'Neo-Nazi road' may be named for rabbi

State of Missouri wants to rename section of highway adopted by group after Abraham Joshua Heschel.

adopt a highway 248 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
adopt a highway 248 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A litter prevention program got an unusual ally last year: A neo-Nazi group adopted a section of highway in Springfield and picked up the trash. The state said it had no way to reject the group's application, saying membership in the Adopt-A-Highway program can't be denied because of a group's political beliefs. Lawmakers responded with an amendment to a large transportation bill that would rename that section of road after Abraham Joshua Heschel, a leader of the Conservative movement who narrowly escaped the Nazis in World War II and later marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. But the move is being criticized by Heschel's daughter, who objects to naming the neo-Nazi's 800-meter patch of highway after her father and calls the plan "highly inappropriate and vulgar." "I don't want Nazis stomping on a highway named for my father. What are they going to do then if they don't pick up the litter? The whole thing is disgusting," said Susannah Heschel, professor of Jewish history at Dartmouth College. "It may be an attempt to teach the neo-Nazis a lesson," she said. "But I think it's an affront to my father's dignity to attach his name to a neo-Nazi highway." The Springfield unit of the National Socialist Movement committed last year to clean up trash along the section of Highway 160 near the city limits in west Springfield. Two signs noting the group's membership in the Adopt-A-Highway program went up last October. A 2005 US Supreme Court ruling arising from a similar effort by the Ku Klux Klan says membership in the Adopt-A-Highway program can't be denied because of a group's political beliefs. In general, the state can deny an organization's application only if it has members who have been convicted of violent criminal activity within the past 10 years. After the state dropped the Klan from cleaning up a section of Interstate 55 near St. Louis in 2001 for failing to pick up trash, that stretch of highway was renamed the "Rosa Parks Highway" in honor of the black woman arrested in 1955 when she refused to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. In May, State Rep. Sara Lampe introduced legislation renaming the Springfield stretch of highway after Heschel after consulting with the Jewish Community Relations Board of Kansas City. The measure was added as an amendment to the large transportation bill. "For the National Socialist movement to be in the Adopt-a-Highway program is well within their rights," said Rabbi Alan L. Cohen of the Jewish Community Relations Board of Kansas City. "But obviously there were people raising the concern that this is the wrong message for people to see driving down a Missouri highway, that there are National Socialists out here," Cohen said Sunday. Susannah Heschel said she contacted Lampe's office last month and told them about her objections over naming just the neo-Nazi's stretch of highway after her father. Lampe did not immediately return calls seeking comment. "I understand the good intentions," Susannah Heschel said. "Everybody wants to get rid of racism. ... But I don't think it should be done this way." Representatives of the National Socialist movement in Missouri did not immediately return calls seeking comment about the legislation Sunday. But a statement on the movement's Web site calls the renaming "a lame attempt to insult National Socialist pro-environment/green policies." The Web site has images of the Confederate flag, swastikas and members in military garb, and says the group fights for the rights of "all White American citizens of European descent." "We welcome this spineless legislation, as it will no doubt spur a backlash from the local people whom will wonder why anyone, especially outside Jewish agitators would attempt to disrespect local citizens that volunteer their time to clean local roads," the statement said. The governor has until mid-July to sign or veto the transportation bill. Nixon spokesman Scott Holste said Sunday that while the governor was reviewing the entire bill, he was in favor of the amendment to rename the stretch of highway. Heschel was deported from Germany and then escaped from Poland weeks before the Germans invaded in World War II, said Michael Abrams, chairman of the Jewish Community Relations Board. He taught at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati during World War II and later at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York. He was revered for his piety and for his activism on civil rights and other issues. He also wrote many books, including the widely acclaimed God in Search of Man and The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man. "He's a great example of the Nazi failure to annihilate the Jews and of Jewish participation in the civil rights movement," Abrams said, recalling the famous photograph that shows Heschel and King walking side by side at Selma in 1965. But Susannah Heschel said her father would have "been appalled" at having his name used for the highway. "He would not feel honored by this."