The intifada is on trial this week in Bronx County Court House. Itís a case, defense attorney Stanley Cohen tells the jury in his summation, that began more than 50 years ago with the creation of the State of Israel, when Palestinians were thrown out of their homes producing a ìPalestinian diasporaî that produced this young man, Mazen Assi, born in America, raised here and in Jordan, who was so ìfixatedî by the televised war in Israel that two years ago, just days after the war began, on the eve of Yom Kippur, he threw Molotov cocktails that shattered a synagogueís glass in Riverdale.
The Bronx shul didnít burn, but not for lack of trying.
The defense wants to put Israel on trial. The State of New
York has another trial in mind, charging Assi, 23, and Mohammed Alfaqih, 21, with attempted arson and criminal mischief. They are charged with ìhate crimesî under a law that went into effect just hours before Alfaqih allegedly drove Assi to the Conservative Synagogue of Riverdale with vodka bottles filled with fuel and a wick.
In his confession to police, Assi told the police all about the ìthe fó-ing rich Jewsî in Riverdale, a neighborhood not that far from the Arab-owned Madaba deli in South Yonkers.
What this trial testifies to is that the war against the Jews didnít move beyond Israelís borders only with the recent bombing of the Israeli-owned hotel in Kenya. It has been a violent war without borders for some time now, fought on French boulevards and in Berlin alleys and in the most rustic corner of the Bronx. The Anti-Defamation League has files on at least a dozen other crimes in 2002 in which Arabs attacked or intimidated Jews, not in West Bank settlements but in the City of New York
Everyone says Assi and Alfaqih acted alone. In America, we prefer that our madmen act alone, like El Sayid Nosair, the assassin of Rabbi Meir Kahane, back in 1990. When Kahane was killed, who among us didnít say it was the chickens coming home to roost, before the chicken turned out to be us and the assassin, Nosair, turned out to have roosted with Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, an open confederate of Osama bin Laden.
Rahman, the blind leader of one of Egyptís largest terrorist organizations, was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1996 for plotting, in his Jersey City mosque, to blow up bridges and landmarks in New York.
And whoís that at the defense table for the Riverdale case? Lynne Stewart, who joined the Rahman defense team after Rahmanís other attorney, Ramsey Clark, told her that ìif she refused, the Arab world would feel betrayed by their friends on the American left.î That was enough to convince Stewart.
There she is, a heavy-set 62-year-old woman with short gray hair, walking in a slight waddle to the bench to ask for an explanation of the judgeís use of ìhate crimeî and how that applies to this Riverdale case.
Does anyone on this Bronx jury know that Stewart was handcuffed by the FBI back in April and is herself awaiting trial on two counts of assisting terrorists, including helping Rahman smuggle terrorist directives beyond his prison cell? Maybe these Arabs from Yonkers acted alone but through the notorious Stewart, whom the Justice Department believes is a terrorist consigliore, these Riverdale bombers are just one degree of separation from Rahman and two degrees from Osama.
Assiís other lawyer, Cohen, has wild salt-and-pepper hair that piles high on his head ó not unlike Cosmo Kramer of ìSeinfeldî fame ó before it cascades down into a long ponytail like a Davy Crockett coonskin cap. In two-tone shoes, he walks across the courthouse floor and reminds the jury that Assi was ìnever far from Palestine, never far from his tradition.î He ìsocializes in the Palestinian Muslim community.î Oh, he threw the dud Molotov cocktails, all right, says Cohen, and that was wrong, but he was ìfixatedî for days by the death of Muhammad Dura, the 12-year-old Palestinian boy famously shot in his fatherís arms in September 2000. The photo and video whipped up a frenzy around the world.
Who wasnít fixated, asks Cohen? He says even one of the New York City cops on this case thought the Dura killing ìhorrific.î
In case the jury didnít remember ó and Judge Stephen Barrett refused to let the jury see footage of the shooting ó Cohen told the jury that Duraís father ìscreamed in anguish, trying to shield his sonís limp body against the weapons of the Israeli Defense Forces.î
Now, never mind that even the Jordan Times just last week ran a story that said young Dura was shot in a crossfire between Palestinians and Israelis, meaning the fatal bullet was of indeterminate origin. What matters is that Assi blames Israel.
ìIt wasnít Jews who killed that young boy,î said Cohen. ìIt wasnít Jews practicing their religion that killed that young boy,î so Assiís revenge canít be a hate crime against Jews. ìIt was the Israeli army that killed that young boy. An Israeli soldier who killed that young boy. The world was fixated on it,î not just Assi.
The day before Assi took a ride to the Conservative Synagogue of Riverdale, he and his entire family attended a Palestinian demonstration, spurred by the Dura killing, in Times Square. It wasnít a rally against Jews, said Cohen, it was a demonstration organized by Muslims and Christians and Jews ó yes, you can bet Jews were there. It was a demonstration, said Cohen, that asked Israel to ìstop killing children. Stop killing Palestinian children.î
And that synagogue in Riverdale, it wasnít a target for Assi because it was a synagogue, said Cohen. The building was ìnot just a house of worship … itís a building where they raise money for Israel. Itís a building where pro-Israeli speakers come to speak.î
Itís also a synagogue less than a mile north along a straightaway from the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, home of activist Rabbi Avi Weiss, who once demonstrated outside the Jersey City mosque of Sheik Rahman. Maybe Assi couldnít tell one shul from the other, or maybe the more liberal synagogue was good enough, just like the left-wing kibbutz was a good enough target for Palestinians last month.
What, Cohen asked the jury, actually was the crime here? All that happened was ìa broken window. No one went to the hospital. No one was physically injured. The synagogue wasnít engulfed in flames. But it is a big deal to the system. … The message from the politicians, the message from the brass, was ësolve this case. It doesnít matterósolve this case … bring some people in,í and then work backwards and prove the evidence against those you bring in.î
Imagine, said Cohen, the police used aerial photography ìfor a broken window.î The FBI was called in, ìmaybe the CIA, who knows?î
Itís not about Jews, itís about Israel. ìThe prosecutors keep wanting you to think this had something to do with Jews,î Cohen told the jury. ìHow many times did we hear from witnesses, ëYom Kippur, Yom Kippur, the High Holidays, the High Holidaysí … how many times ëyahrtzeit ceremoniesí? How many times, ëlittle memorial plaques for the deadí? Was it necessary? We know itís a synagogue…. plaques for the dead? From 1932? What does that have to do with this case?î
Cohenís right, the Bronx district attorney wants the jury to think that a bomb thrown at a shul has something to do with Jews. And why do the 1930s keep coming up? Those plaques for the dead keep following us around. n
Jonathan Markís e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.