Nathaniel Popper – The Forward October 22, 2004
From his apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, in what might be called the intellectual center of Jewish America, Michael Santomauro sends out a daily e-mail digest of what are, for his neighborhood, some unusual views on Judaism. Among them: questions on the Holocaust’s veracity, excoriation of every aspect of Israel’s behavior and questions on the morality of Judaism itself.
Santomauro, 50, says he is not an antisemite. But this week, his messages, which he claims reach about 144,000 subscribers, caught some unwanted attention. The Jewish Defense Organization, a militant group known for its sharp-tongued rhetoric, called for his eviction from the apartment in which he lives and assembles his “Reporter’s Notebook” Web site. The organization has posted leaflets outside his building and called for a rally there next weekend.
The group is also attempting to organize a boycott of Santomauro’s business, a Web-based service called Roommate Finders, which Santomauro says has a clientele that is about 45% Jewish. The JDO has not ruled out other tactics.
“We’re going to run this neo-Nazi pig out of his office one way or the other,” said Mordechai Levy, head of the JDO, who was jailed in 1989 for attempting to shoot Irv Rubin, the head of the Jewish Defense League, from which Levy’s group broke away in the late 1970s.
Holocaust revisionist circles are full of colorful characters, but few could be as unconventional as Santomauro. A Catholic, he grew up in a mostly Jewish section of the Bronx, N.Y., before moving to the heavily Jewish Upper West Side. He calls himself a pacifist and says he is aggressively anti-Nazi, noting most of his fuel comes from the left, not the right. He has promoted books with titles such as “When Victims Rule: A Critique of Jewish Preeminence in America,” yet he says many of his friends are Jewish. He insists his Reporter’s Notebook e-mails and postings do no more than offer an “objective” view of how Jewish interests operate in the world.
“Jews are the most powerful and dominant group in the political spectrum and have a tremendous effect on how we conduct our foreign policy,” Santomauro said.
Santomauro has not yet felt the effects of the JDO’s “Operation Nazi Kicker.” But the controversy has already sparked at least one physical confrontation, said a doorman in Santomauro’s building.
According to the doorman, on October 13, one person handing out anti-Santomauro materials verbally assaulted a man walking his dog who refused to take a leaflet. The passerby responded with a punch, and a scuffle ensued, the doorman said.
The management company for the building did not return calls for comment.
Santomauro landed in the mainstream media in January 2003 when The New York Times reported that he had been sending his Reporter’s Notebook e-mails to his Roommate Finder clients, prompting some salty protests. Santomauro is not hesitant to blur the lines between his business and his obsession with Jewish issues. In discussing his theories on Jewish social psychology, he claimed that of his business clients who express a racial preference in their roommate search, 95% are Jews. “It’s a much more cliquish community,” he said.
The JDO says it targeted Santomauro’s apartment as “Nazi headquarters” because of meetings he hosted with Holocaust deniers. Santomauro said he never has had a meeting in his apartment, but in June he hosted a lecture with David Irving, who was called a “pro-Nazi polemicist” in a British court ruling, at a church across the street However, Santomauro, said there is a gulf between his own beliefs and Irving’s. Irving, he said, is a “fascist. I’m not.”
Kenneth Stern, an expert on antisemitism at the American Jewish Committee, said he had been unaware of Santomauro before this week. But after looking at Santomauro’s Web site, Stern said: “This is not intellectual inquiry, this is the peddling of bigotry.”
Santomauro launched his Reporter’s Notebook about four years ago. E-mails go out several times a day, offering press clippings from mainstream newspapers, frequently salted with Santomauro’s editorial notes. He also sends out essays that are hostile to Israel and that question the Holocaust. In one recent week, titles included “The Amazing, Rapidly Shrinking ‘Holocaust,’” “Miami, Florida: Zionist Occupied Territory?” and “Jewish Discrimination Against Christians.”
Growing up on Pelham Parkway in the Bronx, in what he called “one of the last blue-collar Jewish neighborhoods,” Santomauro said he helped turn lights on and off on Saturdays at the synagogue across the street and that most of his childhood friends, with whom he is still in touch, were Jews. “It’s a natural inclination that you’re interested in how your friends are different from you, when I went to their bar mitzvahs and all that,” he said.
In his e-mails Santomauro repeatedly declares himself innocent of antisemitism. “An antisemite condemns people for being Jews,” Santomauro said. He wants not to hurt Jews, he said, but merely to change their religious beliefs and political behavior. His interest in the topic comes primarily from an interest in the Middle East conflict, he said.
As for the Holocaust, Santomauro believes that only about 2 million Jews were killed. “There are things that have been twisted and exaggerated,” he said, “but taking that aside, there was still an atrocity of monumental proportions, and a concerted effort aimed at the fact that people were Jews.”
His work goes far beyond the Holocaust, however. His e-mails frequently attack tenets of the Jewish religion and Jewish individuals. On Martin Luther King Jr. Day this year, he sent out an article arguing that Jews were involved in the Civil Rights Movement because it “dilutes Euro-American power,” which he said “stands in opposition to Jewish interests.”
During the recent High Holy Days, he sent out an email arguing that the Kol Nidre prayer is meant to free Jews from honoring any promises made to non-Jews.
“There are a lot of things in Judaism that are very hateful,” Santomauro said. “It could be a group strategy to promote a reaction of antisemitism, so that it keeps the Jewish community cohesive and intact.”
Santomauro is clearly excited to debate his ideas. His Web site offers a monetary reward to anyone who can disprove the essays that he sends out. He also circulates criticisms of himself that he receives. One, from a man he identified as a Jewish childhood friend, said: “I know you mean no harm and I know you’re not a bad person, but you process information poorly.”
Levy at the JDO has turned down Santomauro’s appeals for a dialogue about their disagreement. In an e-mail that appears to come from a JDO address, Santomauro was told: “The JDO is not interested in collecting an award, and we are not interested in debating you with any of your bull****. We are interested in only one thing… f******* your mother.”
Santomauro is sticking to his position: “A dialogue should be done on an intellectual level. They make it very clear they’re not interested in having a debate. They want to destroy me.”