Victoria plastic surgeon appointed to anti-defamation league board
Jan. 6, 2012 at midnight
Updated Jan. 6, 2012 at 7:07 p.m.
Gary Branfman will never forget the day Victoria's only Jewish temple was defaced. Three vandals - two adults and a minor - painted Nazi swastikas, "Heil Hitler," and "(Expletive) the Jews" across the historic Main Street building in black spray paint.
"Some people argued that it was just vandalism. But vandalism is 'I love Mary' with a heart," said Branfman, plastic surgeon and founder of Victoria Plastic Surgery Center. "Anti-Semitism is '(Expletive) the Jews' on a synagogue. There's a difference between a hate crime and vandalism."
When the incident occurred in July 2007, Branfman and other members of Temple B'nai Israel contacted the Anti-Defamation League Southwest Region, a national nonprofit civil rights organization founded in 1913 to stop bigotry and defamation against Jewish people.
Dena Marks, associate director of ADL Southwest Region, said when the temple desecration occurred, the agency assisted Victoria law enforcement and local victims to deal with the crime.
The following year, Paul Muniz pled guilty to the temple vandalism, and was sentenced to eight years in prison and ordered to pay more than $6,000 in court fees.
Nathan Burr Bowers also pled guilty to the desecration and was sentenced to a 10-year deferred sentence.
A 16-year-old boy was also arrested, but his name was not released because he was a minor when the crime occurred.
"We worked with the district attorney to provide any resources they might need in the case. And we brought one of the defendants to the Holocaust Museum, so he could see" the impact of the desecration, Marks said.
Branfman said inappropriate murmurs and slurs about Jewish people, even in professional, educated circles, are not uncommon. But witnessing the desecration of the temple was enough to launch a personal agenda of activism against anti-Semitic prejudice and bigotry.
"It shifted me from a passive role to an active role," he said. "I think a lot of anti-Semitism is based on misinformation and ignorance, and not based on inbred anti-Semitism."
So when the ADL contacted Branfman three months ago and requested he join the Southwest Region's 135-person regional board, the surgeon gladly accepted.
"I was kind of surprised because it's nothing I ever intended, or expected," he said. "I'm honored. It's my roots."
During his two-year term on the ADL board, Branfman will represent and serve the southwest region on religious and ethnic-related civil rights issues.
The ADL "no longer just fights for Jews," Branfman said. "They fight for any incident where there's bigotry or prejudice involved, whether it's Jews or blacks or women."
"We were established to fight anti-Semitism, but our founders decided you can't fight one type of discrimination without fighting all of them. So, we fight for the civil rights of everybody," Marks added.
Both Marks and Branfman agree the ideology of anti-Semitic extremism continues to persist globally. And even though Jewish families have resided in Victoria since 1886, anti-Semitic groups remain present throughout the Crossroads.
"In our little area here, there's an anti-Semitist newspaper published in Victoria called, 'Jew Watch,' distributed through the Ku Klux Klan. Certainly I promote freedom of speech, freedom of the press; they have every right to publish it. But we have the right to be aware of it, and contest the things that it says," Branfman said. "And I think somebody needs to be here to at least act as a spokesperson to give contrasting views."
As the new year begins, Branfman said he will be assigned to an ADL board committee and meet monthly in Houston with fellow board members.
But his objective as an ADL board member is simple: to help educate others on anti-Semitism and end the growth of hate-inspired radicalism.
"My biggest concern is the growth and spread of extremism. The homebred bigots, basically. Whether they're anti-black, or Jew, or women, or Christian, or whatever," he said. "I'm glad some of us are willing to stand up and contest it."