My Word: Peace and the non-rational enemy

It must be recognized that this was not only a terrorist attack. When Jews are targeted simply for being Jews, it is an act of antisemitism.

 A man prays at a makeshift memorial outside the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in October 2018. (photo credit: CATHAL MCNAUGHTON/REUTERS)
A man prays at a makeshift memorial outside the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in October 2018.

Every week, from Friday night to Saturday night, I greet my friends, neighbors, family and even strangers on the street “Shabbat shalom,” a peaceful sabbath. It’s as much a prayer as a greeting. A hope. And every Saturday night, as I end my 25-hour abstinence from radio, television, computer and phone, I tune in to the news round-up with trepidation. 

As an Orthodox Jew, I might have taken a break from all devices sharing news stories, but the world doesn’t have such a respite from the news. Particularly, the Jewish world. Last week was not the first time in recent years that I have turned on the radio after shabbat to hear of an attack at a synagogue.

On January 15, Jews everywhere held their breath and prayed for the safety of the hostages being held at the Beth Israel congregation in Colleyville, Texas. It’s a place most of us had never heard of before and yet now, it is a name that will forever appear on the list of sites of terror attacks against Jews. 

The armed hostage-taker was Malik Faisal Akram, a British Islamist, who demanded the release of his “sister,” Pakistani al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorist Aafia Siddiqui. Siddiqui, aka Lady al-Qaeda, is serving an 86-year prison sentence for multiple crimes, including trying to kill US army officers in Afghanistan. 

As more details emerge, it now seems that one hostage was released during the incident and the other three managed to escape after nearly 12 hours when Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker threw a chair at their captor, after which FBI officers stormed into the building and shot Akram dead. 

 Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker. (credit: JTA) Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker. (credit: JTA)

Cytron-Walker said in later interviews that when he deflected the attacker and headed for the door with his congregants, he had acted according to security training he had received. Despite his training, it was the rabbi who innocently, or naively, let the armed terrorist into the synagogue without question. It’s an innocence lost with every assault.

There have been lethal attacks on synagogues in Pittsburgh and Poway in the US; one in Denmark, and in Halle in Germany. And that’s just a partial list, in recent years. 

One response last week added insult to injury. Shortly after the hostage incident, Matthew DeSarno, the special agent in charge of the FBI Dallas Field Office, issued a statement declaring: “We do believe from our engagement with this subject that he was singularly focused on one issue, and it was not specifically related to the Jewish community. But we are continuing to work to find [the] motive.”

I despair for the FBI – and for all of us – if the famed bureau really can’t figure out the motive of an armed hostage-taker seeking the release of “Lady al-Qaeda,” who enters a synagogue during prayers on a Saturday morning, threatening to kill the rabbi and congregants (as well as himself). If it wasn’t related to the Jewish community, why did Akram chose this specific building, with its clearly identifiable Jewish markings and name? He was not out for a Saturday morning stroll. And although I had no doubt that it would only be a matter of time before someone pronounced him as suffering from psychiatric issues, he did not pass by the synagogue and suddenly go crazy.

For some reason, it is considered acceptable to unfairly imply that anybody with a psychiatric affliction is a potential mass murderer, rather than to state out loud that there is a problem with Islamist extremists. 

The knee-jerk reaction to try to find a reason for the assault – anything other than Islamist terrorism or antisemitism, that is – brought to mind an infamous statement by former US president Barack Obama. Referring to the victims, all four of them Jewish, killed in an attack on a kosher supermarket in Paris, Obama proclaimed them to be “random folk in a deli.” It sounded stupid when he said it in January 2015. It sounds even more ludicrous now, given all the subsequent attacks on Jews, on synagogues and on other Jewish sites.

American Jewish friends, from different communities, initially reacted last week with a mixture of disbelief and a painful recognition that this is the new reality. A new normal. Terrorist and antisemitic attacks don’t take place “somewhere else,” in Europe or Israel or almost off the map in Mumbai, India. They are taking place in the US and they can be carried out anywhere.

It must be recognized that this was not only a terrorist attack. When Jews are targeted simply for being Jews, it is an act of antisemitism. It makes no difference if the attack was carried out by an extremist from the far-Right, the far-Left or a supporter of global jihad. And sometimes the lines between the seemingly disparate camps are blurred by their shared hatred of Jews. Acknowledging this evil should not mean acceptance of it.

Next week, on January 27, we mark International Holocaust Day. “Never again” needs to be more than a slogan. Ignoring or excusing attacks on Jews does not end well. And it doesn’t end with the Jews. Churches and Christian clergy have been targeted throughout the Middle East, Africa and, yes, even Europe. Muslims have been killed in the thousands by jihadists in the wake of the so-called Arab Spring, as al-Qaeda, Islamic State and their equally ugly offshoots, seek to impose their way over all.

Last Saturday, as part of my shabbat routine, my reading material included the “Covenant & Conversation” thoughts on the weekly Torah portion by the late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. His insight on Beshalach, the story of the Exodus from Egypt, was titled “The Face of Evil” and opened: “After 9/11, when the horror and trauma had subsided, Americans found themselves asking what had happened and why. Was it a disaster? A tragedy? A crime? An act of war? It did not seem to fit the pre-existing paradigms. And why had it happened? The question most often asked about al-Qaeda was, ‘Why do they hate us?’”

In his usual erudite fashion, Sacks quoted a broad range of philosophers and theologians, including American thinker Lee Harris. In Civilization and Its Enemies: The Next Stage of History, Harris writes: “[Before 9/11], The very concept of the enemy had been banished from our moral and political vocabulary. An enemy was just a friend we hadn’t done enough for yet....

“Our first task is therefore to try to grasp what the concept of the enemy really means. The enemy is someone who is willing to die in order to kill you. And while it is true that the enemy always hates us for a reason, it is his reason, and not ours.”

Sacks, Britain’s former chief rabbi, sheds light on why the Israelites are instructed not to abhor the Egyptians but to never forget what Amalek did, attacking the Children of Israel when they were at their weakest, for no reason at all.

“In today’s terminology, the Egyptians were rational actors, the Amalekites were not,” Sacks said. “With rational actors there can be negotiated peace. People engaged in conflict eventually realise that they are not only destroying their enemies: they are destroying themselves... It is not so, however, with non-rational actors.”

It’s something to consider as the Islamic Republic of Iran races to achieve nuclear capability while still threatening to wipe Israel off the map, sponsoring terrorism around the globe and adhering to a belief in martyrdom – making it willing to sacrifice its own people. 

Today, the great danger is terror, Sacks noted. “Evil never dies and – like liberty – it demands constant vigilance. We are commanded to remember, not for the sake of the past but for the sake of the future, and not for revenge but the opposite: a world free of revenge and other forms of violence,” Rabbi Sacks wrote.

Immediately after the Colleyville attack, local Muslims were among those who offered support and solidarity. The vast majority of people of any faith (and of no faith) obviously are decent human beings who prefer to help the world become a better place and detest violence.

I pray that we will be blessed globally with more commonsense and random acts of goodness that help overcome terrorism. May it be truly a “Shabbat shalom.”

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