Forty years in the past at the moment in San Francisco, a conservative politician who had been elected after promising to “unleash a fury that may and can eradicate the malignancies which blight our lovely metropolis,” shot and killed the town’s most outspoken Jewish politician. Though we’ll by no means know the extent to which the killer—Supervisor Dan White, who took his personal life in 1985—was motivated by anti-Semitism, phrases like “eradicate malignancies” had chilling and hard-to-miss historic echoes for Jews.
This was notably true for the Jew who was killed that day: San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk. For him, the reminiscence of the Holocaust was by no means distant and ceaselessly discovered its approach into his speeches and statements. Due to the assassinations of Milk and Mayor George Moscone by White on Nov. 27, 1978, Supervisor Dianne Feinstein—a member of the town’s older, extra conservative, and extremely assimilated German-Jewish group, who had beforehand run for mayor and misplaced twice—turned mayor and went on to have an unlimited impression on her metropolis. (Feinstein left workplace on the finish of 1986 and has served within the U.S. Senate
The assassinations of Milk and Moscone are usually understood inside the context of the LGBT civil rights wrestle, however additionally they are a part of the story of San Francisco’s Jewish group, and the transitions it was experiencing in these years.
By 1978, Jews had been an necessary a part of San Francisco’s tradition and historical past for nicely over a century. Adolph Sutro, a German Jew and one of many earliest and most necessary metropolis fathers, had served as mayor from 1895 to 1897, lengthy earlier than New York and Los Angeles, cities with a lot bigger and extra outstanding Jewish communities, ever elected a Jewish mayor. For a lot of the years from that point till the 1970s, the Jewish San Franciscans who contributed considerably to the town’s philanthropic, financial, and political management have been generally, like Sutro, German Jews whose roots in San Francisco went again to the 19th or early 20th century. Nevertheless, by the center of the last decade, there have been additionally indicators that the town’s Jewish group was starting to vary.
Starting within the late 1960s, most of the hippies, younger individuals, and homosexual males and lesbians who moved to San Francisco have been additionally Jewish. These newer Jewish San Franciscans had ancestral roots not in Germany, however additional east in locations like Russia, Belarus, Poland, and Ukraine. Most of them—together with my household—had moved to San Francisco from the East Coast or the Midwest. These of us from New York (together with Queens native Milk, who moved to San Francisco in 1972) steadily introduced with us the brashness, humor, sensibilities, and left-wing politics of our hometown, and located ourselves in a metropolis that was present process a radical change in demographics, politics, and tradition. We not often encountered violent anti-Semitism or felt unsafe, however have been additionally by no means solely welcomed. Hundreds of San Franciscans shared Dan White’s resentment of the modifications of their metropolis that greater than sometimes included a just-below-the-surface anti-Semitism. It was, for instance, clear what gentile San Franciscans meant once they used phrases like “pushy New Yorker” to explain us. Nor have been we completely embraced by older Jewish communities in San Francisco who understood how the modifications in San Francisco’s Jewish demographics would inevitably threaten their affect.
The strain between these two teams of Jewish San Franciscans was by no means overt, nevertheless it was current and made seen the town’s two most outstanding Jewish politicians. When San Franciscans went to the polls in November 1977 to elect their 11 member Board of Supervisors, they voted in district elections for the primary time. District elections made it potential for the primary Chinese language-American candidate, African-American lady, and a number of other different neighborhood activists to be elected. The brand new districts additionally included District 5, the place Milk, the town’s first out homosexual legislator, was elected. Together with Milk, the brand new board additionally included Feinstein and two different Jews in a metropolis that was solely about eight % Jewish on the time.
Feinstein and Milk have been virtually good representatives of the town’s altering Jewish group. Though Feinstein’s household had roots in Russia, she had lengthy been recognized with the German-Jewish group. She was the daughter of a outstanding physician and by 1977 was married to a German-Jewish physician as properly. She had grown up in a household the place Easter was celebrated and had graduated from San Francisco’s prime Catholic women’ faculty earlier than attending Stanford College. Feinstein was additionally a political average with robust ties to the town’s enterprise management.
A mile or two south of the prosperous neighborhoods that despatched Feinstein to the board with a big margin of victory, a central San Francisco district that included the closely homosexual Castro elected Milk, a former hippie who nonetheless spoke with a heavy New York accent, and peppered his personal conversations with Yiddish. By 1978, Milk’s politics have been far to the left of Feinstein’s and have been very a lot a part of a progressive Jewish-American custom.
That November, Feinstein heard photographs a number of doorways from her Metropolis Corridor workplace and ran to the fallen Milk, looking for a pulse solely to have her fingers slip by means of the bullet holes in his wrist. Moments later she introduced the information of the assassinations to San Francisco and the world, however earlier than that occurred these two Jewish politicians had a posh relationship. The primary vote Milk forged as a supervisor was towards Feinstein turning into president of the Board of Supervisors; Milk supported the extra progressive Gordon Lau towards Feinstein, who finally gained. In her new position, Feinstein supported each of Milk’s main legislative accomplishments—his landmark homosexual rights invoice and a pooper-scooper regulation—however in any other case often labored to cease progressive laws supported by Milk and Moscone.
Feinstein’s politics within the 1970s have been oriented round sustaining the established order energy buildings that had lengthy been how San Francisco was ruled. This was most evident in Feinstein’s second marketing campaign for mayor, in 1975. She ran to the middle, by no means threatening to upset the town’s highly effective enterprise and actual property pursuits, however crafting positions on social insurance policies that acknowledged, albeit haltingly, the altering occasions. In that main she got here in third behind the eventual winner, the unabashed progressive George Moscone, and John Barbagelata, a Republican who consolidated a conservative vote that was cautious of the modifications the town was experiencing.
Feinstein’s loss was not only a defeat for her centrist imaginative and prescient, however represented a menace to the affect of the older German-Jewish group of which she was an element. If the town was caught between the radicalism of lots of Moscone’s backers and the reactionary anger of politicians like Barbagelata, the query of the place that left them was very actual. Many more recent Jewish migrants to the town, however, felt snug within the coalition that Moscone was constructing, with the assistance of Jewish politicians like Milk and Supervisor Carol Ruth Silver, a former Freedom Rider initially from Massachusetts.
If Dan White had stayed house on Nov. 27, 1978, historical past would have been very totally different in ways in which we will by no means know, however the metropolis’s main political story that exact day would have been about Feinstein, not Milk and Moscone. Upon arriving at Metropolis Corridor that Monday morning, Feinstein informed the press pool that she wouldn’t be operating for reelection to the board and would primarily be retiring from politics when her time period expired. One of many causes for this was that the resignation of White a couple of weeks earlier had meant that the mayor would possible be appointing one other progressive to the board, thus threatening Feinstein’s potential to retain her management place, however it’s also probably that Feinstein had seen her model of centrism being squeezed from the left and the appropriate and determined it was time to maneuver on.
The assassinations, notably as they got here solely 10 days after the horrific mass killing in Jonestown, Guyana, the place the Peoples Temple had relocated from San Francisco a couple of years earlier, have been a really traumatic blow to the town. By the top of that day, our progressive mayor and a serious civil rights determine lay lifeless. White, a person who many had as soon as thought was the hope of conservative San Francisco, had proven himself to be an unstable killer. A lot of the remainder of us have been overwhelmed with grief, confusion, and anger, however not all San Franciscans shared these emotions. Inside a number of hours of the killings, police radio was enjoying “Danny Boy” in honor of murderer Dan White, their former fellow officer. Within the weeks that adopted many of those cops donned “Free Dan White” T-shirts underneath their uniforms whereas the native media was crammed with tales about how White was faring being locked up and the way many individuals he had helped throughout his life.
The killing additionally left an indelible mark on Jewish San Francisco. For many people who have been new to the town and from the East Coast, Milk had been an necessary determine. Milk was from a left-wing, New York Jewish world that was acquainted to us. My mom had informed my brother and me that Milk was one in every of us. I nonetheless keep in mind feeling frightened when so lots of my Catholic faculty classmates, boys from very totally different backgrounds than mine, cheered when the nun who taught our sixth grade science class informed us the information of Milk’s dying.
Moscone’s demise meant that Feinstein, who started that Monday by saying her de facto retirement from politics, ended it as San Francisco’s first Jewish mayor in 80 years. She served in that place longer than another postwar mayor of San Francisco. Feinstein, who has now been a U.S. senator for greater than quarter century, used her time as mayor to chart a course again to the pro-business values of most pre-Moscone mayors whereas recognizing, typically begrudgingly, that San Francisco was altering and will solely survive if it embraced tolerance and variety. Whereas Feinstein by no means unequivocally embraced the progressive, neighborhood-based politics of the person who represented the opposite pole of San Francisco Jewry within the 1970s, she by no means absolutely walked away from Milk’s left-of-center tolerant beliefs. Thus at this time’s San Francisco, the place tech corporations thrive, rents are sky excessive, LGBTQ individuals take pleasure in extra institutional energy than another metropolis in America, and progressive politics and tolerance stay surprisingly resilient, could be very a lot the results of the dynamic, and finally the synergy, between these two very totally different Jewish politicians and communities.
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