As reports of terror attacks on Jews and Jewish targets in Europe mount, I find myself all too familiar with some of the tragic scenes.
In the summer of 2010, I spent a few days, including Shabbat, in Copenhagen and attended services twice a day at its beautiful, well preserved central synagogue. It was just outside that synagogue this past Saturday night that a gunman shot and killed a 24-year-old Jewish man who was standing guard while a bar mitzvah celebration took place inside.
On an earlier trip to Paris I shopped for kosher food in the neighborhood where a gunman shot and killed four Jews on a busy Friday afternoon, Jan. 9, two days after the Charlie Hebdo murders.
Back in the spring of 1998, I visited the Israeli Embassy in Paris and interviewed Ambassador Avi Pazner, who told me the remarkable history of the building, once the luxurious home of a wealthy Jew who was a Holocaust victim. The next day I flew to Djerba, the Tunisian island, for the annual celebration of Lag b’Omer, a time when thousands of Sephardic Jews, mostly from France and Morocco, return for a colorful parade through the streets of the small town. The ceremony begins and ends at a restored ancient synagogue, bathed in bright blue hues and believed to house a cornerstone rock that once was part of the Temple in Jerusalem.
Four years later, within a five-week period in the spring of 2002, the embassy in Paris was destroyed by a mysterious fire and a suicide bomber detonated a truck outside the Djerba synagogue, killing 14 German tourists and four others. Al Qaeda later claimed responsibility for the attacks.
In addition to thinking “there, but for the grace of God, go I,” these reminders of the long history and wide scope of terror attacks against Jewish targets were all the more jarring to me in light of President Obama’s seemingly willful efforts to deny that anti-Semitism is the common denominator here.
In a recent interview he said, “It is entirely legitimate for the American people to be deeply concerned when you’ve got a bunch of violent, vicious zealots who behead people or randomly shoot a bunch of folks in a deli in Paris.”
Perhaps, in his defense, one could note that the president, known for his eloquence, was speaking casually. But the offensive nature of the remark — “randomly shoot a bunch of folks” — was compounded when two administration spokespersons sought to defend Obama’s words. White House press secretary John Earnest said the next day that “the adverb the president chose was used to indicate that the individuals who were killed in that terrible incident were killed not because of who they were, but because of where they randomly happened to be.”
But the use of “randomly” is precisely what is so upsetting, given that the Islamic terrorist, Amedy Coulibaly, said during the tragic event, “I have 16 hostages and I have killed four, and I targeted them because they are Jewish.”
When pressed by a reporter, Jon Karl of ABC News, whether the “deli” was picked because it was kosher, Earnest replied, “No, Jon. Any random deli, Jon.”
And State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki described those murdered at the French supermarket as “not all victims of one background or nationality.” In fact, though, all four were Jewish.
She and Earnest later sent out tweets acknowledging that the attack was anti-Semitic. But their initial efforts, and President Obama’s remarks, are consistent with the administration’s policy of avoiding terms like radical Islamic terror. This is especially troubling when The New York Times reports that ISIS, the Islamic State that succeeds in attracting volunteers by trumpeting its barbarity, “is expanding beyond its base in Syria and Iraq to establish militant affiliates in Afghanistan, Algeria, Egypt and Libya, raising the prospect of a new global war on terror.”
But you can’t win a war against an unidentified enemy.
I understand the unwillingness of authorities to jump to conclusions about perpetrators and motives of violent acts. Most notably, we recall the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, when initial reports falsely assumed the source was foreign terrorism. Still, there are times when caution morphs into denial, like the tragic Brooklyn Bridge shooting in 1994, when 16-year-old Ari Halberstam was shot and killed by an Arab man driving alongside the van in which the Lubavitch student was a passenger.
At first the murder was described as a random act, and later the FBI described the motive as “road rage.” Only the persistence of Ari’s mother, Devorah Halberstam, in pursuing justice, led to the later acknowledgment that the murder was an act of terrorism and that the intended target was the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who was being driven home to Brooklyn after surgery in Manhattan.
The refusal of the White House to identify terrorism as terrorism and anti-Semitism as anti-Semitism, or to admit that the great majority of such barbaric acts come from Islamic radicals (whose most frequent targets are fellow Muslims), transcends semantics. It speaks to a resistance in recognizing a painful reality and a lack of fortitude needed to defeat — not avoid, placate or compromise with — the enemy not only of Jews but also of modern values and civilization.
Until that happens, “Never Again” will mean nothing more than “again and again.”