Politics & Power will now be published every other week. Sign up for our newsletter to stay in the know!
1. Simple facts about antisemitism
Congregation Beth Israel is nestled between a large Catholic center, a small Baptist church and an elementary school on a quiet suburban street. On Sunday morning, a member of the Pleasant Run Baptist Church was busy arranging the letters on the church’s outdoor welcome sign. “Praying for our brothers and sisters in Beth Israel,” the sign now read, just above the reminder that the church’s Sunday services will take place at 11 a.m.
Colleyville has attained the type of fame it had never wished for. Now etched in American Jewish collective memory alongside Pittsburgh, PA and Poway, CA, the town has become yet another reminder of the dangers still facing Jews in America, and of the fact that these dangers are on the rise. Congregation Beth Israel deserves better.
A tiny community within the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, Temple Beth Israel and its rabbi, Charlie Cytron-Walker, are known for reaching out to their neighbors, sharing events with the nearby churches, partnering with local mosques to host Iftar dinners after sunset during Ramadan. No wonder that Rabbi Cytron-Walker opened the door when Malik Faisal Akram knocked on Saturday morning and offered him a cup of tea. It was just part of the sense of community and hospitality that this congregation is known for.
Colleyville’s run-in with antisemitism ended very differently than those of the synagogues in Pittsburgh and Poway. This time, prayers seemed to have been answered, and thanks to the incredible resourcefulness and calm of the rabbi and three congregants, all made it out unharmed. But upon emerging from their ten-hour ordeal of being held at gunpoint, they found that an odd debate had ensued: Was this an antisemitic attack?
In a press conference held shortly after the hostages were released, FBI special agent Matthew DeSarno noted that the perpetrator “was singularly focused on one issue, and it was not specifically related to the Jewish community.” President Joe Biden, speaking the next day, said he does not think “there is sufficient information to know about why he targeted that synagogue” although Biden noted that the gunman made “antisemitic and anti-Israeli comments.”
The question of whether to classify the attack as antisemitic stems from the idea that Akram did not appear to be focused on harming Jews, but rather on releasing Aafia Siddiqui from federal prison in Fort Worth, where she is serving an 86-year sentence on terrorism charges.
But this should not distract from the fact that this was a textbook antisemitic hate crime.
Akram chose to attack a synagogue during the Sabbath prayers and to take a rabbi and his congregants hostage. He went off on an antisemitic rant and demanded the release of a terrorist who is known for her antisemitic comments and beliefs. Furthermore, his entire plot was based on the antisemitic premise that the Jews somehow hold the keys to releasing Siddiqui from prison. “This was somebody who literally thought that Jews control the world,” Rabbi Cytron-Walker told the Forward. “He 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.”
This is classic antisemitism, and government officials commenting that the attacker’s main focus “was not specifically related” to the Jewish community are undermining the community’s rightly placed concerns and fears.
The good news is that authorities are listening: The FBI, in a statement it provided on Monday, made clear that it views the Colleyville attack as a “terrorism-related matter, in which the Jewish community was targeted.”
2. Is it a question of security?
Like many synagogues across America, especially those hosting smaller communities, Congregation Beth Israel did not have a security guard present at the time. The door was locked, but given that Akram did not seem suspicious, he was let in by the rabbi.
Would it have made a difference if the synagogue had been surrounded by armed guards, or if the building had been fortified with strict entry rules in place?
Sure. All these measures help. Just think of the 2019 Yom Kippur attack in Halle, Germany. The synagogue’s locked door prevented the shooter from entering, and the fact that it was reinforced blocked the bullets he shot from hurting congregants inside.
Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue had no armed guard at the entrance. The door at the Poway Chabad synagogue was left open.
There is no doubt that security measures work. But there is a real question about how Jewish Americans want to see their places of worship: Should they become European-style fortified buildings surrounded by heavily armed police, or is it important to send a visual message that a synagogue is just as safe and welcoming as a community center or church? Should Jews gather for prayers behind locked doors, requiring anyone entering to be identified and checked, or is the synagogue open to all who wish to gather and worship?
These are questions of lifestyle and of comfort. There’s always room for better security measures, but they all come at a price.
In an interview with CNN, while the hostage standoff in Texas was still going on, Rabbi Joshua Stanton of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership said: “All of a sudden, we have to become experts in security. I did not become a rabbi to be an expert in security. I became a rabbi to teach, to support, to care, to be in the wider community as a source of love for the world.”
3. Increasing federal aid
And yet the Colleyville attack did reinforce the idea that more should be done to increase synagogue security.
In a tweet posted after the standoff ended, Homeland Security secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, who is Jewish, wrote that his department “will continue working every day to protect the security of all houses of worship and communities of faith everywhere across our nation.”
He was referring to the Nonprofit Security Grant Program managed by the Department of Homeland Security, which provides funding for improving the physical security of houses of worship. It has become a lifeline for Jewish institutions facing a rise in antisemitic incidents in recent years.
Last year, DHS grants to “nonprofit organizations that are at high risk of a terrorist attack” reached $180 million, double the amount of the previous year, and Congress is being asked to increase the budget even more for next year.
The program, which was conceived after 9/11, turned out to be a useful tool for synagogues and Jewish institutions, as well as other groups, dealing with increasing threat levels.
Is it really needed?
Some synagogues could easily do without it. Think of those large congregations, generously endowed with gifts from members’ estates, well-funded by dues and donations. Those could probably fund their own security needs without leaning on the federal government.
But there are many others—smaller, more remote, serving less affluent communities, and in many cases Orthodox or Hasidic—for whom hardening doors, securing windows and installing cameras would not be possible without the government pitching in.
4. Federal grants won the day
The grant program used to be controversial. Those who opposed it argued that synagogues should not be taking money from the government and that it’s a slippery slope: First the government funds security needs in synagogues and churches, and next thing you know, the federal government is in the business of religion.
But these church-state separation concerns cannot stand up to reality. Two decades in, the DHS grant program has turned out to be necessary—and in high demand. It is now one of the few issues that the Jewish community actually agrees on.
5. Security training is the key
Another idea that most agree on: Security training works.
Just ask Rabbi Cytron-Walker, who, in statements and interviews, made sure to credit the security training he and his congregants received for their ability to act calmly and make it out alive.
These programs, conducted by Secure Community Network as well as the Anti-Defamation League, local police forces and the FBI, are aimed at making sure that people attending synagogue know what to do if the worst-case scenario becomes a reality.
Just like fire drills or active shooter drills practiced in schools across America, these security training seminars are designed to instill a set of routines, building muscle memory for procedures that need to be taken if the synagogue comes under attack. The measures are simple, some of them obvious, but all need to be considered and practiced in advance For example, calling 911 right away requires some advance planning for synagogues in which members do not carry their cell phones on Shabbat. Other important precautions: planning escape routes, scouting out shelters, choosing seating closer to the exit and not in the middle of the pew, and always preferring escape over engagement with the intruder.
These are simple measures that go a long way. “Without the instruction we received, we would not have been prepared to act and flee when the situation presented itself,” Rabbi Cytron-Walker wrote the day after the attack.
We are thankful that the hostages were unhurt in Saturday’s tragic situation at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas. We are deeply saddened that we live in an era where synagogues and other houses of prayer are increasingly the targets of bigots and conspiracy theorists. Rising antisemitism is the type of threat to Jews and our democratic institutions that can no longer be ignored.