January 21, 2022 — Dallas, Texas
This piece first appeared in The Dallas Morning News.
Immediately following the daring escape of Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker and his congregants, an FBI official commented at a news conference that “the subject … was singularly focused on one issue, and it was not related to the Jewish community.” Much to the surprise of the Jewish community and its allies, this was subsequently repeated when a reporter probed the question further. That remark was distributed broadly by many major media outlets.
To be clear, local, state and federal law enforcement officials deserve our praise and gratitude for their tireless efforts throughout the day. From negotiating with the armed hostage-taker, to evacuating the area around the small congregation, to swiftly neutralizing the perpetrator once the hostages were safely cleared from the building. Their initial analysis of the incident, however, is emblematic of the need for law enforcement and others in positions of authority to benefit from training and guidance on what constitutes antisemitism.
In the American Jewish Committee’s 2021 report on the State of Antisemitism in America, 24% of American Jews said one or more Jewish institutions with which they affiliate have been the targets of antisemitic threats, graffiti, or, like we saw at Congregation Beth Israel on Saturday, physical assaults in the past five years.
In the past year, 17% of Jews have avoided certain places, events or situations out of concern for their safety. In the South, it is even higher: 20%. Further, 22% of American Jews reported avoiding publicly wearing, carrying or displaying things that might help people identify them as Jewish. Again, the percentage is higher in the South, where 26% are not comfortable showing visible signs of their Jewish identity.
Let’s be absolutely clear. Any attack on a synagogue is an expression of antisemitism. Full stop. The Colleyville synagogue is not on a major thoroughfare. It’s not a place one finds by accident. Malik Faisal Akram sought out a Jewish house of worship. He took out his gun and began the standoff during a Shabbat service, while participants were literally facing Jerusalem for the Amidah — the liturgical heart of the Shabbat service.
During the 11-hour standoff, Akram demanded a call be placed to a prominent New York rabbi, perhaps laboring under the perception that Jewish power and political connections could be leveraged to achieve his goal of freedom for Aafia Siddiqui, who is in prison for attempting to shoot U.S. military officers. Such distorted views of Jews are classic antisemitic tropes, which also threaten Jewish security.
So why does it matter? While Jews make up only 2% of the U.S. population, we are the target of nearly 60% of religiously motivated bias incidents, according to the FBI annual Hate Crimes Statistics Report. And while 90% of American Jews see antisemitism as a problem in the United States today, only 60% of the general population does, AJC surveys found.
One reason for this is a discrepancy in what some consider to be antisemitic. How can the community, civil society, law enforcement and elected officials address a problem if there is no agreement on how to define it?
In 2016, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance adopted the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism. The group’s working definition is: “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”
More than 30 countries have adopted the definition, as well as the U.S. Department of State, the Department of Education, and dozens of municipal, county and village governments.
In 2021, Texas House Bill 3257 passed with overwhelmingly bipartisan support and created the Texas Advisory Commission on the Holocaust, Genocide and Antisemitism, which is guided by the IHRA definition. The commission is charged with creating a biennial report on antisemitic activity in Texas. Without a commonly accepted definition, how could it ever hope to accurately do so?
This kind of reporting on antisemitic activity is absolutely critical. Sadly, what happened in Colleyville was not an isolated incident. Only days before, banners with antisemitic vaccine conspiracy theories hung over the U.S. Highway 75 overpass near NorthPark Center. Similar banners were seen in Austin last fall, and fliers promoting conspiracies were distributed around Austin and Hays County. These central Texas incidents culminated in arson at an Austin synagogue, causing tens of thousands of dollars in damage.
Two-thirds of American Jews surveyed for the AJC antisemitism report think law enforcement is effective in responding to the security needs of American Jews. That the FBI reevaluated its initial assessment of the Colleyville attack and later termed the crisis “a terrorism-related matter, in which the Jewish community was targeted” is laudable. It is important for media outlets that reported the FBI’s original inadequate assessment to exert as much or more energy correcting the FBI’s information.
Clarity on recognizing antisemitism whenever it happens, unequivocally calling it out, and mobilizing effective responses are essential to confronting this age-old hatred that continually threatens not only Jews but all of society.
Joel Schwitzer is Dallas regional director for the American Jewish Committee. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.