The Poway Chabad Synagogue Tragedy Has a Local History
Nicknamed “the city in the country,” Poway was once a sleepy agricultural community in northern San Diego County, until it boomed with the addition of aerospace jobs and a microcosm of Southern California’s religious diversity.
Now, Poway may be best remembered for the horrific shooting at a Chabad synagogue there. The murderer, John T. Earnest, surrendered after killing an elderly women and injuring three others before fleeing after his gun jammed. Earnest is a 19-year-old nursing student, a loner living with his parents, and an outstanding student who played the violin.
Correctly, most news analysts are linking Earnest’s crime with other attacks on houses of worship in recent months. His 4,000-word manifesto revealed an infatuation with Brenton H. Tarrant, New Zealand’s mass murderer of 50 Muslim worshipers. Earnest tried but failed to imitate Tarrant by live-streaming his rampage. Earnest also admired Robert Bowers, the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue’s murderer of 11 innocents exactly six months earlier.
Here is what Earnest wrote in his manifesto: “The blood that runs in my veins is the same that ran through the English, Nordic, and Irish men of old. … Every Jew is responsible for the meticulously planned genocide of the European race. They act as a unit, and every Jew plays his part to enslave the other races around him. … Their crimes are endless.”
As a historian, I am interested in the contextual roots of Earnest’s crime against Jews. When I moved to San Diego in the 1980s, the most famous white supremacist in the US — second only to David Duke — was Tom Metzger, a television repairman who used the new medium of cable television to broadcast his hate. He founded WAR (White Aryan Resistance). It targeted primarily Jews and Mexicans, but was brought down by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which sued and bankrupted Metzger after his henchmen were convicted of murdering an Ethiopian immigrant in Oregon.
But the roots of hate in San Diego go much deeper. Until the 1950s, La Jolla, now the home of the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), had antisemitic restrictive covenants. Roger Revelle, the moving force behind the founding of UCSD, insisted that the covenants be abolished.
Furthermore, from the 1920s to the 1970s, San Diego was the hotbed of the Ku Klux Klan in Southern California, as well as the pre-World War II Silver Shirt Movement, which was directly modeled on the Nazis. Though “wetbacks from across the border” were their primary target, Jews were also a major enemy. White supremacist organizations shot a Marine officer who was sent as an undercover agent to investigate their recruitment of military personnel. In addition to soldiers and sailors, the Klansmen also recruited police officers and stole guns from armories. They boasted of beheading and burying “wetbacks” in the desert. San Diego businessmen and powerful growers in Imperial County financed and supported them.
Since the 1990s, San Diego has had two Jewish mayors. Among the illustrious (transplanted) Jewish San Diegans was Jonas Salk, the conqueror of polio. Despite this, Tom Metzger and the Klansmen of an earlier era still cast a shadow over Poway and all of San Diego.
Earnest is a teenager, but Andrew Anglin’s Daily Stormer recommends recruiting even younger: “I have long thought that we needed to get pre-teens involved in the movement. At that age, you can really brainwash someone easily. Anyone who accepts Nazism at the age of 10 or 11 is going to be a Nazi for life.”
Historian Harold Brackman is coauthor with Ephraim Isaac of ‘From Abraham to Obama: A History of Jews, Africans, and African Americans’ (Africa World Press, 2015).