The radio crackled with life. A voice emerged from the jungle: “We choose as our model the valiant heroes who resisted in the Warsaw Ghetto. Give me liberty or give me death. If people cannot appreciate that willingness to die rather than compromise the right to exist free from harassment, they will never understand the bravery of Peoples Temple nor the commitment of Jim Jones.” These were the words of Harriet Tropp, a member of Peoples Temple in Guyana, April 1978. This incident was followed by the mass murder/suicide of Jones, Tropp, US Congressman Leo Ryan, and almost 1,000 others – giving rise to the infamous phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid”.
November 18, 2023, marks 45 years since the tragic events of Jonestown. Of the 918 who perished, some 16 were Jewish. Some were minor members, while others played larger roles, leading up to and during November 18. But, how did a group of Jews end up dying in such an event?
Context is needed to understand. As the story goes, Peoples Temple struggled until moving to California, with a brand of fiery Pentecostalism mixed with extreme socialism. Jones’ movement involved racial equality movements, post-colonial movements, and African liberation movements which appealed to Jewish members. In the 1960s and 1970s, Jews and African Americans were strong allies.
But over time, Peoples Temple transformed from a church to a more social-communal one focusing solely on Jones. He also descended into drug abuse and led members in Jonestown in what were termed “white nights,” where he spoke about the evils of the US and capitalism.
The concept of “revolutionary suicide” was attractive to Jones. The mass suicide/murder took years to plan and indoctrinate people into, normalized through repeating rituals and habits. People don’t just willingly commit suicide en masse – there has to be some form of mental rationalization that allows people to believe it is right.
Deborah Layton, a high-profile Peoples Temple defector, left the cult in the early 1970s. Concerned about Jones’ behavior, she returned to the US in May 1978 and played a crucial role in alerting authorities to the dangers posed by the Peoples Temple and providing insights into the conditions at Jonestown.
So how were the Jews of Jonestown and how did they end up participating in such a tragic story? The magazine explores their roles in one of the most infamous “cult” stories of the 20th century.