Forty years ago today in San Francisco, a conservative politician who had been elected after promising to “unleash a fury that can and will eradicate the malignancies which blight our beautiful city,” shot and killed the city’s most outspoken Jewish politician. Although we will never know the extent to which the killer—Supervisor Dan White, who took his own life in 1985—was motivated by anti-Semitism, phrases like “eradicate malignancies” had chilling and hard-to-miss historical echoes for Jews.
This was particularly true for the Jew who was killed that day: San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk. For him, the memory of the Holocaust was never far away and frequently found its way into his speeches and statements. Because of the assassinations of Milk and Mayor George Moscone by White on Nov. 27, 1978, Supervisor Dianne Feinstein—a member of the city’s older, more conservative, and highly assimilated German-Jewish community, who had previously run for mayor and lost twice—became mayor and went on to have an enormous impact on her city. (Feinstein left office at the end of 1986 and has served in the U.S. Senate
The assassinations of Milk and Moscone are generally understood within the context of the LGBT civil rights struggle, but they also are part of the story of San Francisco’s Jewish community, and the transitions it was experiencing in those years.
By 1978, Jews had been an important part of San Francisco’s culture and history for well over a century. Adolph Sutro, a German Jew and one of the earliest and most important city fathers, had served as mayor from 1895 to 1897, long before New York and Los Angeles, cities with much larger and more prominent Jewish communities, ever elected a Jewish mayor. For most of the years from that time until the 1970s, the Jewish San Franciscans who contributed substantially to the city’s philanthropic, economic, and political leadership were in most cases, like Sutro, German Jews whose roots in San Francisco went back to the 19th or early 20th century. However, by the middle of the decade, there were also signs that the city’s Jewish community was beginning to change.
Beginning in the late 1960s, many of the hippies, young people, and gay men and lesbians who moved to San Francisco were also Jewish. These newer Jewish San Franciscans had ancestral roots not in Germany, but further east in places like Russia, Belarus, Poland, and Ukraine. Most of them—including my family—had moved to San Francisco from the East Coast or the Midwest. Those of us from New York (including Queens native Milk, who moved to San Francisco in 1972) frequently brought with us the brashness, humor, sensibilities, and left-wing politics of our hometown, and found ourselves in a city that was undergoing a radical change in demographics, politics, and culture. We rarely encountered violent anti-Semitism or felt unsafe, but were also never entirely welcomed. Thousands of San Franciscans shared Dan White’s resentment of the changes in their city that more than occasionally included a just-below-the-surface anti-Semitism. It was, for example, clear what gentile San Franciscans meant when they used phrases like “pushy New Yorker” to describe us. Nor were we entirely embraced by older Jewish communities in San Francisco who understood how the changes in San Francisco’s Jewish demographics would inevitably threaten their influence.
The tension between these two groups of Jewish San Franciscans was never overt, but it was present and made visible the city’s two most prominent 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 first time. District elections made it possible for the first Chinese-American candidate, African-American woman, and several other neighborhood activists to be elected. The new districts also included District Five, where Milk, the city’s first out gay legislator, was elected. Along with Milk, the new board also included Feinstein and two other Jews in a city that was only about 8 percent Jewish at the time.
Feinstein and Milk were almost perfect representatives of the city’s changing Jewish community. Although Feinstein’s family had roots in Russia, she had long been identified with the German-Jewish community. She was the daughter of a prominent doctor and by 1977 was married to a German-Jewish doctor as well. She had grown up in a family where Easter was celebrated and had graduated from San Francisco’s top Catholic girls’ school before attending Stanford University. Feinstein was also a political moderate with strong ties to the city’s business leadership.
A mile or two south of the affluent neighborhoods that sent Feinstein to the board with a large margin of victory, a central San Francisco district that included the heavily gay Castro elected Milk, a former hippie who still spoke with a heavy New York accent, and peppered his private conversations with Yiddish. By 1978, Milk’s politics were far to the left of Feinstein’s and were very much part of a progressive Jewish-American tradition.
That November, Feinstein heard shots a few doors from her City Hall office and ran to the fallen Milk, searching for a pulse only to have her fingers slip through the bullet holes in his wrist. Moments later she announced the news of the assassinations to San Francisco and the world, but before that happened these two Jewish politicians had a complex relationship. The first vote Milk cast as a supervisor was against Feinstein becoming president of the Board of Supervisors; Milk supported the more progressive Gordon Lau against Feinstein, who ultimately won. In her new role, Feinstein supported both of Milk’s major legislative accomplishments—his landmark gay rights bill and a pooper-scooper law—but otherwise frequently worked to stop progressive legislation supported by Milk and Moscone.
Feinstein’s politics in the 1970s were oriented around maintaining the status quo power structures that had long been how San Francisco was governed. This was most evident in Feinstein’s second campaign for mayor, in 1975. She ran to the center, in no way threatening to upset the city’s powerful business and real estate interests, but crafting positions on social policies that recognized, albeit haltingly, the changing times. In that primary she came in third behind the eventual winner, the unabashed progressive George Moscone, and John Barbagelata, a Republican who consolidated a conservative vote that was wary of the changes the city was experiencing.
Feinstein’s loss was not just a defeat for her centrist vision, but represented a threat to the influence of the older German-Jewish community of which she was a part. If the city was caught between the radicalism of many of Moscone’s backers and the reactionary anger of politicians like Barbagelata, the question of where that left them was very real. Many newer Jewish migrants to the city, on the other hand, felt comfortable in the coalition that Moscone was building, with the help of Jewish politicians like Milk and Supervisor Carol Ruth Silver, a former Freedom Rider originally from Massachusetts.
If Dan White had stayed home on Nov. 27, 1978, history would have been very different in ways that we can never know, but the city’s major political story that particular day would have been about Feinstein, not Milk and Moscone. Upon arriving at City Hall that Monday morning, Feinstein told the press pool that she would not be running for reelection to the board and would essentially be retiring from politics when her term expired. One of the reasons for this was that the resignation of White a few weeks previous had meant that the mayor would likely be appointing another progressive to the board, thus threatening Feinstein’s ability to retain her leadership position, but it is also likely that Feinstein had seen her brand of centrism being squeezed from the left and the right and decided it was time to move on.
The assassinations, particularly as they came only 10 days after the horrific mass killing in Jonestown, Guyana, where the Peoples Temple had relocated from San Francisco a few years earlier, were a very traumatic blow to the city. By the end of that day, our progressive mayor and a major civil rights figure lay dead. White, a man who many had once thought was the hope of conservative San Francisco, had shown himself to be an unstable killer. Most of the rest of us were overwhelmed with grief, confusion, and anger, but not all San Franciscans shared those feelings. Within a few hours of the killings, police radio was playing “Danny Boy” in honor of assassin Dan White, their former fellow officer. In the weeks that followed many of these police officers donned “Free Dan White” T-shirts under their uniforms while the local media was filled with stories about how White was faring being locked up and how many people he had helped during his life.
The killing also left an indelible mark on Jewish San Francisco. For many of us who were new to the city and from the East Coast, Milk had been an important figure. Milk was from a left-wing, New York Jewish world that was familiar to us. My mother had told my brother and me that Milk was one of us. I still remember feeling frightened when so many of my Catholic school classmates, boys from very different backgrounds than mine, cheered when the nun who taught our sixth grade science class told us the news of Milk’s death.
Moscone’s death meant that Feinstein, who began that Monday by announcing her de facto retirement from politics, ended it as San Francisco’s first Jewish mayor in 80 years. She served in that position longer than any other postwar mayor of San Francisco. Feinstein, who has now been a U.S. senator for more than quarter century, used her time as mayor to chart a course back to the pro-business values of most pre-Moscone mayors while recognizing, sometimes begrudgingly, that San Francisco was changing and could only survive if it embraced tolerance and diversity. While Feinstein never unequivocally embraced the progressive, neighborhood-based politics of the man who represented the other pole of San Francisco Jewry in the 1970s, she never fully walked away from Milk’s left-of-center tolerant ideals. Thus today’s San Francisco, where tech companies thrive, rents are sky high, LGBTQ people enjoy more institutional power than any other city in America, and progressive politics and tolerance remain surprisingly resilient, is very much the result of the dynamic, and ultimately the synergy, between these two very different Jewish politicians and communities.
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Lincoln Mitchell is a writer and consultant based in New York and San Francisco. He is the author of San Francisco Year Zero: Political Upheaval, Punk Rock and a Third Place Baseball Team, forthcoming in 2019