Police near the "Tree of Life" synagogue in Pittsburgh.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
On October 27, 2018, the American Jewish community changed forever. Eleven Jews, primarily senior citizens, were murdered during Shabbat morning prayers by a hate-filled gunman who wanted “all Jews to die.” This was the most lethal antisemitic attack ever to occur on American soil.
Before the deadly shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood, most American Jews were aware of rising antisemitism, but few were actively concerned for their own physical safety. Today, we know that we are not safe from antisemitic terrorism. Today, the need to enhance the security of our communities must be our most urgent priority.
This was not the first deadly antisemitic incident in the US in recent memory, but it was by far the largest-scale to date. In 1999, a white supremacist opened fire inside a California Jewish community center, wounding five people, including three children; in 2006, a gunman attacked the Jewish Federation in Seattle, killing one woman; in 2014, three people were shot dead outside a Jewish center in Overland Park, Kansas. These attacks, too, shook American Jewry, yet far too many Jewish institutions across the country remain unguarded and unprotected. Perhaps the magnitude of the Pittsburgh shooting will finally serve as a wake-up call.
Antisemitism has spread into a worldwide epidemic. It manifests itself in different forms, shapes and degrees, from graffiti to cemetery desecration, synagogue arson, attacks on Jews in the street, and other acts of terrorism.
In the last decade alone, dozens of innocent people have been brutally murdered or wounded at Jewish targets, including the Chabad House in Mumbai in 2008, a Jewish school in Toulouse in 2012, the Jewish Museum in Brussels in 2014, the Paris Hypercacher kosher market in 2015, a Copenhagen synagogue in 2015, and a Moscow synagogue in 2016.
The perpetrators of these terrorist acts shared little in common other than their abhorrence for Jews and a thirst to kill them. Some were young, others older; some Christians, others Muslim. Some were white supremacists who hate Muslims as much as they hate Jews, others Islamists dedicated to the holy war of Jihad.
In most large cities in Western Europe today, as well as in parts of the US, many Jewish institutions – from schools to synagogues to museums – are equipped with an armed guard who can minimize, if not outright thwart, the extent of an attempted attack.
THE FEBRUARY 2015 Copenhagen shooting is a case in point: After gunning down a civilian at a public event, the assailant targeted the city’s great synagogue, killing the young Jewish man on security duty. This attack bears strong resemblance to the Pittsburgh shootings. In both cases, they targeted Jews celebrating a milestone – in Copenhagen, a bat mitzvah, in Pittsburgh, a baby-naming. The critical difference was that in Copenhagen, the synagogue had a physical security infrastructure in place, protocols, locked doors, an organized crisis management team, and a security guard who sacrificed his life to save dozens of community members inside; In Pittsburgh, the synagogue had no security, resulting in the death of 11 civilians.
The imperative nature of such thorough levels of security across the board is an indisputable reality in today’s world. Mass shootings are frequent and morbidly expected, and the prevalence of antisemitism, hatred and xenophobia enhances the very real dangers facing our communities.
The World Jewish Congress, which represents more than 100 Jewish communities on six continents, established a security department in 2015 to work together with local and federal authorities to ensure that our communities have the proper infrastructure and crisis management tools to contend with the growing threats. Under the guidance of our president, Ronald Lauder, we routinely meet with the heads of police agencies and other government officials – including ministers of justice and interior – and engage in productive dialogue with partners in international organizations to ensure real results on all levels. The department currently operates in more than 50 countries, primarily assisting smaller communities which lack the necessary resources.
The WJC and other organizations can play a crucial role in helping to facilitate and contribute to the processes required. However, we cannot do this alone. We cannot replace the role of the local police and security agencies, which have the ultimate responsibility for the safety of their citizens and residents.
The international community must also recognize this crisis and be ready and willing to improve and enhance cooperation between all relevant bodies at local, national and global levels. We must treat antisemitic violence as a global threat that requires a comprehensive, global response.
The Pittsburgh shootings were not just an attack on the Jewish community, but on the very values of liberty and life that are at the heart of the United States and other democracies. It’s time for governments around the world to rally in defense of their Jewish citizens. We urgently need a concerted effort by all law enforcement bodies, security agencies and police forces to combat not just antisemitism, but all forms of religious violence, hate crimes and terrorism across the globe. We owe this to the 11 innocent Jewish citizens murdered in the massacre that unfolded as they sat in synagogue on Saturday.
The writer is the CEO and executive vice president of the World Jewish Congress, the leading umbrella organization of Jewish communities around the world.