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[whitespace] Jack Komar Personal Matter: Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Jack Komar, a practicing Catholic whose home was damaged by a trio of neo-Nazis, says that fear of further attacks made him choose to hide his Jewish past.

Photograph by George Sakkestad


Judge & Jewry

Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Jack Komar's response to being a victim of a a hate crime this summer was to hide his Jewish past. And he got the Mercury News to help.

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor

SANTA CLARA COUNTY Superior Court Presiding Judge Jack Komar ought to be satisfied these days, if not necessarily happy. His property escaped severe damage and he and his family members avoided injury after a trio of neo-Nazis lobbed a Molotov cocktail at his Willow Glen house late this past summer. And the three teenaged perpetrators--who targeted Komar's home because they believed he was Jewish--were apprehended by police almost immediately. One 17 year-old has already been convicted of firebombing the judge's house with special

hate-crime circumstances, another has pled guilty to a charge of accessory after the fact, and a third faces a trial with what appears to be overwhelming evidence against him.

The issue garnered a great amount of media attention. As one of the area's most visible and recent "hate crimes," it was profiled in the daily, local television and on the radio, stimulating community discussion and awareness around a topic of national concern. The firebombing came at the end of a string of national hate crimes through the spring and summer, including the killing of 13 students at Columbine High School in Colorado, the burning of three Sacramento-area synagogues, the murder of a gay couple in Redding, and the shooting-up of a Jewish community center in Los Angeles.

But Komar is far from satisfied. The judge is angered and upset that the firebombing incident is about to bring to light an obscure and little-known fact, a detail from his "personal life" that he tried to keep out of media reports: Jack Komar was born Jewish. The child of a Jewish mother, he converted to Roman Catholicism in 1962, when he was 25 years old.

The Mercury News, the lead media organization covering the crime, was aware of Komar's background during its coverage of the firebombing and aftermath, but deliberately omitted this detail from news stories at Judge Komar's request. Komar said he was afraid the revelation of a Jewish background could inspire added violence against him and his family.

The fact that Komar was born Jewish "did not have any relevance to the story," says Mercury News Senior Vice President and Executive Editor David Yarnold. "We acted in a principled and responsible manner. It was my decision, I take complete responsibility, and I would do it again."

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Hiding From Hate: Metro managing editor Corinne Asturias comments on the background of this special report.

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IN COVERING THE CRIME, the San Jose Mercury News and other news outlets reported Komar's Catholic religious orientation repeatedly and prominently. In editorials, and political columns, the Mercury News openly ridiculed the accused youths of being "inept bigots" and "fools" because they had supposedly mistaken Komar's ethnic/religious background.

Komar says he warned the Mercury News off the information for security reasons, saying that he did not want to give other anti-Semites a reason for attacking him or his family. Komar says that following the sentencing of one of the attackers, a message appeared on the Internet threatening an attack against the sentencing judge, and that San Jose police "have picked up on followup threats directed against me since [the newspaper accounts of the firebombing attack]."

Ruben Dalaison, Public Information Officer for the San Jose Police Department, says that investigators on the case "have no information, nothing" about any threats directed against Komar since the attack.

The firebombing itself took place on August 29, when Komar and his wife were awakened by smoke from burning incendiary devices blowing up through their upstairs window from their front porch. The three teenaged suspects were arrested a day later. The following day, the Mercury News reported that the defendants "chose the Komars' house ... believing it to be the residence of Jews. The Komars are Roman Catholic."

Yarnold says that the Mercury News knew "since early on" in the story that Komar had been born an ethnic Jew, but says, "I'm not going to discuss the exact date" that the paper learned that fact.

A September 1 Mercury News editorial led off with the paragraph "Anti-Semitism has shown its vile face in our community again. This time, at least, the bigots were also fools." The editorial highlighted the fact that Komar is Roman Catholic rather than Jewish. The next day, Mercury News columnist Sue Hutchison called one of the perpetrators part of the group of "losers and punks who became front-page bigots this summer. [Podbreger also] had the distinction of being charged as an inept bigot. ... He and [his accomplices] ... apparently ... thought Komar was Jewish. Oops. Turns out he's Roman Catholic." As late as October 13, almost a month after its initial coverage of the crime, a Mercury News story reported that "Komar is Roman Catholic," without further explanation.

DETERMINING WHAT the teenagers knew of Komar's background at the time of the attack has been a point largely ignored by authorities and media reports. Komar and others say aside from having no knowledge of his true religious background, the trio didn't even know he was a judge.

What the defendants may or may not have known about Komar does not determine their guilt or innocence of the crimes they have been charged with. According to Santa Clara County Deputy District Attorney Kurt Kumli, who is prosecuting the cases, only the perpetrator's belief is important in a hate-crime case. "I'm Italian-Catholic myself," Kumli says. "But if someone from the KKK burns a cross in my yard because they think I'm black, it doesn't make any difference. It's the perception of the perpetrator and not the reality in terms of the ethnicity or religious background of the victim."

Kumli says that the perpetrators believed that Komar was Jewish "because he drove a Mercedes," and because they mistakenly believed they once saw a menorah in the Komars' window.

"I was asked early on how criminally sophisticated, how dangerous, can these kids be as skinheads if they mistakenly believed that a Roman Catholic judge is Jewish," Kumli says. "My response to that is that in all of the skinhead and Aryan cases I've seen, I'm not familiar with the fact that intelligence and skinhead beliefs go hand in hand. The fact that these kids are neo-Nazis and ignorant, that's pretty much consistent for me."

But by leaving out the information that Komar had, in fact, converted from Judaism to Catholicism, the Mercury News suppressed the possibility that the alleged perpetrators might have known that fact, which would have meant that their intelligence-gathering abilities--and, therefore, their danger to the community--was more extensive than readers were led to believe.

Sources close to the defendants were unwilling to reveal how much the defendants actually knew about Komar's Jewish roots. Public Defender Craig Kennedy(CK), who defended the youth who pleaded guilty to accessory after the fact, expressed surprise at the judge's religious background, and said, "I don't recall anything actually coming out about why [the defendants] thought he was Jewish." Attorneys for the other two defendants did not return Metro's telephone calls.

Yarnold at first said, "I don't know if [the Mercury News] tried to determine if the perpetrators knew of [Komar's] conversion." He later said, "I want to change it to 'no comment'" on that matter, and refused to discuss whether the defendants' knowledge of Komar's background was relevant to the story.

KOMAR MAKES IT PLAIN that he is not Jewish, and that he is not ashamed of his Jewish background. "It's a fact," he tells Metro. "My mother was Jewish. I never practiced Judaism growing up. I'm certainly not ashamed of my heritage. I just see no value in putting it out there."

Asked whether under these circumstances, Komar is no longer a Jew, Rabbi Daniel Pressman of Congregation Beth-David says, "It's a complicated question, because Judaism is a combination of a national or ethnic identity and a religious identity. According to Jewish law, if you are born Jewish and leave the faith, you are what is called an apostate Jew. So somewhere, latently, you are still a Jew. In terms of everyday usage, however, it would be legitimate to say 'I am not a Jew.'"

Speaking generally and not specifically about the Komar case, Jonathan Bernstein, Regional Director of the Central Pacific Region of the Anti-Defamation League says that hiding one's Jewish background is the wrong response to anti-Semitic attacks.

"Those are decisions that people have to make on their own as individuals," Bernstein says, "but my own feeling is that it sends entirely the wrong message to the broader Jewish community. It's basically saying that we need to hide, we need to disguise who we are at a time when Jews need to learn more about their identities and celebrate their identities. That's the message that most temples are putting forth and in the way they're educating their youth. It also almost provides a reward for the perpetrators' deeds. It makes them feel like they scored a victory."

Pressman also says he cannot speak specifically about Komar's situation. "Who knows what his story is?" he asks. "But in general, if someone is no longer labeling themselves as a Jew and someone else wants to label them as a Jew because they want to hurt them, it's understandable why they would say, 'No, no, I don't want that label,' because the only experience they're having of being Jewish is the hatred. Let's be fair to the judge. He's already been bombed because someone thinks he's Jewish. It's completely rational for him to say, 'Please don't label me Jewish.' I'm guessing at this, but I believe that the kinds of people who did the bombing are coming out of the belief that Judaism is a racial category. So you could come to them and say, 'Oh, but he converted.' And they would say, 'Oh, blood will tell.'

"As a Rabbi I am saddened by anyone leaving the faith, but I have no issue with him."

LOCAL journalistic observers say the matter raises some troubling questions.

"I think that other newspapers covering the matter probably would have made a judgment that it [Komar's background in Judaism] was relevant to the story," says Tom Shanks of the Markkula Ethics Center of Jesuit-run Santa Clara University. "In terms of the way the public reads the story, I think they would read it differently if they knew that the judge had been Jewish and had converted. It raises the question of whether or not the defendants knew that, so it does seem to be a relevant fact. The question is, which does the greater good, and whether or not the judge has a moral right to have that fact withheld. He doesn't have a legal right."

"The newspaper would have to weigh the importance of that fact being out there versus the potential threat to the judge," Shanks says. "In a case like this where the publication of a fact might put the subject in jeopardy, I can see where that would be a judgment call on the part of the newspaper. ...You could not determine whether they harmed their readership by not printing it unless you knew how real a threat there was to the judge."

Former professor of media law and ethics Dave Gray of Palo Alto agreed that the matter comes down to a judgment call. "The question they (the Mercury News) need to be asked is, do they do this in all cases or is this a special case. And if it is a special case, then why? The paradox here is that in most cases the Mercury News would say it is the public's right to know, but in this instance, it is the Mercury News which is determining the public's right to know.

Gray agreed the matter is complicated from an ethical standpoint.

"I don't think it's a black-white, yes-no type of question. But it seems to me that the Mercury News has fueled this problem because they have come up with a way to describe this man that, at least in some ways, distorts his reality."

The subject is sensitive in the Jewish community because Jews have gone underground during periods of persecution, such as the Spanish inquisition and the Nazi era. Hiding Jewish identity out of fear for safety in a tolerant community like San Jose recalls ugly chapters of history.

For his part, Yarnold thinks that the issue is purely one of privacy. "Komar identified himself as a Christian almost all of his entire life. What would you do if a public official called and asked you to leave out a private fact? I can't believe that your newspaper is seriously considering doing this story."

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From the December 23-29, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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