Thursday, May 28th, 2009
(Here’s another look back at the aftermath of the previous attack by Islamic radicals in Riverdale)
May 20, 2003
A Fire Next Time
The sentencing of an Arab who tried to bomb a Riverdale synagogue brings fears to surface.
Jonathan Mark – Associate Editor
Khaled J., leaning against a wall in the gloomy light of the Bronx County Courthouse, says he has nothing against Jews.
“I used to work for Jews, at Main Event,” a kosher pizza place in Riverdale. “I made your falafel, your kosher pizza. We never had trouble. That was before.” Before this war started in the fall of 2000. “My nephew, he’s on trial for who he is.”
His nephew, Mazen Assi, is a Palestinian. What he did, said a jury, was to try to burn down the Conservative Synagogue of Riverdale. The synagogue is a growing congregation that is gaining national attention for its intergenerational vibrancy, its buzz of little children and young couples; and attracting more than 1,200 participants on holidays. Two busloads from the shul went to the courthouse to witness Assi’s sentencing last week.
“Maybe he did something, maybe not,” says Khaled of Assi. “It’s not a fair trial. When the judge is Jewish and the DA is Jewish, who can you complain to?”
Of course, no juror was Jewish and Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson isn’t Jewish either. Assi’s lawyer, Stanley Cohen, is Jewish, but he also represents Hamas.
“All these people are against us,” says Khaled, “Fifteen million Jews against a couple of Arabs.”
Assi, 23, was convicted of arson, weapons charges and a hate crime. Just hours after New York’s new law on hate crimes went into effect, on Oct. 8, 2000, Assi and three friends drove down from Yonkers in a red Honda Civic, put on rubber gloves, took two bottles of 160 proof Devil’s Spring Vodka, mixed in cleaning fluid, a rag, lit a wick, and tried to see if this homemade bomb could make the Conservative Synagogue burn.
The synagogue, at 250th Street and Henry Hudson Parkway, is the first one you see on the highway south from Yonkers. There were synagogues in Yonkers, sure, but Assi, who used to live in Riverdale, where he went to public school not far from the synagogue, wanted to get “the rich f—-ing Jews” of that Bronx section, he told police. Assi hated the synagogue, said his relatives, because the synagogue raised money for Israel. Assi, they said, wanted to send a message.
Assi’s family, says Khaled, came from Ein Kerem, in the northern hills of Jerusalem. “Our land was taken, our people were pushed out, kicked out in 1948. We went to Jordan,” where Khaled was born. Assi was born in America but spent many years in Jordan, too.
“They started it,” says Khaled. “They took our land.” They? He means you, dear reader, for which you would have burned if you’d been in the synagogue and the bombs didn’t fizzle.
“Make forgiveness,” Khaled says rhetorically to the Jews. “Take the first step. Nobody’s innocent in this world. Give us what we want willingly. Why should this boy [Assi] be sacrificed? There was no fire. No harm.”
Assi’s brother, Ahmad, adds, “When the Israelis kill, it set him off.”
Ahmad says Mazen watched the taped shooting of 12-year-old Muhammed Durra in his father’s arms in the first week of the war. He watched it over and over. The day before he went to bomb the shul, Assi went to a Times Square rally for Palestinians. The next day he went to bomb.
Assi’s family packed one half of the courtroom. Rabbis and members of the Conservative shul, and rabbis from the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale (Orthodox), packed the other half. Harris Cohen, of the Conservative shul, said, “I very much appreciated seeing the Orthodox. We should have had support from Reform and non-observant Jews, too. This was not an attack on Conservative Jews but on Jews.”
The morning of the sentencing, Assi left his Rikers Island cell and stood handcuffed before Bronx Supreme Court Justice Steven Barrett. Assi turned and smiled at his family.
His lawyer, Lynne Stewart, 63, began her day at the Law School of the City University of New York, where law students honored her as public interest lawyer of the year. She is awaiting trial for helping another client, Sheik Abdul Rahman, direct terrorist operations from his jail cell. Rahman is connected to both Osama bin-Laden and El Sayid Nosair, the assassin of Rabbi Meir Kahane. Through Stewart, Assi is just one degree of separation from Rahman and two degrees from Osama.
Barrett gave Assi the maximum — five to 15 years for attempted arson as a hate crime, with lesser sentences for criminal mischief, weapons possession and aggravated harassment, to be served concurrently.
The Assi case received almost no public attention, particularly in comparison to the civil rights trial of Lemrick Nelson now taking place in Brooklyn in the fatal stabbing of Yankel Rosenbaum during the 1991 Crown Heights riot. The next great disaster for Jews in New York will likely look more like the Assi case than Nelson’s. According to the FBI, even though hate crimes against Muslims soared in 2001, there were still just 481 hate crimes against Muslims compared to 1,043 against Jews. An alarming number of those crimes against Jews were committed by Muslims.
Rabbi Barry Dov Katz, 40, whose youthful charm belies a wisdom and serenity beyond his years, was satisfied with the sentence. He said after returning from court and the two-year ordeal, “I’m proud of the shul. We spent just the right amount of energy on this while staying focused on what the shul is really all about.”
But the shul paid a price. He recalled that some Holocaust survivors found it harder to pray, reliving a bitter era. Children wondered if the shul was safe. Many congregants, said the rabbi, and others in the wider community, “shared a sense that their synagogues, once considered places of refuge and solace, have been tainted by fear. We still feel the emotional impact of the attack.”
All the new security, he said, “should make us feel safe. But on the contrary, many of us feel that this level of security is unnatural and unhealthy.”
Rabbi Katz can’t help but wonder how all the money spent on security and surveillance could have been better spent on other things. But the costs are even higher for those without suspicious minds.