After a swastika was sprayed on my parents’ headstone, it seems like hatred toward Jews will remain forever

A swastika partially covered the words that described my dad as a “beloved husband and father,” and my mom as a “beloved wife and mother.”

SHARE After a swastika was sprayed on my parents’ headstone, it seems like hatred toward Jews will remain forever
Various headstones are vandalized with red swastikas at the Am Echod Jewish Cemetery in Waukegan on November 15.

Various headstones are vandalized with red swastikas at the Am Echod Jewish Cemetery in Waukegan on November 15.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

The Jewish cemetery in my hometown of Waukegan, Illinois, is so small that I recognize the names of almost everyone there. Many of them danced at my Bar Mitzvah, or played mahjong with my mother. All of them were members of a thriving Jewish community in Waukegan that has since disappeared. 

But on the Monday following the recent Veterans’ Day weekend, a new name appeared in the Congregation Am Echod Jewish Cemetery. It was spray-painted onto a headstone. “Kanye was rite.” (sic).

The Kanye message was accompanied by red swastikas painted onto 16 headstones. According to police, more than 20 other headstones were tagged with non-specific graffiti.

The headstone for my parents, Morris and Dorothy Yellen, was one of those displaying a large, blood-red swastika. It partially covered the words that described my dad as a “beloved husband and father,” and my mom as a “beloved wife and mother.” 

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As I stood in a heavy autumn snowfall and assessed the damage, my thoughts turned to the first time I had come face-to-face with such hatred.

In 1999, working as a TV reporter in Chicago, I interviewed Matthew Hale, the self-professed “Pontifex Maximus” of the World Church of the Creator. Operating from his father’s East Peoria home, Hale was little more than a small-town purveyor of hate, with no nationwide following. But his story intrigued me because he had recently completed law school and was awaiting word on his controversial application to practice law in Illinois.

After inviting me to step on the Israeli flag which he used as a doormat, Hale told me, “It’s time for us to fight the Jewish control of the country.” He said he anxiously awaited a future when a “racial holy war” would cleanse the world of non-whites and Jews.

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When Hale’s law license was denied, one of his disciples, Benjamin Smith, shot and wounded nine Orthodox Jews on Chicago’s North Side. Smith also shot and killed Ricky Byrdsong, an African American who was the men’s basketball coach at Northwestern University.

As we sat on the front porch of his home, I asked Hale whether he had compassion for Smith’s victims. “In our church,” he told me, “compassion for non-whites is like having compassion for an animal that dies, particularly. Or an insect or something.”

Six years after Smith’s shooting spree, Hale was sentenced to 40 years in prison for soliciting the murder of a federal judge who happened to be Jewish and had ruled against him in a copyright case. He remains at the federal correctional center in Marion, Illinois.

The hate crimes at the Am Echod Cemetery were apparently inspired by the famous Chicago rapper who has gained additional notoriety for his antisemitic views. At first, it seemed easy enough to accept that such antisemitism, now spreading nationwide, had finally ravaged my own family.

But as I reflect on my family’s past, it seems that too many Jews who came to the United States to escape persecution and pogroms have found antisemitism to be an unsettling, pervasive and constant threat.

On my mother’s side, I have relatives who in 1967 were members of Congregation Beth Israel in Jackson, Mississippi, when it was dynamited by members of the Ku Klux Klan.

Likewise, one of my wife’s great uncles was once president of The Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. In October 2018, a gunman there killed 11 people and wounded six others in the deadliest antisemitic attack in U.S. history.

In Waukegan, city workers quickly power-washed the headstones, erasing the physical stain of the cowardly act. Years from now, the Am Echod swastikas will probably be just another footnote to a treatise on hate crimes in America.

But for my own family, the stain of hatred toward Jews will remain forever. It will reappear on Memorial Days, or Veterans’ Days, when we stand among the graves and recall how my father heroically dropped bombs on the Nazis, and how my mother devoted her life to her husband and five children.

Maybe, as Matthew Hale hoped, a “racial holy war” does lie in our future. But having seen the desecration of the Jewish cemetery in my hometown, it’s clear that for some, the war is already underway.

Larry Yellen is a former investigative reporter and legal analyst for Fox 32 News.

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