Area Jewish institutions should tighten access and watch out for any signs of hostile surveillance, as the specter of Iran-backed terrorism looms larger.
That’s the newly issued warning of the Jewish Community Relations Council amid the growing sense of an imminent military strike by Israel against nuclear facilities in Iran. Those concerns were fueled by comments attributed to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in a published report last week, followed by an Israeli consular memo obtained by ABC News.
“We predict that the threat on our sites around the world will increase … on both our guarded sites and ‘soft’ sites,” read the memo, with soft sites interpreted to mean potential targets such as synagogues and other Jewish community buildings. The letter was circulated by the head of security for Israel’s Consul General for the Mid-Atlantic States, ABC News said.
The network’s local affiliate, WABC, reported Sunday that congregants at Manhattan’s Temple Emanuel on the Upper East Side were screened by police before services Saturday morning.
A range of institutions contacted by The Jewish Week on Tuesday declined to discuss whether they have increased security as a result of the warning, which comes as President Barack Obama on Sunday took a tougher stand against Iran by freezing assets in the U.S. and moving to block its central bank from doing business with the rest of the world.
“The safety of our visitors and staff are always our foremost priority,” said Abby Spilka, a spokeswoman for the Museum of Jewish Heritage-Living Memorial to the Holocaust in Lower Manhattan. “But as a matter of policy the museum does not discuss security procedures.” She said the museum has not modified its schedule or any ongoing programs as a result of the threat.
But the JCRC’s security blog said that two elite NYPD teams, code-named Atlas and Samson, were deployed to increase security at Jewish sites on Friday.
The umbrella group said any suspicious activity should be reported to 1-877-NYCSAFE.
A police source told The Jewish Week that the Israeli Consulate in Midtown was a site of increased protection, but noted that security there is always so tight “there’s really no place [further] to go.”
Consul General Ido Aharoni declined through a spokesperson to comment.
The NYPD has, for years, been preparing for the possibility of a terror strike in the city by Iranian agents or sympathizers in retaliation for any strike by Israel or the United States.
In September of 2008, the department announced to Jewish leaders at a pre-High Holy Day security briefing that a team of detectives had visited Buenos Aires to consult with officials there about their investigation of the 1992 bombing of the Israeli consulate in the Argentine capital, which killed 29 people. A second blast in 1994 at a Jewish community center was far deadlier, killing 85. Iran has been implicated in both attacks.
The threat of an attack may seem more credible in the wake of an announcement last summer by the FBI that an Iranian attempt to kill the Saudi ambassador to Washington and bomb the Israeli embassy there had been foiled. Two Iranian men were charged in that plot. Last month, it was cited by the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, in a report to senators, as an indication that Iran may be ready to carry out attacks here.
“We have heard from various intelligence sources that the Iranians have chosen to use language that is threatening not only to Israel but to Jews in the diaspora,” said Paul Goldenberg, director of the Secure Community Network, which serves a liaison between law enforcement and national Jewish organizations.
“We are working with the Department of Homeland Security and are in touch with it daily and have visited Washington several times in the past seven days. When you have rhetoric it sometimes resonates with lone wolves and others to act against Jewish targets.”
He added, though, that there is no specific threat against any individual target. “People should remain vigilant: test your systems, ensure you have security in place but don’t stop going to synagogues or visiting JCCs or interacting with federations.”
The potential threat comes as Jewish organizations are lobbying to ensure that the federal Non-Profit Security Grant program, which has provided millions in recent years to make Jewish institutions and others that might be targeted safer, will be funded by Congress to the fullest extent possible, even as it slashes billions in spending.
The JCRC announced last month on its security blog (jcrcsecurity.blogspot.com) that all 12 grant programs administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and distributed by the Department of Homeland Security were approved as a single allocation, but with a cut of 43 percent, or $860 million. DOH Secretary Janet Napolitano is to determine how to divide the allocations.
Next month, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is set to visit the U.S., to address the annual AIPAC policy conference, fueling speculation that he will also meet with U.S. officials to talk about the Iran threat.
Last week, the Washington Post’s David Ignatius reported from a NATO meeting in Brussels that “Panetta believes there is a strong likelihood that Israel will strike Iran in April, May or June — before Iran enters what Israelis described as a ‘zone of immunity’ to commence building a nuclear bomb.”
At that time, Iran will have enough enriched uranium to build a bomb, the report said.
Adding further to the sense of impending conflict, the deputy head of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards, Hossein Salami told Iran’s Fars news agency on Sunday that, “Any spot used by the enemy for hostile operations against Iran will be subjected to retaliatory aggression by our armed forces,” according to Reuters.
Evan Resnick, who teaches international policy at Yeshiva University, said an attack in the U.S. by Iran operatives is less likely today than before 9/11, but still “entirely possible. We are still a very porous, open society with tens of thousands of soft targets.”
A key question, he said, in the precipitation of such an attack is whether the U.S. is involved in a strike against Iran or whether Israel acts on its own.
“If Israel launches an attack without the U.S., a terror attack against the U.S. would then bring us into the conflict,” he said. “If the U.S. did launch an attack in tandem with the Israelis there would likely be a reprisal, but we would essentially be at war anyway, so it’s a moot point.”
But an attack in the United States wouldn’t serve Iran’s interests, Resnick said, because “it would galvanize domestic support for the intervention” and incite counterattacks.
Another key question regarding Iran, Resnick said, is whether the regime is inclined to act in its own best interests or is instead overwhelmed with fanatical hatred of Israel and the West.
“It’s hard for me to buy into the argument that the Iranian leadership is suicidal,” he said. “They have been in power for 30 years now and … and while it is not a nice regime, it acts in self-interest and clearly seems to be sensitive to cost. They haven’t started a war against anyone and for all their fiery rhetoric haven’t invaded anyone.”
But that doesn’t mean an easy diplomatic solution is in the cards, he said. “Making them feel secure enough to give up the bomb is not something we can give them,” said Resnick. “Unless there is some serious offer put on the table they are going to keep doubling down. The nuclear bomb is [seen as] very important to their security.”