Jewish leaders renew antisemitism fight after hostage case

Jan 19, 2022, 6:24 AM | Updated: 4:12 pm
FILE - Police cars are parked in front of the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue, Sunday, Jan. 16, ...

FILE - Police cars are parked in front of the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue, Sunday, Jan. 16, 2022, in Colleyville, Texas. A man held hostages for more than 10 hours Saturday inside the temple. The hostages were able to escape and the hostage taker was killed. (AP Photo/Brandon Wade, File)

(AP Photo/Brandon Wade, File)

Although the FBI initially said the man who held four people hostage at a Texas synagogue was focused on an issue “not specifically related to the Jewish community,” the captor voiced beliefs that Jews controlled the world and had the power to arrange the release of a prisoner, survivors said after their escape.

The gunman’s words were all too familiar to Jewish leaders and terror experts, who saw the attack on Congregation Beth Israel as yet another in the rising number of antisemitic hate crimes, a sign of the continued need of vigilance and interfaith solidarity.

The hostage-taker — identified by authorities as Malik Faisal Akram — “thought he could come into a synagogue, and we could get on the phone with the ‘Chief Rabbi of America’ and he would get what he needed,” Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker told the Forward, a Jewish news site.

The hourslong standoff ended after the last hostage ran out of the Colleyville synagogue and an FBI SWAT team rushed in. Akram was killed, though authorities have declined to say who shot him.

The attack recalled recent deadly assaults on synagogues, including Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life in 2018 and California’s Chabad of Poway in 2019. Unlike those attacks, when assailants linked to white nationalist motives went on shooting rampages soon after entering, Akram took hostages to have them to use their influence to obtain the release of Aafia Siddiqui.

Siddiqui, a Pakistani neuroscientist who is suspected of having ties to al-Qaida and was convicted of trying to kill U.S. troops in Afghanistan, is serving a lengthy sentence in a prison in nearby Fort Worth.

Jeffrey Cohen, another of the synagogue hostages, said Akram “did not come there to kill Jews” but tried to use them in the belief they could get Siddiqui released.

Akram “had bought into the extremely dangerous, antisemitic trope that Jews control everything, that we could call President (Joe) Biden and have him release her,” Cohen told the Times of Israel.

Lorenzo Vidino, director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, said that while only Akram himself knew his motives, his words reflect “a misguided and conspiratorial mindset.”

“The idea that Jews are overwhelmingly, disproportionately powerful and control America is completely mainstream” in some politically Islamist factions, similar to tropes among white nationalists, he said.

And he said Siddiqui’s case is a “cause celebre” in those factions. Siddiqui herself voiced “chilling” words at her court proceedings, blaming her conviction on Israel and asking for genetic tests on jurors for possible Jewish connections, he said.

On Saturday, the special agent in charge of the FBI’s Dallas field office said the hostage-taker was focused on an issue “not specifically related to the Jewish community.” But on Sunday, the FBI called the ordeal “a terrorism-related matter, in which the Jewish community was targeted.”

Akram “was looking for a Jewish target,” said Nachman Shai, Israel’s Cabinet minister for diaspora affairs. “If it’s not about Jews, why didn’t he walk into a church, a mosque or a supermarket there?”

The attack resonated in Jewish communities across the country, including those that had been attacked before.

“It’s upsetting to me whenever Jews are under attack, whenever human beings are under attack,” said Beth Kissileff, a Pittsburgh author and member of New Light Congregation. The congregation was one of three meeting in the Tree of Life building that lost members in the Oct. 27, 2018, attack that claimed 11 lives.

She hopes survivors of the Pittsburgh attack — who were consoled in 2018 by Muslim survivors of a deadly mosque attack in Quebec — can offer similar support to those in Colleyville. “People reached out to us, and we want to reach out,” she said.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the denomination Beth Israel is affiliated with, noted that Muslim, Christian and other faith leaders quickly gathered to support the congregants.

“While the uptick of antisemitism is clear, we’ve never lived in a community where there’s more solidarity,” he said.

Anna Eisen, the founding president of Beth Israel, experienced that first-hand, citing support “from neighbors, strangers, churches, the governor” and others.

“I feel safer,” she said. “I know now I’m a part of this community and this country.”

Some advocacy groups and lawmakers have cited the Texas hostage situation in calling on the Senate to take up Biden’s nomination of Deborah Lipstadt to serve as a special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism.

The Emory University professor’s nomination languished last year, forcing Biden to resubmit her name two weeks ago. The Anti-Defamation League called on the Senate to “act now” to show the urgency of confronting antisemitism.

“We need to treat antisemitism not as an aberration but an everyday reality,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, chief executive officer of the ADL.

Rabbi Noah Farkas, the president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, said he has been speaking with rabbinic colleagues in the wake of the Texas incident and many have trepidations about leading services.

“To be a Jew in America today, to wear Jewish ritual garb like the yarmulke or a Star of David, is an act of courage, and I would say defiance as well,” Farkas said.

The attack underscores how “the Jewish community is an affected and targeted group,” said Bradley Orsini, senior national security adviser for Secure Community Network, which consults with major Jewish organizations on security.

He took part in a weekend webinar that drew about 1,600 Jewish community leaders to update them on the Colleyville situation. “We really need to keep preparedness in front of us,” he said.

___

Associated Press writers Josef Federman in Jerusalem; Kevin Freking, Mike Balsamo and Colleen Long in Washington; Holly Meyer in Nashville, Tennessee; Mariam Fam in Cairo; and Luis Andres Henao in Princeton, New Jersey, contributed to this report.

___

Associated Press religion coverage receives support from the Lilly Endowment through The Conversation U.S. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

AP

In this photo provided by Grand Canyon National Park, an adult bison roams near a corral at the Nor...
Associated Press

Grand Canyon won’t seek volunteers to kill bison this fall

A bison herd that lives almost exclusively in the northern reaches of Grand Canyon National Park won't be targeted for removal this fall.
5 hours ago
South Korean Unification Minister Kwon Youngse speaks during a news conference in Seoul, South Kore...
Associated Press

Seoul urges China, Russia to prevent North Korean nuke test

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — A top South Korean official said Monday that North Korea is increasingly targeting the South with its nuclear arms program, and urged China and Russia to persuade the North not to conduct a widely expected nuclear test. Unification Minster Kwon Youngse’s comments came after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un […]
5 hours ago
FILE - Pipes at the landfall facilities of the 'Nord Stream 2' gas pipline are pictured in Lubmin, ...
Associated Press

EU countries adopt mandatory gas storage amid Russia’s cuts

BRUSSELS (AP) — European Union countries agreed Monday that all natural gas storage in the 27-nation bloc should be topped up to at least 80% capacity for next winter as they prepare for the possibility of Russia further reducing deliveries. The EU is trying to slash its use of Russian energy amid the Kremlin’s war […]
5 hours ago
Water-filled barriers have been installed by police outside the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition...
Associated Press

Will he go or not? Hong Kong awaits word on Xi Jinping visit

HONG KONG (AP) — Will he go or not? Chinese President Xi Jinping kept Hong Kong guessing on Monday about his possible appearance at the 25th anniversary of the former British colony’s return to Chinese rule. The government has yet to say whether he will be physically present for the events, which include the inauguration […]
5 hours ago
A Norwegian national flag flutters over flowers and rainbow flags that are placed at the scene of a...
Associated Press

Norway: Suspect in deadly Pride shooting agrees to custody

OSLO, Norway (AP) — The suspect in Saturday’s mass shooting during an LGBTQ festival in Oslo has agreed to be held in pretrial custody for four weeks and will therefore not appear in court on Monday, a Norwegian court said. Zaniar Matapour, a 42-year-old Norwegian citizen originally from Iran, was arrested shortly after the predawn […]
5 hours ago
From left, Italy's Prime Minister Mario Draghi, Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, France's Pr...
Associated Press

EXPLAINER: G7 provides forum for like-minded democracies

ELMAU, Germany (AP) — In 1975, leaders of the world’s wealthy democracies gathered to deal with an energy crisis sparked by a war and rampant inflation. Those same sore points are bedeviling their successors representing 46% of the global economy at this week’s Group of Seven summit, with high consumer and energy prices threatening to […]
5 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

(Courtesy Condor)...
Condor Airlines

Condor Airlines shows passion for destinations from Sky Harbor with new-look aircraft

Condor Airlines brings passion to each flight and connects people to their dream destinations throughout the world.
...
Carla Berg, MHS, Deputy Director, Public Health Services, Arizona Department of Health Services

Update your child’s vaccines before kindergarten

So, your little one starts kindergarten soon. How exciting! You still have a few months before the school year starts, so now’s the time to make sure students-to-be have the vaccines needed to stay safe as they head into a new chapter of life.
...
Carla Berg, MHS, Deputy Director, Public Health Services, Arizona Department of Health Services

ADHS mobile program brings COVID-19 vaccines and boosters to Arizonans

The Arizona Department of Health Services and partner agencies are providing even more widespread availability by making COVID-19 vaccines available in neighborhoods through trusted community partners.
Jewish leaders renew antisemitism fight after hostage case