Texas militia expert will take helm of S.F.-based ADL

The tables turned for the Anti-Defamation League's Jonathan Bernstein the day the civil-rights watchdog became a target for murder.

Trouble started for the incoming director of the San Francisco ADL office in late 1994, when he alerted national law enforcement about increased militia activity — six months before the Oklahoma City bombing.

At the time, he was the director of the ADL's Southwest region. His report initially didn't get much media attention, but after the bombing, Bernstein became an instant media star in Houston.

His frequent media appearances caught the eye of militia groups in the Houston area. Growing concerned that he was a potential threat, these groups sought the services of an Oklahoma-based hit man who planned to bomb Bernstein's office.

But thanks to FBI intervention, the suspect was caught before the bombing took place.

"It ended up being a very motivating experience," Bernstein said this week from his Houston office. "It reminded me of what it's like to be a hate-crime victim."

During the ordeal, guards provided round-the-clock surveillance of the home he shares with his wife and two young children.

"You are made to feel isolated and vulnerable because you can't change who you are."

Now Bernstein's ready to take on the Bay Area as the new director of the Central Pacific region of the ADL. He replaces outgoing director Barbara Bergen, who left her post in early March to be near her new grandson in Los Angeles.

Bernstein is currently shuttling back and forth between the Houston and San Francisco offices. He plans to move here after his schoolteacher wife and eldest son finish the school year in Texas.

In his five years in Houston, Bernstein has become an authority on militia groups. The Southwest region — which is just the southern half of Texas — is home to more such organizations than the rest of the country combined, he said.

Klan rallies and flagrant violations of church-state separation is part and parcel of Texas living, he said.

Bernstein spends much of his time making appeals to those who tread on civil rights, making television appearances and writing editorials on a wide range of civil-rights issues.

When addressing those he wishes to educate — such as an administrator who has led prayers in school — he prefers to take a non-adversarial approach. Instead, he assumes that their actions were the result of naiveté, rather than blatant disregard for the law.

While his hate-group expertise will not be lost on his new position, Bernstein is looking forward to a shift of focus. He was expected to make a Bay Area visit yesterday and confer with ADL board members about his new agenda.

Already, he envisions board members taking on a greater role in the day-to-day business of the agency, such as "formulating policy responses for complaints, filing briefs in court cases and doing some of the tasks that staff does."

He also wants the Jewish community to get more involved by monitoring relevant legislative issues, communicating with lawmakers and being the "eyes and ears [for the community] when [hate-crime] incidents occur."

Before leading the Southwest office, Bernstein was director of ADL's Orange County office in Santa Ana. He began with the ADL in 1985 as assistant director for the Los Angeles office.

He has worked as an editorial writer for a Hollywood-based television station and as a reporter for the Jerusalem Post. He is a native New Yorker but spent his formative years in Southern California and in Israel, where he lived on a kibbutz. Bernstein returned to the United States to attend U.C. Berkeley, where he studied English and political science. He has a master's in communications from the University of Texas.

As for the outgoing Bergen, she called her three-year tenure "exhilarating, rewarding and exciting" and said she supports the selection of her Texan replacement "100 percent."

She cited community public relations and collaboration with legislators and law enforcement fighting hate crime as the most important accomplishments of her term.

Bergen steered the ADL through one of its most precarious legal entanglements when both the city of San Francisco and a group of political activists sued the agency for allegedly using questionable surveillance methods.

The ADL's attorneys settled with the city but the activists' class-action suit has not yet gone to trial.

Bergen said her education efforts have raised public awareness about hate crime. But the challenge remains for her successor to widen the scope of those programs and push for tougher state laws.

"We've got a long way to go. The challenge always is to not panic people but to alert them that anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry still exist no matter whether it's a rural, urban or suburban area," Bergen said.

"It's a small segment of the population that feels that way," she added, "but I believe that domestic terrorism is on the rise. Oklahoma won't be a single incident."

ADL board member Ron Berman said Bergen rallied his fellow trustees to develop relationships with lawmakers and lobby for tougher hate-crime laws.

"She really believed in the ADL mission of justice for all people. She took the agenda from the national office and implemented it at the local level."

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.