Flag flap blamed for wave of hate mail to Jewish agencies

A storm over the flying of a Confederate flag in South Carolina's state Capitol has created waves that have reached Jewish agencies as far away as Northern California.

An avalanche of hate mail directed to black and Jewish organizations followed a much-publicized debate over South Carolina's refusal to lower the flag, which critics view as a symbol of slavery and oppression.

The letters, postmarked Dec. 24 in Fayetteville, N.C., caught the attention of FBI agents in 59 field offices, partly because of the high volume of the mailing and partly because they bear a link to the virulently anti-Semitic World Church of the Creator.

A survey of Bay Area Jewish organizations showed that none had received one of those letters.

Still hate mail is a fact of life for most civil rights groups, said Jessica Ravitz, assistant director of the Anti-Defamation League Central Pacific region.

"We probably get anywhere from a dozen to two dozen a year," she said. "Some are threatening, and some are just very bizarre. These are different."

The Jewish Bulletin has obtained copies of several of the letters postmarked North Carolina.

"We want to be ready to take this war to the next level on you kikes," said a flier received by the American Jewish Committee of Phoenix, Ariz. "All Jews should burn in hell, f— you all."

Another excoriates officials of historically black colleges and universities for attempting to educate black students.

"You're just waisting [sic] precious time," it reads.

The letters are printed with Confederate flags and swastikas.

Federal agents are cautioning Jewish agencies throughout the nation not to dispose of letters they receive so the correspondence can be checked for fingerprints.

More than 20 field offices of the AJCommittee received the missive, which includes the World Church slogan "RAHOWA" in the letterhead — an acronym for "racial holy war." At the bottom are the words, "Hail Ben Classen," the organization's founder.

"They've been spread out over a pretty broad area," said Ernest Weiner, executive director of the AJCommittee's San Francisco office.

"At this point, it is assumed it is connected to the World Church of the Creator, but that has not been definitively confirmed," Ravitz said after a telephone conference with Charlotte, N.C., FBI officials.

Ravitz said the ADL has sent letters of support to national and state officials of the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People, which also received the letter.

Some civil rights advocates have blamed the public comments of Texas Gov. George W. Bush, a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, for fanning the flames.

In a comment hearkening back to "states-rights" challenges during the civil rights movement– and the tarnishing of activists as "outside agitators" — Bush said the matter was the business of the state and not outside agencies.

"I don't believe it's the role of someone from outside South Carolina to tell the people of South Carolina what to do with their business when it comes to the flag," he said.

But critics, including leaders of black and Jewish organizations, said his comments were not only insulting but inflammatory.

"Mr. Bush is very much mistaken," said Tracy Salkowitz, Northern Pacific regional executive director of the American Jewish Congress. "To expect others not to care is unrealistic. A symbol of racism and injustice is not part of the American ideal, and all such symbols should be eliminated — and with pride, not regret."

But officials, including Bush, have failed to take action, she said. And the upshot has been "the proliferation of hate mail and the continuation of hate."

The AJCongress receives hate mail "in spurts," she said, inevitably corresponding to media coverage of a similar issue.

"When we sued [San Francisco] over the Mount Davidson cross, we got a ton of hate mail," she said. "When we launched the anti-gun campaign, we got quite a lot."

Last week, nearly 50,000 turned out for the largest demonstration in South Carolina's history to protest the flying of the flag and the state's failure to observe a holiday honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

President Clinton, retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu and NAACP Executive Director Kweisi Mfume have weighed in on the side of the protesters.

South Carolina is the only state in the union that flies the flag and does not recognize King's birthday.

Said Salkowitz: "You can remember and pay homage to those who lived and fought in the South without paying homage to slavery, and the South must be creative in figuring out how to do that."

Rebecca Rosen Lum

Rebecca Rosen Lum is a freelance writer.