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.