Clinton, Jewish leaders discuss need to thwart hate crimes

August 13, 1999|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- With the sting of anti-Semitic violence fresh in the nation's consciousness, dozens of Jewish leaders pressed President Clinton last night to do more to monitor, infiltrate and thwart hate groups around the nation.

The 28 leaders of Jewish groups who met with Clinton for nearly two hours last night had previously planned the White House meeting. But the shooting this week of five people at a Jewish community center in Los Angeles gave urgency to the discussion. The suspect, Buford O. Furrow Jr., who is also charged in the killing of a Filipino-American postal worker, is a white supremacist who authorities say targeted Jews.

"Mr. Furrow talked about this as a wake-up call to kill the Jews," said Abraham Foxman, the executive director of the Anti-Defamation League. "Maybe this is an opportunity to reverse it, a wake-up call to unite America."

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, said the group pressed Clinton to devote more federal law enforcement resources to monitoring and infiltrating hate groups, and to pushing technology to filter hate from the Internet.

Foxman suggested the need for "a readjustment" of the balance between civil liberties and the protection of "life and limb," saying that legal restraints should "be eased, not only with the aim of getting the man but preventing the crime."

"I have a feeling he's ready to find ways, creative ways, constitutional ways" to effect that shift, Foxman said of Clinton.

The groups also expressed support for gun-control and hate-crimes legislation endorsed by Clinton but stalled on Capitol Hill.

"We want strong gun legislation," declared Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive director of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

Even before the meeting, Clinton had been making similar points, using the Los Angeles shootings to turn up the pressure on Congress to pass gun-control and hate-crimes legislation that has been languishing.

A bill that would impose background checks for customers at gun shows, require the inclusion of trigger locks with all new gun sales, and raise the legal age of handgun possession to 21 passed the Senate but died in the House. Another bill, which would toughen federal penalties for hate crimes and extend protections to homosexuals and the disabled, has also passed the Senate, but had failed to move in the House.

In an appearance earlier in the day at the Agriculture Department, Clinton called the shootings at the Jewish community center "another compelling argument, in my judgment, for this country to renew its commitment to our common community, our common humanity, and another compelling argument for the passage of hate-crimes legislation and the common-sense gun legislation we have recommended."

Later, Clinton echoed those remarks in a videotaped message to an Education Department teleconference on school safety.

"Acts of hate against individuals are acts of hate against our values and our entire nation," the president said. "So let us speak clearly and with one voice: Our nation will not stand for such acts."

That message was coming from all quarters of the Clinton administration. Attorney General Janet Reno suggested the licensing of all handguns, a provision advocated by Vice President Al Gore but one that the White House left out of a gun-control proposal it sent to Capitol Hill.

"It is common sense, pure common sense, to ensure that guns are only in the hands of those who know how to safely and lawfully use them and have the capacity and the willingness to do so," Reno said.

While campaigning in Iowa, Gore took a slap at Republican presidential candidates who have resisted tougher gun-control laws and hate-crime measures. Some Republicans have said hate-crime legislation carves out a special class of victims and criminals, when all victims and criminals should be granted equal justice.

"It really amazes me how some people can pretend that hate crimes are not different from all other crimes," Gore said. "Hate crimes wound all of America."

Republicans lashed back, accusing Gore of using a tragic crime to further his political agenda.

"It's truly sad to see the vice president use this horrible act of violence in a cynical attempt to help his struggling campaign," said Mike Collins, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee.

The shootings in Los Angeles came in the wake of the racially motivated killings of a black former basketball coach in Illinois and a Korean graduate student in Indiana this summer.

The dragging death of a black man in Texas, James Byrd Jr., remains fresh in the nation's mind, as does the murder in October of a young gay man, Matthew Shepard, who was beaten and left for dead in Wyoming.

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