The Jewish world held its breath and prayed for the best during several tense hours on Saturday, following news of a hostage situation at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, near Fort Worth, Texas. Four people were held captive by an armed man who had entered the synagogue during the Shabbat morning service and threatened to kill everyone if Pakistani al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorist Aafia Siddiqui, whom he referred to as his sister, was not released from jail. Siddiqui is serving an 86-year prison sentence for multiple felonies, including trying to kill US army officers.
The incident was initially livestreamed from inside the synagogue, which was holding a bar-mitzvah service at the time. Later, one person was able to leave, but three people remained in immediate danger, including the congregation’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker. Fortunately, after nearly 12 hours, the FBI was able to carry out a rescue operation, the hostages were freed, and the perpetrator died.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Reform synagogue – like many non-Orthodox communities – was almost empty, with congregants watching a livestreaming broadcast of services rather than attending in person. Had this not been the situation, the number of people held hostage would have been much higher, making the rescue operation more difficult.
No doubt, more details will emerge as the investigation progresses, but one thing is immediately clear: The targeting of a synagogue was not a coincidence. The building displayed open markings of a Jewish house of worship, and it was relatively isolated, not chosen randomly from a row of buildings. The gunman threatening the captive Jews with death, unless a terrorist was released from jail, was himself a terrorist.
This was not only a terrorist attack; it was also an antisemitic attack. When the victims are simply targeted for being Jews, the attack is antisemitic whether it is being carried out by an extremist from the far Right, the far Left or by a terrorist.
Many American Jews, from communities of different streams, initially reacted with disbelief that such an assault could take place at a relatively remote congregation. Sadly, this is the new reality.
Terrorist and antisemitic attacks were once considered something that took place elsewhere, such as in Europe or Israel. But increasingly, they are taking place in the US. The tragedy at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in October 2018 and the lethal Chabad of Poway synagogue attack the following April have already shown that to us.
The American Jewish Committee’s 2021 State of Antisemitism in America report released in October revealed that approximately one in four US Jews was the target of antisemitism over the previous 12 months, and some 39% of US Jews changed their behavior out of fear of antisemitism.
The Colleyville attack ended without the loss of innocent lives, but it must be considered a wake-up call. The immediate crisis in Colleyville is over but the threat has not disappeared. Every Jewish community in the world needs to take the threat seriously and increase security measures.
Israel, with its experience in handling terrorism, can help by providing training and emotional trauma support. It should be stressed that vigilance does not mean vigilantism. Jews need to protect themselves, but this is not a call for violence, only for self-defense.
As well, the attack should serve as a reminder to Jews everywhere that we are one. The feeling of solidarity and support that was in evidence around the Jewish world on Saturday was real and heartfelt. It is a pity that such solidarity is mainly felt in times of crisis and is not ongoing.
The attacks are not restricted to one denomination or another, or a particular political affiliation or another. Orthodox Jews in Israel should not only stand with Reform Jews in the US when they are held hostage; they need to stand together at all times, despite political or ideological differences.
It must be made clear that Jew-hatred and antisemitism in all its forms is appalling and unacceptable anywhere and on any pretext. Indeed, it must be noted that violence against Jews is violence against all. What starts with lawless attacks on Jews never ends there. When Jews are afraid for their safety on the streets, on campuses and in synagogues, no one is safe.