Homegrown radicalism: Book examines anti-Semitic roots of phenomenon

Kansas City Jewish Chronicle, Nov. 27, 2002
By Rick Hellman, Editor

Kansas, Missouri and the farm belt in general are the setting for much of the action in Daniel Levitas’ book,

published this month by Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s Press.

To the gun-loving, IRS-hating, Federal Reserve-suspecting radicals whose exploits Levitas chronicles in the book, Jews are bogeymen pulling the strings behind a curtain marked “government.” The book’s leading character is William Potter Gale, the father of the modern Posse Comitatus movement, and the more recent militia and Christian Patriot movements that flowed from it. It is Gale’s voice that opens the book, as heard on KTTL-AM in Dodge City, Kan., in July 1982.

On that night, Levitas writes, Gale urged listeners across western Kansas to form a posse and “hang an official who violated the law and the Constitution.”

“Take him to the most populated intersection of the township and at noon hang him by the neck, (then) take the body down at dark and that will be an example to those other officials who are supposed to be your servants that they are going to abide by the Constitution,” Gale said.

Gale was a Jew hater and a “minister” in the doctrine known as Christian Identity. His sermons and speeches, Levitas writes, all “had a hate-filled theme: A satanic Jewish conspiracy, disguised as communism, was corrupting public officials and the courts, undermining the sovereignty of America and its divinely inspired Constitution.”

Levitas details Gale’s notion of the Posse Comitatus as something limiting the federal government and conferring legal authority on any self-constituted group of Christian citizens, and he explains its roots in a corruption of the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act.

“Arise and fight!” Levitas quotes Gale as saying on KTTL. “If a Jew comes near you, run a sword through him.”

All this despite, or perhaps in part because of, the fact – which Levitas has unearthed and publishes for the first time here – that Bill Gale’s father was Jewish.

Midwest landscape

This fascinating bit of family history is just the most shocking example of the detailed and groundbreaking research and writing done here by Levitas, who in the 1980s worked for the Prairiefire Rural Action Center in Des Moines.

And Dodge City is just the first of a litany of Midwestern names, places and events that may stir up unpleasant memories for longtime Jewish Chronicle readers. They include Rulo, Neb., where in the mid-1980s a child and a young man were brutally tortured before being killed by members of a racist, doomsday cult, and Bull Shoals Lake in southern Missouri, where tax resister Gordon Kahl – later to be killed in a shootout with federal marshals – took refuge at the compound of the group known as the Covenant, Sword and Arm (CSA) of the Lord.

David Goldstein, former executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Bureau/American Jewish Committee, is a leading figure in Chapter 37, which tells of local efforts to support struggling farmers in the midst of economic crisis. The local JCRB was part of a 1986 effort by national Jewish groups to organize a petition drive calling for a moratorium on farm foreclosures.

That summer, Levitas writes, after Jesse Jackson visited distressed farmers in Chillicothe, Mo., “Led by Goldstein, Jews from Kansas City traveled to Chillicothe, too. Their presence outside the Farmers Home Administration that summer (Jews made up a majority of the one hundred protestors) was an impressive show of solidarity.”

The backdrop

These places and events are part of a larger tapestry that Levitas weaves, tracing threads of vigilantism and white-supremacist militancy back to the era of Reconstruction.

Levitas critically examines the Posse Comitatus Act itself, concluding it had the effect of bolstering white supremacy in the South for 75 years after blacks were ostensibly freed. Its passage still “sheds important light on the paramilitary inclinations of those favoring states’ rights,” Levitas writes.

Levitas continues a narrative of the heyday of the Klan and on through the pseudo-legalistic mumbo-jumbo of Gale and his Posse/militia/Christian Patriot crowd.

Levitas says the Posse/militia movement has “suffered a devastating blow” from the backlash that followed the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, committed by militant Tim McVeigh, and the non-crisis that followed months of Y2K fear-mongering.

Indeed, native anti-Semites doing paramilitary training in the woods seem almost quaint in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001.

But Levitas cautions that the forces that animated the militia movement are deep seated and could rise again to threaten civil order and the Jewish community that has thrived under that system.

“The people who call themselves Christian Patriots are still active in a variety of organizations,” Levitas told The Chronicle, “most of which are strongest in rural Midwest and Pacific Northwest. And they will emerge again in the future when issues and circumstances provide an opportunity.”

Latent forces

In a phone interview this week from Seattle, where he was speaking on a book tour, Levitas explained how he tracked down the story of Bill Gale’s Jewish heritage – a fact that would have been a scandal in Gale’s neo-Nazi world, had it emerged during his lifetime. (Gale died in 1988)

Bill Gale, Levitas said, “knew that his father had issues around his (Jewish) origins,” and Levitas speculated that the son’s anti-Semitism might have been “a way of protecting his father …a way of protecting his memory and the false story that his father told about himself, even posthumously.”

However, Levitas said, “the most important reason Bill Gale adopted anti-Semitism was that Bill Gale came of age politically during an age of anti-Semitic, anti-communist hysteria. In the early ’50s in Hollywood, fears of a communist invasion, Jewish subversion and Jewish-manipulated race mixing were running rampant through much of America. The paranoia of the blacklist and the conflation of anti-Semitism with anti-communism built upon decades of a foundation of ant-Semitism by the likes of Henry Ford, and the belief that Jews were trying to debase American morals through Hollywood. … It influenced Bill Gale tremendously, as it influenced millions of other Americans who joined the John Birch Society, for example.”

The latent forces of hatred were stirred again during the farm crisis of the 1980s, Levitas said.

“One of the points I try to make in the book,” Levitas said, “is that while economic decline can play a significant role in fueling anti-Semitism, I don’t believe that people become racists or anti-Semites or bigots largely out of economic fears. Beliefs and ideas matter as much if not more so than external economic conditions.

Religion News Blog’s Book Tip


   by Daniel Levitas

The militia movement burst into the consciousness of Americans with the Oklahoma City bombing, but hate groups have a long, shameful lineage in America. In this detailed, provocative examination, Levitas focuses on the ideas of William Potter Gale, who, despite Jewish roots, became one of the progenitors of contemporary hate (“If a Jew comes near you, run a sword through him,” he told radio listeners in 1982). Gale adapted the idea of the Posse Comitatus, based on a little-known 19th-century law, to spread his notion of the need for citizen militias to defend whites.

But, as Levitas, an expert on the radical right, shows, Gale is just one in a long line of racists who have used American ideas and language (such as freedom, rights and private property) to disseminate their message, which often finds a home with the alienated, sparked by specific events such as the shootouts at Ruby Ridge and Waco in the 1990s.

Perhaps most disturbingly, Levitas makes a strong argument that these groups have a broad-based “weak sympathy” in numbers that far exceed their small active membership. He also shows how state and local governments have been reluctant to act against these groups, either out of sympathy or in an effort to keep the spotlight away from them. But as Levitas emphasizes, Oklahoma City and the hate groups’ cheering for the September 11 attacks demonstrate that these groups will be ignored at our peril.

“That being said, the farm crisis was really a textbook case of how economic insecurity can and does fuel anti-Semitism. In the 1980s, when throughout Missouri, Kansas, Iowa and Nebraska fully a quarter to a third of all family-sized farms were lost through foreclosure and bankruptcy, the radical right had a captive and fearful audience. And the Posse and other radical right groups did very well recruiting in distressed farm communities.

“This was not a case,” Levitas noted, “of so-called outside agitators coming in and preying on people. Many of the purveyors of anti-Semitism and paramilitary vigilantism were native to the Midwest and the very small towns and rural communities that they preyed upon.”

Levitas credits the Jewish community here and in other Midwestern cities with responding. “It’s not just that they sought out non-Jewish allies in the fight against anti-Semitism, but they took a stand on issues of economic and farm policy not merely out of self interest, but, more importantly, out of compassion and an intellectual understanding of the issues,” said Levitas.

Levitas said the farm crisis is far from over.

“What happened is that those farmers who were motivated to respond politically were pushed out of agriculture,” he said. “And the people who remain are people who are struggling to survive, so they have very little energy for political engagement, be that on the radical right wing or … of a more constructive kind. There are still groups out there doing important work in farm and rural communities.”

And there are still some Posse/Patriot types left roaming the rural landscape, Levitas said.

“The numbers of militia groups and the numbers of people involved in them are way down,” Levitas said, “But those who remain active … are a more hardened, violent bunch of people.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Saturday November 30, 2002.
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