album “Lenny Bruce Live at the Curran Theater”.

For those who may not know anything about Lenny Bruce, some explanation is in order. Before there was Richard Pryor, George Carlin and Chris Rock, there was Lenny Bruce. It seems tame to say he was an original bad boy. Lenny was a fearless boundary pusher, way ahead of his time. He was committed to exposing The Lie.

Readers might have seen Lenny’s character in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. He shows up as a character in the show.

Lenny upset many people in that unforgiving era. I suppose he was most famous for talking dirty but that is a shallow perspective on his artistry. He was a compulsive, no-holds-barred, truth teller. He prided himself on not repeating the same dopey routines. As his career evolved, he went free form in comedy, talking about whatever was on his mind. In this respect, he was a forerunner of comedians like Carlin.

During the 5 year period from 1961 until the year he died in 1966, Lenny was actively persecuted and he faced a number of narcotics and obscenity charges. The Philadelphia narcotics bust, along with another 1961 obscenity bust in San Francisco, provide much of the the material for his Curran Theater performance.

Lenny came to Philadelphia in September 1961 to perform at the Red Hill Inn in Pennsauken. The Red Hill was a nationally famous jazz club of that era.

When he arrived in Philadelphia, Lenny went to a local doctor and then a pharmacy to have his prescriptions filled. Lenny was a serious drug addict.

As Lenny recounts, four Philadelphia police officers came to his hotel room and repeatedly knocked on the door. Lenny was in bed and he yelled back that he did not want to be disturbed. The cops broke the door down. The cops had a search warrant and they were hunting for drugs and drug paraphernalia. One cop said,

“Hey, whaddya doin’ with all these books here? Hee-hee!“, as he read the titles. Lenny replied,” I smoke them at night. They’re all dipped in secret sticklach…I’ll tell you something if you’re ever in a strange town, just clip the ad for the local jazz club out of the paper, roll it up and smoke it – and you’ll be right out of your kayach.”

After being bailed out, Lenny started calling lawyers. He said he went through 15. He got referred to a criminal defense lawyer named Gary Levy. Lenny asked him, “Okay how much is this going to cost me?”. Levy replied, “Lenny, this will cost you $10,000.” “What”.Lenny exploded, “That’s a telephone number! Are you crazy?”

Levy responded that he had to give money to the D.A.’s Office, to Magistrate Keiser, to the police, the bail bondsman, and he, of course, needed his fee. Lenny then tried to bargain Levy down from $10,000 to $5,000 and then $3,500. No deal was reached and Lenny said he was going to sleep on it. That night he decided to fire Levy and he went to the press. He told reporters, “Magistrate Keiser is a crook”. He had decided to name names and quote prices. He explained that Attorney Levy had made the offer.

When Levy was asked about Lenny’s allegation, Levy said, “He’s a liar. He’s a sick kid. The kid’s crazy.” Levy said he would sue Lenny for slander. Levy went on to say: “I wouldn’t know who to pay off. Payoffs certainly are not going on in the courts of our land.”

When Magistrate Keiser was asked about the bribery charge, he said, “This is the first time I have heard anything of this nature…But it sounds ridiculous”.

Lenny had never been to court before the Philadelphia bust. He described his view of judges this way. “I thought judges were …”I listen, I am wise, the scales. I listen to all, then I weigh what I hear”.

When Lenny appeared in court, Magistrate Keiser led off with, “This looks like a sinister character to me.” He was so prejudiced that Lenny said there was no need for a D.A.. Lenny described Keiser as ” a momser, my first villain, and my first lover who did me in and told a lie.”

This is how Albert Goldman, Lenny’s biographer described Keiser:.

“On a salary of $18,000 a year, he has become a rich man, presiding over his business in bribes and gratuities from a palatially furnished office better suited to a big corporation head than it is to a local judge.”

Lenny realized that if he paid a bribe he would become a mark for crooked cops and judges all over the country. There is a tradition in America of big-name entertainers and politicians settling problems by payoffs in order to salvage their careers. Donald Trump’s payments to silence Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal are very much in this tradition.

Lenny wanted to fight it out on the law which he believed in. I do not know for sure but I would not be surprised if Lenny’s famous saying, “In the halls of justice, the only justice is in the halls” comes from this experience. The case against Lenny was eventually dropped by a grand jury but this was just the beginning of his troubles.

It is now over 50 years past the events I have described. I saw the bag man in Magistrate Keiser’s court. Lenny did not deserve the persecution he received. Years of legal battles broke him and turned him into a self-described “drug addict meshuganah”. All the fights cost him a fortune and stressed him beyond the breaking point.

As for my Uncle Dave, in 1966 he received a 21 count indictment for bribery, extortion, and perversion of public justice. In 1971, after a lengthy court battle, The Pennsylvania Supreme Court removed him from the bench.

Albert Goldman accurately wrote that Lenny worshiped the gods of spontaneity, candor and free association. I think he is an insufficiently appreciated American hero and comic genius. In writing this piece, I wanted to honor his memory and encourage people to listen. He is still funny.

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It is past time to restore and raise the minimum wage in New Hampshire – posted 1/6/2019

January 6, 2019 Leave a comment

Back in 2012, a small group of fast food workers in New York launched the Fight for $15 movement. In the six years since the movement started, the success of the effort to raise the minimum wage has been remarkable.

Twenty-two million low wage workers have gotten a raise. The National Employment Law Project estimates the movement has won $68 billion in raises. Twenty states and two dozen local jurisdictions have dramatically upped their minimum wages, including all New England states, with the exception of New Hampshire.

All the dire predictions about the adverse consequences of minimum wage increases have proven to be false. Contrary to the doomsayers, the sky has not fallen and in many jurisdictions, employment has actually increased.

Massachusetts and Vermont are raising their state minimum wage to $15, effective in 2023 and 2024 respectively. Massachusetts is now at $12 an hour and Vermont is now at $11.50 an hour. Maine has approved a $12 an hour minimum wage, effective in 2020.

So what is with New Hampshire? The minimum wage in New Hampshire is $7.25 an hour. It is not enough to say we are contrarian. That is too nice. In this instance, New Hampshire government is anti-worker, callously out of touch with what it costs to live today.

Low wages translate into workers living in poverty.

In 2011, our state legislature repealed the state minimum wage law. Because the federal minimum wage pre-empted state law, New Hampshire was prevented from crashing under the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. If not for the federal law, New Hampshire would have had no wage floor.

Exploitation could have become the new normal.

I recall earlier minimum wage fights in New Hampshire when advocates fought to raise the state minimum wage from $5.15 an hour to $7.25 an hour. It took five legislative efforts over a period of ten years to achieve that raise which passed in the 2007 legislative session.

So many of the old arguments against a minimum wage increase are the same as you hear now: it will hurt business, especially small business. It will require price increases and it will cause hourly cuts and job losses. If those arguments have merit, how come so many states have successfully raised the minimum wage with good economic results?

For low wage workers, raising the minimum wage is a much needed step to help overcome decades of stagnating wages. Both low wage and middle income workers have experienced stagnating wages for the last forty years.

While the harm has been significant for both low and middle income workers, it is low wage workers who have been particularly hammered. The cost of living, especially the cost of housing, health care, and higher education have outpaced wages. The terrible crisis of homelessness is one outcome.

Recognizing that low wages is a problem is something that those with the most income, wealth, and political power have tried to obscure but weak wage growth is a result of deliberate and intentional policy choices by the powerful. The income of the one percent has not been stagnant – it has skyrocketed. Policy choices can be reversed as many states are showing.

I have to say I am struck by the fact that Massachusetts is implementing a minimum wage that is double the New Hampshire minimum. How to explain that? The disparity is enormous.

When I previously worked as a lobbyist in the New Hampshire legislature, I learned the rule to never use a Massachusetts example to make your case. Massachusetts was Taxachusetts. It was the Big Satan to the south, full of rules and regulations. You have to ask though: how can one state be so much more generous to its workers than the other?

Polling shows that raising the minimum wage to at least $12.50 an hour is massively popular with Americans across the board. Even raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2020 is supported by 63% of Americans. Those who believe this is just a blue state phenomenon are wrong.

In the 2018 mid-terms, voters in Arkansas and Missouri approved ballot initiatives raising the minimum wage. Arkansas is moving up to $11 an hour and Missouri, through some steps, is going from $7.85 an hour to $12 an hour.

I saw that there are bills in the upcoming New Hampshire legislature to restore and raise the minimum wage in our state. With the Democratic majorities in both Houses, passage of minimum wage legislation is an almost certain likelihood. It will be interesting to see how Governor Sununu responds.

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George Soros and the Antisemitic Stereotype – posted 12/24/2018

December 24, 2018 4 comments

There is a long history of people on the far right casting Jews as malign puppet masters, who work behind the scenes to manipulate both national and international events for their selfish gain. The puppet master is always fantastically wealthy, greedy and amoral.

In our era, the puppet master stereotype has been embodied by George Soros. Few people, with the possible exception of Hillary Clinton, have been more vilified by the far right. Both the number and intensity of the attacks on Soros are astounding.

President Trump has tweeted that Soros had paid professionals to demonstrate against his Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh. The Pittsburgh synagogue shooter posted that Soros controlled the Honduran migrant caravan. President Trump’s son, Donald Jr., retweeted a claim from comedian Roseanne Barr that Soros “was a nazi who turned in his fellow Jews”.

The actor James Woods tweeted that Soros was “satanic”. Trump attorney, Rudi Giuliani, retweeted a post calling Soros “the anti-Christ”. On Twitter, Soros has been accused of supporting both Colin Kaepernick and the mass shooter at Las Vegas.

Outside the United States, especially in Eastern Europe, Soros has achieved an even greater level of notoriety, with nationalist and authoritarian governments running propaganda campaigns against him.

So who is this alleged puppet master with his fingers in so many pies?

The short answer is that Soros is a Hungarian-American billionaire philanthropist. Soros was born Gyorgy Schwartz into a Jewish family in Budapest. Because of the rise of the Nazis and antisemitism in Hungary, Soros’s father changed the family name and dispersed family members to live with Hungarian people he trusted and paid for their efforts. Members of the Soros family, including George, pretended to be Christians just to survive.

Soros’s father sent young George to live with a Hungarian government official. One of the man’s duties was to inventory confiscated Jewish property. Soros once accompanied the man in the performance of his duties. He has acknowledged the incident, but the story led to a wild smear that casts Soros as a Nazi collaborator who sent his fellow Jews to the gas chambers.

In actuality, Soros’s father, Tivadar, saved not only his own family from the Nazis but also heroically saved many other Hungarian Jews. Soros’s father, with help from George,  created thousands of fake documents for people trying to flee the Nazis.

Soros was very lucky to have survived the war and survival depended on hiding identity. Two-thirds of Hungary’s Jews were murdered by the Nazis and their Hungarian collaborators.

After the war, Soros fled Hungary and moved to England. In 1951, he graduated from the London School of Economics. While there he became a student of the philosopher, Karl Popper, who became a lifelong influence. Popper favored open societies committed to media freedom and civil rights over closed authoritarian societies.

In 1956, Soros moved to the United States, where he made a fortune on Wall Street. He was an expert at buying currencies and securities in one market that he turned around and sold legally for profit in the international market. Through his financial acumen, Soros became one of the 100 richest people in the world.

Soros went on to found the Open Society Foundation. Over the years, he has given away billions of dollars, funding organizations and initiatives that promote liberal democracy, independent media and political pluralism. The experience of living through Nazism and Stalinism shaped his world view.

Over the last 25 years, he has been a big Democratic Party donor. His Open Society Foundation has also funded many other progressive organizations.

Soros has been compared to the Koch brothers, except that he supports progressive and liberal causes. I would have to say that Soros has been an atypical member of the ruling class. Concerned about climate change, economic inequality and racism, he funds initiatives that infuriate many on the right.

While it is understandable that many on the right would dislike someone who funds the other side, that does not begin to explain the hatred unleashed against Soros. Much of the hatred directed against Soros is rooted in antisemitic stereotypes.

The classic image is the all-powerful Jewish financier who profits and manipulates at the expense of suffering gentiles. Think the Rothschilds and Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Antisemites have long fantasized that Jewish masterminds are behind international conspiracies and global plots. It was a staple of Nazi propaganda. As someone stereotyped as a shadowy and cosmopolitan globalist, Soros is continuously accused, with no evidence, of all manner of evil.

Attacks on Soros have particularly increased since the 2015 European refugee crisis. Soros did back charities that helped migrants and he supported the European Union settlement efforts which were not popular among masses of people in Europe.

The extreme right-wing Hungarian government of Viktor Orban has used Soros as a foil, falsely claiming that Soros plotted to send millions of immigrants to Hungary. Similarly in Romania, the ruling party has blamed their countries’ problems on Soros. In 2015, Putin ejected the Open Society Foundation from Russia, saying it was a threat to their constitutional system.

Ruling elites have found it useful to exploit antisemitic fantasies such as those attached to Soros. Pushing blame onto Jews like Soros and deflecting anger away from ruling classes has a long history. The pattern invariably asserts itself in times of severe economic strain or acute political conflict.

Antisemitism takes different forms in different historical periods. Once it was primarily about the religious mythology that accused the Jews of killing Christ. Now there is the populist narrative with coded antisemitic references to globalists. The absence of explicit slurs does not make it less antisemitic. Those who fail to see the antisemitism are missing the history.

The coded antisemitism about Soros is a dogwhistle for all the neo-nazis, white supremacists and closeted haters out there. It reminds me of campaign consultant Lee Atwater talking about how Republicans can win the vote of racists without sounding racist themselves.

Antisemitism must be understood and thoroughly repudiated, whenever it shows its face. History shows that antisemitic rhetoric leads to violence against Jews. Casual assertions that Soros is a monster need to be seen for what they are: 21st century Jew hating.

 

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Spiro Agnew and the Corruption Defense – posted 12/9/2018 and published in the Concord Monitor on 12/27/2018

December 9, 2018 Leave a comment

This piece appeared in the Concord Monitor on 12/27/2018 under the title “The Corruption Defense”.

How does a corrupt, high-ranking government official, who is under criminal investigation, maintain his grip on power? On TV, I saw Roger Stone describe the game plan: “admit nothing, deny everything and counterattack”.

Stone was not the first in American politics to advocate such a game plan. Forty-five years ago, then-Vice President Spiro T. Agnew, pioneered the modern model.

For those who may not remember or were not around yet, Agnew was Richard Nixon’s Vice-President. He is the only vice-president in U.S. history forced to resign the position. The story of Agnew’s fall is brilliantly evoked in Rachel Maddow’s podcast, Bag Man. It is a story with historical resonance.

President Nixon plucked Agnew from obscurity and put him on the national ticket in 1968. At the time, Agnew was a political unknown. He had served as Baltimore County Executive and he had a two year stint as governor of Maryland.

Agnew quickly became extremely popular with the right wing base of the Republican Party. As Maddow says, he created the mold for confrontational conservatism. Agnew played the role of attack dog. I still remember vintage Agnew, lambasting Nixon opponents as “an effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals”.

Agnew had a way with words. For those who lived it, who can forget “nattering nabobs of negativism” or “pusillanimous pussyfooting on law and order”. Agnew was a bomb thrower on the stump. He particularly loved attacking anti-war student demonstrators and the press.

For those on the political right, Agnew was the blunt and honest outsider, willing to speak truths no one else would speak. He was adored for trashing liberals, radicals, and minorities. Agnew played a moralist, devoted to the silent majority. He presented himself as a pillar of rectitude and conservative integrity.

What no one knew was that contrary to the image, Agnew was a criminal and his criminality was long-standing. Since the start of his political career as Baltimore County Executive, he was on the take. Agnew received kickbacks on contracts he had the power to control. For years he took illegal bribes and payoffs. He had two bag men in his employ.

Shockingly, Agnew continued the bribery and extortion as a governor and even when he was in the White House. Agnew regularly received visitors at the White House and in his office in the Executive Office Building who passed along thousands of dollars of cash stuffed into plain envelopes. In exchange, Agnew steered federal contracts to the paying-off businessmen. Until the investigation into his criminal activities, Agnew never stopped taking bribes. He put the federal government up for sale.

If it were not for three federal prosecutors – Barney Skolnick, Tim Baker and Ron Liebman – Agnew might have gotten away with his crimes and he might have become president when Nixon resigned. The prosecutors decided to follow the money. They quickly assembled a solid case with multiple witnesses and documents. Participants in Agnew’s shake-downs started singing to the prosecutors..

When news of the investigation became public, Agnew fought back. He famously said, “ I will not resign, if indicted”. Agnew alleged he was the victim of a witch hunt and he smeared the investigators as biased and corrupt. He attacked the Justice Department for leaks and he said the press and liberals were out to get him.

Agnew’s P.R. strategy was to change the story by making criminal misconduct by Justice Department leakers, not his own crimes, the focus of public attention. Agnew’s lawyers sought to force the press to testify about sources. They subpoenaed nine reporters.

At the same time, Agnew had a private plan to obstruct his own investigation. He tried to use his political power to smother the investigation into his crimes. Agnew enlisted Nixon’s inner staff, Bob Haldemann and John Ehrlichman, in the obstruction effort.

They devised a plan to have Maryland’s senator, Glenn Beall, pressure his brother, George Beall, the United States Attorney for Maryland into dropping the Agnew investigation. Senator Beall owed Nixon because Nixon helped him win back his senate seat in 1970.

On the Nixon tapes, you can hear Nixon ask about Senator Beall, “Is he a good boy?”. Completely independent of Watergate, Nixon, Agnew, and the inner circle of most trusted White House advisors made a robust effort to obstruct the Agnew investigation.

Agnew wanted the U.S. Attorney to fire the prosecutor, Barney Skolnick, who Agnew said was a Democrat. Much strategizing went into the best scheme to stop the investigation. Agnew himself had personally lobbied Senator Beall many times to ask him to lean on his little brother. When that failed, the plotters decided to use later-President George H.W. Bush to reach out to Senator Beall. Bush was then chairman of the Republican National Committee.

Bush participated in this criminal scheme and he did try to influence Senator Beall but Beall would not go along.

When the obstruction effort failed, Nixon turned on Agnew. Nixon began to see Agnew as a threat to himself. Nixon wanted Agnew to resign but Agnew refused. Agnew actually wanted to be impeached. Agnew worried more about criminal indictment and doing jail time than impeachment which he thought he might beat.

Things totally fell apart between Nixon and Agnew. Agnew believed Nixon was threatening to have him murdered and he wrote about that repeatedly. He publicly worried he might have a convenient accident.

Agnew pled to a felony count of tax evasion. The IRS had also been investigating Agnew and his unusual spending. It turned out Agnew had a secret life with mistresses, sports cars and jewelry he bought. Prosecutors could have brought multiple criminal indictments against him but for the Attorney General, Elliot Richardson, immediately getting Agnew out of the line of succession to the presidency was the highest priority.

Back then, no one knew if you could indict a sitting Vice President. Initially, Agnew, like Nixon, took the position that they could not be indicted because of their positions.

Agnew never showed a shred of remorse. Until the end and after, he argued his innocence, saying he was railroaded by the Justice Department and the press. He never stopped stoking his supporters. Even after Agnew’s resignation, his hardcore supporters believed he was a victim.

Under the terms of his resignation, Agnew did no jail time nor did he have to pay back bribe money. He did have to resign the vice-presidency immediately. Prosecutors did place in the record a forty page statement that detailed the factual allegations against Agnew.

It was not until years later in 1981 that a taxpayer lawsuit brought by George Washington University law students forced Agnew to pay back the State of Maryland $268,482 for the kickbacks he had received.

Denying everything, smearing prosecutors, obstructing justice and screaming witch hunt did not ultimately work. The problem for Agnew was that in spite of his best efforts, he could never bury his crimes or explain them away.

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The Forgotten History of Antisemitism in America – posted 11/25/2018 and published in the Concord Monitor on 12/16/2018

November 25, 2018 3 comments

This piece appeared in the Concord Monitor on 12/16/2018 under the title “Hatred Rising”.

As an American Jew, I must say that I have been surprised by the resurgence of antisemitism here. Probably, like many others, I did not see it coming.

The relative economic success of American Jews, awareness of the horrors of the Holocaust and the American tradition of religious tolerance have all mitigated against seeing antisemitism as a formidable threat. We have been through a long period during which antisemitism undeniably receded.

There is a foundational American history of welcoming Jews and immigrants of all nationalities and religions that is symbolized by the Statue of Liberty. For me, and I expect for many other American Jews, the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting shook that foundation.

I think it would be a mistake to view the Pittsburgh shootings as an isolated event. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has reported 1986 antisemitic incidents in the United States in 2017. Antisemitic incidents are defined as harassment, vandalism, and physical assault.

The 2017 statistics represent a 57% increase over 2016, the largest single-year escalation since ADL began tracking these incidents in 1979.

Unfortunately, there is also good reason to think the numbers are an undercount. Studies show that only about half of all hate crimes get reported to the police. Many local law enforcement agencies do not provide hate crime data to the federal government because the reporting requirement is voluntary. There is also uncertainty as to whether all hate crimes have been properly identified.

While many rightly point to the Trump campaign and presidency as a supercharger of bigotry, I would like to focus  on the largely forgotten history of antisemitism in America to explain recent events. As with racism, antisemitism has deep roots here.

One hundred years ago, antisemitism and racism had far more social acceptance than they do today. Jews and people of color were excluded from neighborhoods, jobs, clubs, and colleges. Indeed, very prominent Americans – Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh and Father Charles Coughlin – publicly voiced antisemitic or pro-Nazi views.

Ford, the auto magnate, was singled out by Hitler for praise in his book, Mein Kampf. His collection of articles titled “The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem” was a Hitler favorite. Ford attributed all evil to Jews or to Jewish capitalists. He distributed half a million copies of his volume to his vast network of dealerships and subscribers. Ford did business with the Nazis during the war and he was the first American recipient of the Grand Cross of the German Eagle, Nazi Germany’s highest honor.

Lindbergh, the much-admired aviator, was an America-Firster. He spoke against the “mongrelization” of America, in favor of white racial purity. He claimed Jews, through their ownership of the media, were trying to drag America into war against Germany, something he opposed. Lindbergh also received the Grand Cross of the German Eagle from Hitler.

Father Coughlin, a Catholic radio priest from the Detroit area, with an audience of an estimated 30 million listeners, used his radio program to promote antisemitism. In the 1930’s, Coughlin supported Hitler and Benito Mussolini. He saw Jewish bankers behind the Russia revolution. He was eventually forced off the air in 1939 because of his pro-fascist views. At the time, he was one of the most prominent Catholic speakers on political issues in America. He was a forerunner of the rise of televangelism.

In the 1930’s, there was an active Nazi movement in the United States, the German-American Bund. At its height in 1939, the movement packed a rally with 20,000 supporters at Madison Square Garden in New York.

Also, of note, the Ku Klux Klan had achieved massive national popularity in the early 1920’s with an estimated membership of four million. The Klan emphasized white supremacy and opposing Catholics, Jews and immigrants. In that period, the Klan’s widespread campaigns of lynching and terror commanded their widest popularity.

I think the nativist, anti-immigrant political tendency of the 1920’s and 1930’s is entirely consistent with the anti-immigrant hysteria directed against Latinos, Syrians, and Muslims today. History reveals the dangerous repercussions of such racist and anti-immigrant perspectives, which cannot be emphasized enough.

Exhibit A is the experience of the Jewish people. When over 1.5 million Eastern European Jews arrived in America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many nativist organizations advocated for federal restrictions on Jewish immigration. Following in the tradition of the racist Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the Immigration Act of 1924 drastically decreased immigration of specific groups of Europeans, including Eastern European Jews, by imposing strict quotas.

Supporters of the 1924 Act believed that bringing in more immigrants would adversely affect employment for native-born Americans. They sought to establish an American identity that favored native-born white Americans over Jews and people of color. Eugenics, the science of selective breeding aimed at improving the genetic quality of a population, was a big influence on those favoring the quotas.

A Roper poll in the late 1930’s showed that 70 to 85% of Americans opposed raising quotas to help Jewish refugees enter the United States. I think that atmosphere of hostility to Jewish immigration paved the way for what came later.

We can now see the tremendous harm caused by the restrictionist immigration policies. Thousands of Jews who wanted to escape the hell of Nazism were turned away and not allowed into the United States because of the strict quotas. As a result, hundreds of thousands needlessly died in the Holocaust.

Both before and during World War II, the U.S. government played a shameful role in abandoning the European Jewish refugees. They were joined in this abandonment by newspapers and churches. They failed to respond, adopting a posture of passive acquiescence and worse.

I would place antisemitism as the fundamental reason Americans and the other European allies did not respond sooner to the Holocaust. Many people in the United States and Europe knew what the Nazis were up to with their Final Solution but looked the other way. The dehumanization of Jews by antisemites contributed to their indifference and passivity. The response by all the Allies was too little, too late.

To this day, the story remains little known about how U.S. government officials deliberately created bureaucratic obstacles for refugees seeking visas. I would particularly mention Breckinridge Long, a State Department official, a diplomat, and a powerful antisemite. Under Long, 90% of the quota places available to immigrants from countries under German or Italian control were never filled. If they had been filled, an estimated 190,000 more people could have escaped the Nazis.

The story of the European Jewish refugees is best captured in the famous 1939 voyage of the German liner St. Louis which carried 937 passengers. The U.S. government did not allow the passengers to land since they did not have U.S. immigration visas and had not passed a security screening. The boat was ultimately forced back to Europe and 254 of those passengers were killed by the Nazis.

If anything, the consequences of curbing Jewish immigration in the 1920’s and 1930’s highlights the present danger faced by immigrants in our era. Many of them are literally running for their lives, a reality that is not sufficiently appreciated.

The fact that antisemitism has a very long and tragic history in no way lessens our collective responsibility to oppose it now, especially given the alarming rise in hate crimes in this country. It is the same regressive force it has always been, redirecting popular anger onto a convenient scapegoat. All who oppose antisemitism, racism, and the alt right need to join together in solidarity.

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The Journey of Derek Black – posted 11/11/2018 and published in the Concord Monitor on 12/2/2018

November 11, 2018 2 comments

Sometimes a story comes along that is so instructive and inspirational, it demands to be told. I think the story of Derek Black, who transformed from a top leader of the white nationalist movement to a committed anti-racist, is such a story.

Derek Black was not any routine, rank-and-file racist. He was the heir apparent to the American white nationalist movement. The son of Don Black, a long-time leader of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan, and the godson of David Duke, Derek had impeccable white nationalist movement credentials.

Yet, even though Derek was expected to become the new American Hitler, in 2013 he left the white nationalist movement, rejecting and repudiating it.

How that transformation happened is a tale that offers critical lessons for anti-racists. The story of this transformation is told in a wonderful book, Rising Out Of Hatred, by Eli Saslow, a Washington Post staff writer.

As a young boy, Derek was heavily influenced by his birth family. Both his parents were active white supremacists. His father was instrumental in setting up Stormfront, probably the largest neo-Nazi website. Derek was a regular contributor, posting thousands of times on the site. He started a white pride website for children. Derek also started an online racist radio station. He and his dad had a daily talk radio show.

At a white nationalist conference organized by David Duke shortly after the election of President Obama, here is how Duke introduced Derek:

“I’d like to introduce the leading light of our movement. I don’t know anybody who has better gifts. He may have a much more extensive national and international career than I’ve had.”

Derek was a smooth racist. Committed to mainstreaming white nationalism, Derek did not use racist slurs. He never advocated violence or breaking the law. He favored sanitizing and repackaging white nationalism. Instead of donning Klan robes for cross-burnings, Derek favored business suits with a message against illegal immigration. It was an approach pioneered by Duke.

Derek saw white people as the victims of discrimination. He aggressively argued that there was an ongoing white genocide. Derek marshaled pseudo-scientific arguments to justify his views. He maintained that whites had bigger brains than non-whites and were genetically superior.

Saslow describes the debate in the white nationalist movement over what they called the Jewish question. At issue was whether Jews were considered white or outsiders. In 2008, Derek wrote, “Jews are the cause of all the world’s strife and misery.” He felt Jews were not white.

Because Derek was an excellent student, in 2010 he got admitted into New College of Florida, the state’s honors college. New College had a reputation as an alternative school, welcoming to non-conformists.

Once at college, Derek quickly realized the danger in going public with his racist identity. As a survival move, he decided to hide it. In his first year, Derek made friends with a Peruvian immigrant student and two Jewish students. He also started dating a Jewish woman.

Derek had difficulties squaring his ideological beliefs with his personal relationships. He struggled between the different parts of his life. He liked his friends and he agonized over the contradictions. He believed white Europeans needed to date only white Europeans but still he dated a Jewish woman.

Things came to a head for Derek when he was outed as a white supremacist by another New College student who was writing a thesis on extremists. The student accidentally discovered the Derek Black he read about was a student at New College. The student decided to share this information online with the entire New College community. Derek was studying in Germany at the time.

Derek decided he was not going to leave New College.The disclosure about Derek provoked a major split among New College students about how to relate to Derek. The split was between advocates for inclusion or exclusion. Some favored reaching out to him and some wanted to shame and shun him.

Genuinely liking him, Derek’s two Jewish friends on campus decided to engage him with the hope he could evolve over time. They regularly invited him to Friday night Shabbat dinners. Although they were horrified by his views, they did not write him off. They maintained an active dialogue. They practiced what Saslow calls non-judgmental inclusion.

While it took a period of three years, Derek eventually could not reconcile his old ideology with his friendships. Critical to this evolution was the role of Derek’s girlfriend Allison who challenged his views continuously. In an email Derek sent to the Southern Poverty Law Center, he renounced white nationalism, saying:

“I can’t support a movement that tells me I can’t be a friend to whomever I wish or that other people’s race requires me to think about them in a certain way or be suspicious of their advancements.

Derek’s story provides a powerful lesson about the positive value of inclusion. It is an argument against the dehumanization of political opponents. We are all more than our current political positions. It is reductive to view our current political opponents statically rather than dynamically. To quote Derek again:

“Outreach and discourse won’t magically solve the problem of hate. But without those private conversations with people I cared about, I might not have seen the weaknesses in my arguments.”

At a time when America is so bitterly divided, Derek’s example shows the value in reaching out to those with whom we disagree. If a top racist in the country can transform into an antiracist, there is hope for all kinds of people to grow and change. There remains no substitute for the power of persuasion.

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Unhinged Hate and the Caravan Boogeyman – posted 11/4/2018 and published in the Concord Monitor on 11/11/2018

November 5, 2018 1 comment

Usually in trying to understand the reasons for murder, the motives and thinking of a gunman are not starkly etched. A degree of mystery is the norm. That cannot be said in the case of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter, Robert Bowers.

Immediately before shooting and killing eleven people in the Tree of Life Synagogue, Bowers left a record. He went online and posted on Gab, an extremely anti-semitic and racist social media site.

In his last post before the shooting, Bowers singled out HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, a little known immigrant advocacy organization. Bowers wrote:

“HIAS likes to bring invaders that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”

Witnesses at the temple said that before he started shooting, Bowers shouted, “All Jews must die”. It would appear that Bowers blamed Jews in America for an invasion of non-white immigrants. Somehow he saw these immigrants as destined to slaughter white people.

Bowers had a history of making disparaging comments about Jews on Gab. He had previously written “Jews are the children of Satan”. He posted a picture of a fiery oven like those used in Nazi concentration camps to cremate Jews with the caption “Make Ovens 1488 F. Again”.

In considering Bowers’ acts, context and timing matter. The invasion he feared, the so-called caravan, has been a recent obsession of President Trump and Fox News. By relentless fear-mongering and constant repetition, Trump and his media servant worked to create a boogeyman.

The caravan, a collection of up to 7,000 Hondurans, seeking to escape violence in their home country and to obtain asylum, was made out to be an existential threat to the United States, even though it was still in southern Mexico.

It is inconceivable Bowers would have acted as he did when he did without the caravan narrative promoted by Trump and Fox News. That narrative flipped Bowers’ switch and led him to act out.

Those who fail to see the connection between the hate and fear Trump promotes and the actions of Bowers are kidding themselves. While Trump may have seen the caravan as a ploy to mobilize his voters to the polls, Bowers’ murders are a form of collateral damage. Trump’s anti-immigration rants have emboldened and inspired white supremacists and neo-Nazis.

Right wing authoritarian movements invariably collect and surface unhinged sociopaths like Bowers. The fact that he was even more extreme than others in the alt right does not minimize Trump’s responsibility. With his support for the “good” Nazi collaborators at Charlottesville, Trump has given the alt right a pass on violence.

People like Bowers and other white supremacists are an integral part of Trump’s base. They totally stand behind his presidency because they see him advancing their racist and anti-semitic movement, mainstreaming their views.

I was surprised by Bowers’ focus on HIAS. I have a personal connection to the organization. My sister, Lisa Baird, was HIAS Pa’s first staff attorney. Based in Philadelphia, Lisa primarily handled asylum claims. She had an extremely diverse caseload representing clients from all over the world. She worked for HIAS from 1993 to 1998.

HIAS Pa now has a staff of 40 and about 14 attorneys. It is the largest nonprofit provider of immigration legal services in Pennsylvania, specializing in representing unaccompanied minors and survivors of domestic violence and victims of crimes.

There is also a part of HIAS that focuses on refugee resettlement. It is largely a social service department, providing case management to newly arrived refugees assigned to the agency.

HIAS has actually been around for well over 100 years. On TV, I saw the writer Masha Gessen explain that HIAS had helped her emigrate from Russia. The organization has a history of helping Russian Jews, escaping anti-semitism there, come to the United States.

Bowers’ view that Jews are behind immigration of non-whites is part of the white nationalist world view. In this fact-free perspective, Jews are the puppet masters pulling the strings, financing the caravan and promoting non-white immigration.

To these folks on the alt right, any immigration of non-whites conflicts with their goal of a white ethno-state. For them, just the presence of non-white people equals slaughter of white people. They want to deport all whom they classify as non-white, including Blacks, Latinos and Jews.

In the aftermath of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, I do feel the need to address Trump supporters. I expect many of you were horrified by Bowers’ actions. I also expect many would deny that Trump bears any responsibility for these events. But if you oppose anti-semitism and racism, maybe you should think about how Trump’s pronouncements promoting fear and hatred of different racial groups fuel domestic terrorists like Bowers.

As a society, we have underestimated the danger coming from the far right. An ABC News/Washington Post poll taken in the wake of Charlottesville in August 2017 found that roughly 22 million Americans call it “acceptable” to hold neo-nazi or white supremacist views. Willful indifference is not an option. It is imperative that we actively resist this pernicious form of homegrown extremism.

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