Is It Safe To Pray In A Synagogue?
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Editorial

Is It Safe To Pray In A Synagogue?

American Jews can no longer take synagogue safety for granted.

Chabad of Poway near San Diego, scene of the Passover attack that killed one and injured three. Getty Images
Chabad of Poway near San Diego, scene of the Passover attack that killed one and injured three. Getty Images

From Charlottesville to Squirrel Hill to the palm tree-lined suburbs of San Diego, it’s not hard to think that it’s open season on Jews in America.

The “rough beast” that William Butler Yeats wrote about has had “its hour come round at last.” That beast is brazenly carrying tiki torches and marching in front of synagogues and chanting “Jews will not replace us”; and it is lugging AR-15s into synagogues and blaming HIAS for aiding asylum seekers at the southern border and leaving behind hate-filled screeds on the internet saying Jews “deserved nothing but hell.”

Do the similar, but even more deadly rampages at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston and the mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, mitigate our identity as unique targets?

Perhaps.

But the punch in the gut isn’t far behind: Just three days after the shooting at the Chabad of Poway, the Anti-Defamation League reported that physical assaults against Jews in America doubled in 2018, from 19 to 39. The flurry of numbers can feel abstract, but what’s not abstract is the anxiety that Jews heading off to Sabbath worship this weekend will likely feel in the wake of the Pittsburgh and Poway attacks. Is it safe to pray in America, and are our political leaders sufficiently focused on a rising tide of white nationalism? Eight-year-old Noya Dahan, who was hit with shrapnel during the Poway attack, seemed to channel the fear many Jews feel when she said, “I’m feeling scared and unsafe, like someone is always behind us and watching us.”

American Jews can no longer take synagogue safety for granted. How sad that the news of the fatal shooting at a synagogue near San Diego, however shocking, was less surprising than the murderous assault on the Pittsburgh congregation exactly six months earlier.

A Jewish emergency crew and police officers at the site of the mass shooting at the Tree Of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Oct. 28, 2018. Getty Images

Will we be less alarmed when the next synagogue attacker comes along, God forbid?

And how ironic that members of a family from Sderot, the Israeli town most vulnerable to Gaza rocket attacks, were among the shooting victims in sunny California. It seems there is no escaping those who seek our destruction.

The debate goes on and on over who is most to blame for the dramatic increase in anti-Semitic incidents in America. Donald Trump, whose daughter and grandchildren are Jewish, is both praised as being the most pro-Israel president ever and vilified for displaying the raw behavior and divisive rhetoric that appears to have unleashed a spate of violent bigotry.

Surely we’ve seen that somehow, radicals on the left and the right converge when it comes to espousing anti-Semitism. Prominent political leaders in Europe are a good example.

Are we doomed to become like Europe, where many Jews live in fear of their safety and synagogues must be guarded by armed officials? One wonders how those seeking a spiritual experience in a holy space will be affected by an awareness of potential violence. But the immediate issue is how to prevent further tragedies. And to do so means we must confront the line between a fully open society and a more secure one. For as long as individuals can easily purchase and use assault weapons and post their violent intentions in open forums online, the carnage is sure to continue.

Part of our problem is the political culture we have created and seem to accept. A prominent Israeli official recently pointed out that many American Jews can’t understand why Israelis allow their fundamentalist Chief Rabbinate to control issues of Jewish identity, from performing marriages, divorces and funerals to who can pray at the Western Wall.

Tammy Hepps, Kate Rothstein and her daughter, Simone Rothstein, 16, pray from a prayerbook a block away from the site of a mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood on October 27, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Getty Images

“How different is that from your country’s policy on guns?” he asked. He noted that the majority of Americans favor some form of gun control but that Congress, subject in large part to the influence of the National Rifle Association (NRA), is unwilling or unable to pass such legislation. So the madness continues.

Already there are calls for more government funding to better secure churches, synagogues and mosques. More armed professionals, trained civilians, cameras and monitors. Since the Pittsburgh killings last fall, the presence of security around our synagogues has been increased and is more visible. Many of those people are synagogue members who have undergone extensive training. We have only praise for their self-sacrifice, but they cannot be expected to prevent terror attacks.

It is time for Congress to address such attacks on our houses of worship, spotlighting them as it is spotlighting the opioid crisis. The AJC is calling on Congress “to hold hearings on violence motivated by white supremacist ideologies,” noting that the shooters in the Pittsburgh and Poway attacks “were adherents of such ideologies.”

Israeli security experts suggest the U.S. can do more to thwart terror attacks. They note that their online ability to monitor and identify possible terrorists against Muslims or Jews has made a major impact in reducing Palestinian attacks.

For those of us who cherish our open society, such measures may seem extreme. But given that most lone-wolf attackers, like the ones in Pittsburgh and San Diego, make known on social media their hateful views, and sometimes their violent intentions, it seems reasonable to do more than listen in. “The Americans can improve their monitoring of violent extremists with relatively little infringement of privacy,” Arik Brabbing, a former senior Shin Bet official, told Haaretz correspondent Amos Harel this week. “Holding warning conversations with extremists who post statements about their murderous plans in advance or summoning them for interrogation” can prevent violent attacks, he said, adding that “sooner or later America will do this.”

The question is how many more innocent lives will be taken before our lawmakers take the necessary proactive steps to ensure our safety.

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