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Jewish Journal

Anti-SemitesPlead Guilty to Firebombing

1999 was a summer of hate.

by Tom Tugend

September 13, 2001 | 8:00 pm

Two brothers, both self-proclaimed anti-Semites and white supremacists, pleaded guilty Sept. 7 to firebombing three synagogues in the Sacramento area two years ago.

Benjamin Matthew Williams, 33, considered the instigator in the attacks, faces 30 years in federal prison. His brother, James Tyler Williams, 31, is to receive 18 to 21 years when sentence is pronounced in November.

The torching of the three synagogues in the pre-dawn hours of June 18 marked the opening of the 1999 "summer of hate," which included an arson attack on a Sacramento abortion clinic, also admitted by the Williams brothers. Subsequent months saw a shooting spree that wounded five at the North Valley Jewish Community Center, and a white supremacist's killing rampage in the Midwest.

Following their conviction in federal court on the firebombings, the Williams brothers will be tried in state court for the killing of a gay couple, two weeks after the Sacramento arsons. Prosecutors said they would seek the death penalty.

Hardest hit by the synagogue attacks was Congregation B'nai Israel, a Reform temple, which last year celebrated its 150th anniversary, and which sustained more than $1 million in damages.

Substantial damage was also suffered by Congregation Beth Shalom, also Reform, in suburban Carmichael, and Kenesset Israel Torah Center, an Orthodox synagogue.

In a news conference following the guilty pleas, Louis Anapolsky, president of B'nai Israel at the time of the arson, said, "The wounds that were inflicted, which ran so deep, today are beginning to heal."

At two of the synagogues, the perpetrators left leaflets proclaiming that the "International Jew World Order" and the "International Jewsmedia" started the war in Kosovo.

While he was held in prison, the voluble elder Williams initiated a series of press interviews in which he declared his readiness to be executed as a "Christian martyr," whose death would spur increased attacks on Jews, homosexuals and various minority groups.

Following the synagogue attacks, a unity rally of all faiths and races in Sacramento drew 5,000 people and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to help the shuls repair their buildings.

By a coincidence in timing, Gov. Gray Davis appeared two days before the guilty pleas at Congregation B'nai Israel. He chose the venue to sign into law a bill prohibiting insurance companies from canceling, fail to renew, or raise premiums on policies of organizations filing claims based on hate crimes.

The bill was introduced after Congregation B'nai Israel was denied renewal of its property insurance after filing a claim for $1 million in damages sustained during the firebombing.

The new law goes into effect Jan. 1, 2002, and protects religious, educational and nonprofit institutions and organizations that have suffered losses due to hate crimes.

"The damage done by hate crimes cannot be measured solely in terms of physical injury or dollars and cents," Tamar Galatzan, Western States associate counsel for the Anti-Defamation League, said. "When an insurance company blames the victim for being targeted -- by cancelling or not renewing a policy -- the perpetrator's message of hate and exclusion is reinforced."

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