Marking the 60th Anniversary of the Jewish Community Center Bombing

Jewish Community Center, Nashville, 1951

Last week, antisemitic flyers were distributed across West Nashville. Local media has been covering it, and local leaders have condemned it.

But there are two bits of context I haven’t seen in these stories that I think might add to our sense of urgency about addressing this. One is that this neighborhood has a long history of enduring antisemitic violence, from someone shooting at West End Synagogue in 2015 to a group of Klan members and neo-Nazis trying to blow up The Temple in Belle Meade in 1981 to the bombing of the Jewish Community Center, which sat on West End where 440 is now, back in 1958.

Antisemites focusing on this part of town is not a coincidence, and it has a long history. Every time we as a city face this shit, we act like these are all unconnected incidents. But the creators and distributors of these flyers have straight-up told us with the content of the flyers that they’re aware of and see themselves as acting in a long historical tradition. One of the flyers was titled “The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion” with the subtitle “The Jew’s Plan for World Domination 1897 edition.”

To put this in terms that are easier to understand, imagine if Old Crow Medicine Show livestreamed themselves standing in a field at a dairy farm playing “Turn on Your Love Light.” You could enjoy that just for what it was — OCMS standing in a field playing a song. But if you’re a music buff, you would know that’s a Grateful Dead song, in fact — one they once sang for an hour standing in a field at a dairy farm in Bethel, N.Y., at Woodstock. You’d get the little thrill of having this context that others around you don’t have, a little shared secret message between you and OCMS about their admiration for the Dead that you are able to receive because you are also a fan of the Dead. This doesn’t mean that OCMS has taken orders from the Dead. It doesn’t mean that OCMS and the Dead are the same group. And like I said, you don’t even have to know the song’s history to enjoy it. But for those who do know the history and the context, them playing this song is like a beacon that says, “If you get this, you’re like us.”

The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is a foundational text for modern antisemites. Bringing it up is evoking a history of antisemitic violence, and placing flyers alluding to it in a neighborhood with a long history of antisemitic violence is not a mistake or a coincidence. The people who distributed these flyers are basically saying “Look at this history” in a place where that history involves direct violence against Jews. And they’re using the fact that most of Nashville doesn’t know that context or is willing to pretend it doesn’t know that context to hide the implicit threat of violence. But if you know, you know.

The other bit of context I didn’t see given wide mention with this story is that flyers like this were distributed across the nation — from Long Island to the Bay Area. This wasn’t just some local kids being assholes. This was a nationwide coordinated campaign. And again, it’s not new for Nashville to not understand when it’s a part of a national story. When the JCC was blown up, people kind of understood that it was one of many antisemitic bombings that took places across the South during the last half of the 1950s, but the number of people who realized that the bombing of the JCC was connected to many of the racist bombings throughout the South was and remains very small. Still, it is a fact that the group who claimed responsibility for our JCC bombing — the Confederate Underground — was the same group that bragged about bombing the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth’s church in Birmingham, Ala. And it is also true that one of the reasons so many of these bombings were not solved is that antisemitic violence at the time was treated as different than the racist violence at the time, even though the same people were doing both.

I like the sentiment that this stuff is not welcome in Nashville and that this is not who we are. But it’s not true. This evil has a home and a history here. If we want that to change, we have to face it head-on. And that means that we white people who aren’t Jewish, who are going to be in places where these antisemitic and racist sentiments are given room, have to stand against this bullshit.

No neo-Nazi cares if 100 Jewish people denounce him. From his perspective, that’s just evidence he’s doing something right. But if the neo-Nazi's friends and family call him on his bullshit, there is at least a small chance it could have an effect. If we want to live in a city where this stuff isn’t welcome, we have to make it unwelcome from the start. And the only people who can do that are other white people.

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