Op-Ed: Attacks like the one in Colleyville are about more than antisemitism
The Colleyville synagogue hostage-taking was a nightmare, a vicious, antisemitic attack on a vulnerable Jewish community. It is tempting to obsess on the antisemitism, to see it as the great, sole evil. But if we want change, we must recognize that Colleyville was about more.
Especially since the 2018 shooting that killed 11 people and injured more at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life, synagogues and other Jewish institutions have been ratcheting up their security. Guards, often armed, are commonplace, as are bulletproof glass, “buzz-in” entry systems and strategically placed panic buttons.
This is a consequence of a rise in antisemitism. We’re scared. A 2020 Pew Study found that most American Jews think there is more antisemitism today than there was five years ago. More than half of those surveyed say that, as a Jew, they personally feel less safe than they did five years ago.
Why would a British Muslim threaten four Texas Jews over the actions of a Pakistani in Afghanistan in 2008?
Rabbi Noah Farkas, president and chief executive of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, spoke for many Jewish leaders when he said, “In face of a new wave of antisemitism, where Jews are threatened online, forced to prove themselves on campus and fear eating in restaurants, we must not let the fear our enemies want to instill in us define us.”
Farkas’ “new wave of antisemitism” is real, but its complexity must also be acknowledged.
Antisemitism can take many forms, including religious (Christ killers), economic (Jews control the banks), ethnic (smart Jews), racial (replacement theory) and national (Israel first). These types and others can occur in isolation or in combination. Battling antisemitism effectively requires serious research and analysis, as well as developing objective, useful tools that can help us approach a highly sensitive subject with a minimum of emotion.
And we must recognize that attacks like the one in Colleyville are not only about antisemitism. They are also about the laws and systems (or lack thereof) surrounding gun control and mental health.
The Texas synagogue standoff is a reminder to follow the Jewish imperative to “hope far ahead,” to work for change even if we won’t be here to see it.
Robert Bowers, the alleged shooter in the Tree of Life mass murders, brought an AR-15 assault rifle and three Glock .357 handguns to the synagogue that morning. An investigation by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives determined that Bowers owned 10 guns, all legally purchased.
“When you combine heated, divisive political rhetoric with easy access to lethal weaponry, the possibility of these kinds of incidents happening is even more troubling,” Adam Skaggs, chief counsel and policy director of the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said at the time.
David Anderson, one of the shooters who murdered four people in 2019 at a Jersey City, N.J., kosher supermarket, was a convicted felon. Arrests for possession of an illegal weapon led to years in and out of New Jersey and Ohio jails. His record included multiple firearm convictions, and at the time of the shooting, he had numerous guns, plus a bomb the FBI said could kill or injure people up to 500 yards away.
Bowers and Anderson were antisemites intent on slaughter, but our lax gun laws aided and abetted the carnage they created.
Bowers’ neighbors saw nothing unusual about him; they saw him as an average guy. Online, however, he let loose his antisemitic rage. Shortly before entering the synagogue, he posted a message that read, “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”
“I wish I had known what was going on in his head,” a neighbor said. “I wish there was some sort of warning sign.”
Anderson’s antisemitism was equally intense. His army service was tumultuous, he was arrested numerous times for domestic violence, and his antisemitism was connected to his interest in the Black Hebrew Israelites, a sect that considers Jews to be “imposters.”
“I do this because my creator makes me do this and I hate who he hates,” read a note found in Anderson’s van after the shooting.
It is hard to imagine either Bowers or Anderson being of sound mind. But even if found legally responsible for their actions, their massacres were likely facilitated by a society reluctant to confront the realities of mental illness.
The best definition of antisemitism I’ve ever heard is “opposition to Jews, as Jews,” which makes Malik Faisal Akram, the Colleyville hostage-taker, an antisemite who perpetrated a heinous antisemitic act. His rants on the synagogue audio can also cause one to question his mental state. His own brother said he had been suffering from “mental health issues.” And, while this has not been confirmed, officials believe Akram likely obtained the gun by purchasing it “on the street.”
Like Bowers and Anderson, Akram was responsible for his actions. And, like the others, he had a helping hand from weaknesses in the system.
Colleyville was about antisemitism, but it was equally about a country whose gun laws and mental health awareness are nowhere near what they should be. Confronting antisemitism is a sacred task, but to do so effectively, efforts must be made to change the systems that enable antisemites to perpetuate attacks like the one in Texas. We must fight to counter antisemitism, and we must fight for a safe, secure society for all.
Clifford M. Kulwin is rabbi emeritus of Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston, N.J.
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