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HomeGlobal NewsThe Jews of Jonestown: Jewish Members of Jim Jones's Peoples Temple Cult

The Jews of Jonestown: Jewish Members of Jim Jones’s Peoples Temple Cult

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The radio crackled to life with static, and a voice emerged from the jungle.

“We choose as our model not those who marched submissively into gas ovens but the valiant heroes who resisted in the Warsaw Ghetto. Patrick Henry captured it when he said simply, ‘Give me liberty or give me death.’ If people cannot appreciate that willingness to die if necessary, rather than to compromise the right to exist, free from harassment and the kind of indignities we have been subjected to, then they will never understand the integrity, the honesty, and the bravery of Peoples Temple nor the depth of commitment of Jim Jones to the principles he has struggled for all his life.

“Do you copy? I am about finished.”

These words were spoken by Harriet Tropp in April 1978 from the middle of the jungle in the South American country of Guyana.

Tropp was a member of Peoples Temple, a new religious movement led by the enigmatic Jones. Just a few months later, Tropp, Jones, US Congressman Leo Ryan, and almost 1,000 others were lying dead after a mass murder/suicide pact that has since entered folklore – prompting the infamous phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid.”

Tropp was also Jewish.

Saturday, November 18, 2023, marks 45 years since the tragic events of Jonestown. Of the 918 souls to perish on that fateful day, of which over 300 were children, some 16 were Jewish. Some were minor members of Peoples Temple, while others had outsized roles in the dramatic events leading up to and during November 18.Advertisement

So how did a group of Jews end up thousands of miles from their homes, only to die in one of the most infamous events of the 20th century?

To understand a bit more, some context of the times is needed. Founded in Indiana by the Rev. Jones, Peoples Temple struggled to find a significant following until they moved to California. Based in Ukiah, the Temple’s followers spread throughout the state with chapters in San Francisco and Los Angeles during the 1970s – when the US struggled with a battle between love and peace and war and supremacy.

Jones’s brand of fiery Pentecostalism mixed with a social dogma that was Socialism in the extreme: Church members were encouraged to give up their money and possessions by donating them to Peoples Temple and to join in with the social projects on offer. Communal homes were set up for members, and the whole setup had a familial feel. In the earlier years, Jones was especially commended for his embrace of African-American members and his attempts to dislodge the racial system that governed the times.

Along with threats from within the US, there was also the primary threat from without. Acronyms from the times such as MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction), CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament), and KKK (Klu Klux Klan) were in use every day. The Cold War was in full swing, and it seemed that every day on Earth could be your last. Is it any wonder that people were looking for salvation and hope?

However, over the years, Peoples Temple developed from being a church to a more social-communal experiment that focused solely on Jones. Meetings became less about worship and the word of God and more about the gospel according to Jones. He also descended into drug abuse and led members in Jonestown in what were termed “white nights,” where all members would have to report to the pavilion in the center of the complex and listen to Jones babble through the night about the evils of the US and capitalism, and the end of the world.

“Was Peoples Temple a church? It did indeed begin as a Pentecostal Christian church,” Rebecca Moore, professor emeritus of Religious Studies at San Diego State University, told the Magazine.

“With the move to California, it became more of a social movement. And that is when the majority of Jewish members joined – when it was clear that the Temple was engaged in social action and social service. It was engaged in racial equality movements, post-colonial movements, and African liberation movements.

“It’s clear that those things appealed to Jewish members. It is also important to remember that at that point in US history, Jews and African Americans were still united and strong allies in the fight for racial equality and against bigotry and discrimination. In the 1960s and 1970s, Jews and blacks were just natural allies. And so it made perfect sense for Jews to join a black group, which was what Peoples Temple was.”

idea of revolutionary suicide was attractive to Jones, and it took years for him to indoctrinate people into his ideas. 

People don’t just willingly commit suicide en masse, there has to be some form of mental rationalization that allows people to believe what they are doing is right.

There are those alive who witnessed the events of Jonestown who do not consider it mass suicide at all but murder. Plain and simple.

Jones would often test members by offering them a drink, which he then claimed was spiked with poison and that they were about to die. It was all part of the normalization process.

“I think the fact that they rehearsed actual suicide drills in the months preceding the congressman’s visit would indicate to us that Jim Jones was planning some sort of mass event and that the arrival of the congressman was kind of the impetus for implementing the plan,” Moore explained. “It didn’t happen overnight.

This took a long time to plan and to get people indoctrinated, so to speak, to kind of rehearse what essentially becomes a ritual, and as we rehearse and repeat rituals and habits, the unthinkable becomes routine.”

“Jones had been looking for an exit for a while,” explained Fielding McGehee, research director at the Jonestown Institute. “There is evidence which shows a number of people weighing in – in the year or so before the deaths at Jonestown, about how they can go about doing this. One of the questions we’ll never know is how seriously they were taking themselves. Was this performance for them?”

Who were the Jews of Jonestown, and how did they end up participating in such a terrible event?

The Magazine takes a look at some of the leading players and their roles in one of the most infamous “cult” stories of the 20th century.

The defector

Deborah Layton, who joined Peoples Temple along with her brother Larry, was among the organization’s most high-profile defectors before the tragic events of Jonestown. Born on May 1, 1953, in San Francisco, California, Layton joined the Peoples Temple along with her family in the early 1970s, initially attracted by the social justice ideals promoted by the group.

Over time, Layton became increasingly disillusioned with the cult and concerned about the abusive and controlling behavior of Jones. In 1978, she decided to leave the organization and, in May, successfully returned to the United States. After her defection, Layton became a key eyewitness and whistleblower, providing valuable information about the inner workings of the Peoples Temple.

Layton played a crucial role in alerting US authorities to the dangers posed by the Peoples Temple and providing insights into the conditions at Jonestown. Her testimony and cooperation with law enforcement were instrumental in raising awareness about the cult’s activities and contributed to the investigation that followed the tragic events in Jonestown.

In an affidavit from June 1978, Layton stated, “There was constant talk of death. In the early days of the People’s Temple, general rhetoric about dying for principles was sometimes heard. In Jonestown, the concept of mass suicide for socialism arose. Because our lives were so wretched anyway and because we were so afraid to contradict Rev. Jones, the concept was not challenged.”

“During one ‘white night,’ we were informed that our situation had become hopeless and that the only course of action open to us was a mass suicide for the glory of Socialism. Everyone, including the children, was told to line up. As we passed through the line, we were given a small glass of red liquid to drink. We were told that the liquid contained poison and that we would die within 45 minutes. We all did as we were told. When the time came when we should have dropped dead, Jones explained that the poison was not real and that we had just been through a loyalty test. He warned us that the time was not far off when it would become necessary for us to die by our own hands.”

Layton’s testimony helped convince US Congressman Leo Ryan to travel to Guyana with several relatives of Jonestown residents to investigate the truth about the situation there. The group was part of a larger organization called the Concerned Relatives. Ryan had promised that anyone who wanted to leave Jonestown could depart with him back to the US.

“Her defection was really one of the tipping points in the history of Jonestown,” McGehee told the Magazine.

The lieutenant

Larry Layton preferred peace to war. As a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, he worked in a county mental hospital to pass his alternative service. He was born to Lisa Layton, who fled Nazi Germany in the 1930s – the Laytons had what could be considered an everyday life.

Along with his wife, Carolyn Moore Layton, Larry was church shopping around Ukiah in the late 1960s when a chance meeting with Jones led them to Peoples Temple. This decision would change their lives forever. Layton eventually brought his mother, Lisa, and his sister, Deborah, into the church, where they donated large sums of money and became firm believers.

Around 1971, Larry and Carolyn split in a quick divorce, after which she informed her family that she was in love with Jones and became his lover. Not to be outdone in loyalty, Larry remained firmly entrenched within the upper echelons of the Temple’s hierarchy and eventually married another Temple member.

“I did meet Jim Jones personally on one occasion, but my parents had much more contact with him and my sisters, mainly because they made a conscious decision that they would not criticize,” Rebecca Moore told the Magazine. Her sister, Carolyn, was Layton’s ex-wife.

“They were not going to publicly criticize Jim Jones or the Temple because they did not want to alienate my sisters. For that reason, they did not join the Concerned Relatives, the opposition group. They thought that if my sisters ever decided to leave, it would be much harder for them to come back home if my parents had been critical.”

Three members of the Layton family moved to Jonestown when Jones set up the commune. Lisa Layton, Larry’s mother, died of cancer in October 1978 in Jonestown – one of only eight people to die there of natural causes.

“Larry Layton was enthralled with Jim Jones,” author Annie Dawid, who has just published a novel on Jonestown, explained to the Magazine

“He was not powerful, you know, but there were all these ‘beta males’ who were part of Jim’s circle.”

Layton was to play a significant role in the events of November 18. As Congressman Ryan speedily prepared to leave after a knife attempt on his life, Layton suddenly appeared, climbing onto the truck as it prepared to depart, much to the suspicion of the defectors. How could such a devoted member be prepared to leave Jones and Jonestown?

“I think Larry is going to do something,” Jones was heard saying after Layton left Jonestown. “He’s very loyal to me.”

Larry Layton was carrying a pistol and as the group arrived at the Port Kaituma airstrip to travel back to Jonestown, several armed Peoples Temple members arrived from Jonestown and opened fire as people stood waiting to board the plane. Already aboard, Larry Layton leaned out and began firing indiscriminately. In the attack, Congressman Ryan was killed, along with three journalists – including two from the accompanying NBC News team – and one of the Temple defectors was killed. Layton was also injured in the incident.

Layton was arrested at the airstrip and charged with attempted murder. Following his acquittal by a Guyanese jury in May 1980, he was extradited to the US, where he was indicted – and eventually convicted – for conspiracy and aiding and abetting in the murder of Ryan. After 18 years in federal prison, he was released on parole in 2002. He was the only person to face legal consequences in the United States for the events in Jonestown.

The ambassador

“Sharon Amos and her three children have the distinction of being the only ones outside of Jonestown and Port Kaituma to die on November 18,” McGehee stated.

Born Linda Sharon Silverstein, Amos joined Peoples Temple in California and quickly rose to become a confidant and trusted lieutenant of Jones, so much so that she became a member of “the staff,” Jones’s inner circle made up primarily of white, college-educated women, and was Peoples Temple representative in Georgetown. Famously, when based in the US, members of the staff would visit other members’ homes and gather information on them that could be used later by Jones to impress or coerce.

After the defection in 1973 of Peoples Temple member Linda Swaney, Jones declared her persona non-grata and Amos dropped “Linda” from her own name, going only by Sharon so as not to offend her beloved leader.

Permanently stationed in a house at Lamaha Gardens, Peoples Temple headquarters in the city, she was the eyes and ears for Jones in the goings-on of the Guyanese government, and the person who people turned to if they wanted to get near Jonestown. Amos would regularly meet with Soviet officials to discuss a potential defection, as Jones was convinced that his group would find happiness and a better life in the USSR. She was also at Lamaha Gardens when Congressman Ryan arrived and viewed the congressman with suspicion.

“The importance of Sharon Amos is that she was a liaison between People’s Temple and the government of Guyana,” Moore states. “The People’s Temple office in Georgetown acted as a kind of mini embassy and Sharon Amos was, I’d say, the ambassador for People’s Temple to the government of Guyana. So she had a very important role in really representing the interests and concerns of people’s Temple to people in the government.”

As the events of November 18 unfolded, Amos was in radio contact with Jones when she found out what had happened to Ryan, and, still in Georgetown, she dutifully carried out Jones’s instructions to the last. Instead of taking poison, she slit the throats of her three children, Liane, 21; Christa, 11; and Martin, 10. She then turned the knife on herself.

“Sharon Amos is really difficult. I mean, the doctor is like the worst Jew [in Peoples Temple], right?” Dawid said. “She’s second worst.”

The doctor

Larry Schacht was a drug-addled dropout who found salvation when he discovered Peoples Temple. Unlike those looking to build a better world and a socialist utopia, Schacht, from a middle-class Jewish family in Houston, ultimately began life in the Peoples Temple in San Francisco by looking out for himself.

Chosen by Jones as a suitable candidate for the role of mission doctor in Jonestown, strings were pulled by Jones, and Schacht was sent to study medicine in Mexico before completing medical training in Guyana.

“Jones was like his rehabilitator,” Dawid told the Magazine. “He was like his God and he had gotten him into med school by pulling some strings, so I could see why he was so grateful to Jim Jones for like fixing up his life when his life had fallen apart.”

As a medical man, Schacht is remembered for some sufficiently decent practice. He took care of the sick and the elderly in Jonestown, helped deliver twins by cesarean section, and also provided medical care for any passing Guyanese soldiers in need of aid. His reputation was significantly bolstered by providing free medical aid to the local indigenous population. Out there in the jungles, a hospital can be hard to come by, and Schacht’s care certainly helped many of the locals. It is there, unfortunately, that his good reputation stopped.

“There were rumors that he wasn’t a real doctor, but no, he actually had medical training,” McGehee explained.

“He actually conducted a number of fairly complex operations while in Jonestown, with the aid of doctors back in the United States that were using ham radio, talking through a couple of operations, and the Jonestown committee were really impressed with Larry’s ability.”

He was also, however, responsible for the increasing drug supply that helped Jones descend into madness in the months leading up to November 18 and for preparing and perfecting the poisonous concoction that would kill so many members. The poison used was cyanide and was obtained through a jeweler’s license that Jones possessed, allowing large quantities to be stored.

Schacht perfected his deathly potion by experimenting on pigs and wrote to Jones, “I am quite capable of organizing the suicide aspect and will follow through and try to convey concern and warmth throughout the ordeal.” The fatal potion would eventually be a mixture of Flavor Aid and cyanide mixed with tranquilizers.

As Jones announced Ryan’s death to the assembled members of Jonestown, Schacht appeared by his side with needleless syringes filled with cyanide. They started with the children.

“I hope to fulfill my goal to be of service to suffering humanity in the medical profession,” Schacht wrote to Jones.

As Dawid pointed out, “Schacht strayed so far from this mandate as to become the embodiment of all that stands opposed to this fundamental tenet of Judaism.”

The chronicler

By all accounts, Richard “Dick” Tropp was a warm and caring person. Born to Jews who had fled the specter of Nazi Germany across Europe, Tropp was a college professor whose intellect would prove helpful to Jones.

He joined the Peoples Temple along with his sister Harriet in the hopes of building a better socialist world.

“[Dick and Harriet] believed in that utopian vision – a world where prejudice and inequality don’t exist,” Dawid told the Magazine. “They really believed in that vision, and that’s why they were there in Jonestown.”

Well trusted by Jones, Dick Tropp was among a small group of members tasked with finding suitable sites within the Soviet Union for the Temple to live, should they be successful in defecting. He was also responsible for organizing the clean-up of Jonestown ahead of Congressman Ryan’s visit – to look more presentable and like a well-functioning community.

Evidence suggests that Dick Tropp had reservations about how the events of the day unfolded and what the next step should be. He was seen in heated debate with Jones just before Jones took to the stage to announce Ryan’s death and that mass suicide was the solution.

“There must be another way,” he was heard to tell Jones, to no avail.

Tropp wrote several accounts intended to showcase the history of the Temple and life in Jonestown. 

In a final, eloquent note to the world, Tropp instructs the finder to “Collect all the tapes, all the writing, all the history. The story of this movement, this action, must be examined over and over. It must be understood in all of its incredible dimensions. Words fail. We have pledged our lives to this great cause. We are proud to have something to die for. We do not fear death.”

Tropp begs the reader to find compassion and understanding in the Peoples Temple story, as trying to renew the human spirit from endless injustice and persecution.

“As I write these words, people are silently amassed, taking a quick potion, inducing sleep – relief. We are a long-suffering people,” Tropp wrote. “Many of us are weary with a long search, a long struggle – going back not only in our own lifetime but a long, painful heritage.”

The propagandist

Harriet Tropp was known to many as the mouthpiece of Jones and the Peoples Temple in Jonestown. A former law student with exceptional organizational skills, she was yet another white female who rose to the upper spheres of the Peoples Temples’ inner workings.

Unlike many, however, she was never afraid to tell Jones things he didn’t want to hear, such as the truth. When the women of Peoples Temple were asked to write to Jones why they found him attractive, Tropp penned, “I don’t. You’re 47 and fat.”

Tropp was elevated to several committees, such as the financial planning of life in Russia, and in Jonestown was the member who would speak to the mainland US on matters of Peoples Temple and life on the commune. She would radio reports and testimonies to journalists and the Concerned Relatives group.

“Tropp frequently acted as a spokesperson for Peoples Temple and was dealing with the oppositional group, the Concerned Relatives,” Moore explained. “The Concerned Relatives were filing lawsuits, custody cases, they were seeking government intervention, they were raising media awareness of Peoples Temple and what was happening or what they said was happening in Jonestown. And Harriet was really the person dealing with them.”

Over a year before the Jonestown tragedy, Jones was already planning for the possibility of revolutionary suicide. According to one witness, in September 1977, when a vote of members was taken to see who would be willing to die, only two people answered in the affirmative. Harriet Tropp was one of the two.

As November 18 played out, Harriet was loyal to the end. As her brother professed certain misgivings, Tropp knew and believed that there was no other way.

“Oh, Dick, stop being such a pain in the ass,” she told her brother. “You’re just afraid to die.” 

In total, some 16 Jews died either in Jonestown or Georgetown on November 18, 1978. It might not sound like a large number, but as McGehee pointed out, “If you look at the percentage of Jews of the US population, I think it’s like 2%, and in Jonestown, it’s higher. The roles fulfilled by Jewish members outweighed their numbers.”

On November 18, 1978, however, there were no Jews, or Christians, or Whites, or Blacks, or anything else. There were only victims. Victims of ideas and beliefs that had offered them the hope of a better world and redemption, and then cruelly manipulated them into committing a tragic act.

Source : Jerusalem Post

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