WASHINGTON, DC – A week ago, a rabbi and three others were taken hostage in a synagogue in Colleyville, Texas. The hostage-taker was a British man by the name of Malik Akram. He was demanding the release of Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani scientist serving an 86-year sentence for attempting to murder US military personnel. During the siege, Akram spoke to the New York-based rabbi, Angela Warnick Buchdahl, about Siddiqui. After 11 hours, Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker threw a chair at the hostage-taker, allowing the two remaining hostages (one had been released earlier) and himself to run to safety. Akram was shot and killed.
Afterwards, the FBI said the incident was not motivated by anti-Semitism – a ludicrous statement, which it later reversed. American Jews make up roughly 2 per cent of the US population. Akram did not accidentally stumble into a synagogue.
Still, as the event was unfolding, I (who am Jewish) found myself turning to my husband (who is not Jewish) and asking why the hostage-taker thought a random synagogue had anything to do with Siddiqui. He looked at me. “Emily,” he said. “He thinks Jews control everything.” And that was correct. Akram thought that a rabbi in Texas could give him access to a rabbi in New York and a prisoner would be released.
I asked the question because I sometimes want to forget that there are people walking around who think like this, even though I know that, at its core, this is what anti-Semitism is: a contempt for Jewish people, yes, but also the belief that we are foreign and other, and seek to corrode, degrade and control the populations in which we hide ourselves.
The week that followed has been illuminating for a few reasons. A right-wing Jewish outlet noted that Cytron-Walker failed to “thank Hashem” (God) in an interview after his release, and that he had been critical of Israel, as though that was somehow relevant in his status as a visibly Jewish figure who had been taken hostage and survived. Meanwhile, a debate continues regarding security in synagogues: on the one hand, violent anti-Semitism does tend to result in an increased security presence (most synagogues already employ security; even at my temple’s outdoor event for new members, a guard stood alert by the street). On the other, many Jews of colour fear that they will end up being targeted by the very officers their houses of worship hire for protection.
Meanwhile, Deborah Lipstadt, who has been nominated by the US president, Joe Biden, to serve as his envoy on anti-Semitism, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times. Lipstadt’s position is now ambassador-level, which means it must be approved by Congress, and so her appointment’s confirmation has been caught up in Washington’s partisan gridlock. Some reports have suggested that she will be called on to apologise for suggesting that a Republican senator’s tweet upheld white supremacy. In other words: before being appointed to a position in which she will be asked to call out prejudice around the world, she will have to say sorry for doing just that.
At the end of 2020, for a piece I called, “Anti-Semitism in the time of Trump”, I wrote, “anti-Semitism hurts Jewish people. It also degrades the society in which it is allowed to foster. A society in which anti-Semitism is a normal part of political life is also a society in which hate, conspiracy and vengeful suspicion are normal.”
We are no longer (at least formally) in the time of Trump. But the rest remains true.
[See also: How will Deborah Lipstadt define anti-Semitism in the US?]