The leafy streets of Riverdale would seem an unlikely setting for the renewal of an emotional debate about the threat of Islamic extremism vs. civil liberties for Muslim Americans. But on a spring night five years ago this month, Rabbi Judith Lewis’ Riverdale Temple was one of two synagogues targeted by four Muslim men whose plot to bomb the buildings was thwarted at the last minute.
The arrest of the men and the ensuing case led to questions about whether an FBI agent, who had infiltrated the assailants’ mosque in upstate Newburgh and gathered evidence of the plot, had entrapped them.
Now, in the wake of the recent announcement that the NYPD is disbanding a long-running unit that carried out surveillance in certain Muslim neighborhoods, Rabbi Lewis is again weighing the clash of societal interests.
“I am a very strong proponent of civil rights,” said Rabbi Lewis, who leads the Reform synagogue. “It’s something we have to balance equally with security concerns.”
Although the four attackers that targeted Rabbi Lewis’ synagogue and the nearby Riverdale Jewish Center were caught and convicted based on surveillance information (no FBI entrapment was found), the rabbi said, “I have full confidence in the police department, that they have other ways of getting the necessary information to protect us. I don’t believe that they would abandon a policy unless they felt there was something more useful and less intrusive that was available to them.”
The rabbi’s view isn’t the only one among Jews in Riverdale. Others, like Andrew Wolf, the publisher and editor of the Riverdale Review, a community newspaper in the Bronx, are just as careful as Rabbi Lewis to consider the complicated balance between keeping Jews safe and protecting civil rights, but come down on the other side of Mayor de Blasio’s NYPD directive.
Wolf said he was “troubled” by the 2009 Newburgh case because “it really looked like entrapment,” and when it comes to surveillance, “I don’t like that we’re targeting certain groups.” Nevertheless, Wolf continued, “I’m opposed to the mayor [ending surveillance of Arab communities]. We’ve seen too many people acting in the name of these groups. I’m troubled by that, too. I really am.”
For more than a decade after 9/11, plainclothes police had been infiltrating mosques, Arab restaurants and stores to monitor conversations and communal developments, with the goal of preventing other attacks. The covert police tactics, carried out by the so-called Demographics Unit, were criticized by Arab advocacy groups, who said the surveillance did little except erode the trust between police and Muslim communities.
The previous police policy allowed officers to videotape individuals entering suspicious mosques, to note the license plates of those parked at mosques, and to tape sermons using hidden microphones. The new NYPD policy requires police to emphasize information gathering through direct contact with Arab and Islamic community representatives.
In announcing the disbanding of the surveillance unit, de Blasio said in a statement: “This reform is a critical step forward in easing tensions between the police and the communities they serve, so that our cops and our citizens can help one another go after the real bad guys.”
One Jewish communal official who has monitored terrorism in New York City for more than a decade, and who asked for anonymity so as not to compromise relationships with the NYPD, said of the mayor’s announcement, “I really don’t know what the heck this means. I’m not sure they’re eliminating surveillance. We don’t know if the important components of [surveillance] haven’t been shifted to other units. … I think there are places where surveillance is justified. While [the NYPD] said they were closing the unit, they did not say they were stopping any particular activity.”
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, who spoke out forcefully against the discrimination against Muslims in the wake of 9/11, struck a cautious note.
“I have a lot of confidence in [Police Commissioner] Bill Bratton,” he said. “I think he’s someone who knows the issues of extremism and terrorism. I’m ready to give his judgment the benefit of the doubt, to see how it goes.
But Foxman admitted to some nervousness. “In my heart of hearts,” he said, “I think we need to continue [the surveillance], but I’m ready to say, OK, Bill, prove us all wrong.”
Over in Brooklyn, where seven years before 9/11 a Muslim named Rashid Baz killed 16-year-old yeshiva student Ari Halberstam on the Brooklyn Bridge, Dov Hikind wondered whether the NYPD move would handcuff the police.
If covert surveillance is called for, the longtime Borough Park assemblyman said, “the police department should be allowed to do what it needs to do to protect New Yorkers. The city won’t be doing that [in mosques] anymore, what can I tell you?
“If you look at those who have committed acts of terrorism, it just happens to be, what, 90 percent [Muslim]? More? Most terrorists have fit a certain profile. If [the police] feel they need to [infiltrate] mosques because that’s where they might get information or hear a conversation that might be used to avoid an act of terrorism, they should do it. … Now if [Bratton] says he doesn’t need that tool, I hope he’s right. I just hope that one day we don’t regret it.”
Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, a nonprofit that works to forge closer ties between Jews and Muslims, hailed the change as “a positive development for interfaith relations. It’ll help integrate the Muslim community into our city and society, giving them the sense that they are full citizens of New York and are not under suspicions for just being Muslims.”
Rabbi Schneier said he didn’t like the word “informers. … I have no problem with what an informer does, in principle. I just don’t like the term — I prefer a ‘partnership,’” between community and police. “If we’re going to use ‘informer,’ then every ethnic leader should be an informer. Those in leadership have the responsibility to hold members of their community accountable. There’s a negativity, a negative connotation, when it comes to these terms [surveillance, informers], and there are more welcoming ways of achieving and accomplishing the same goal,” giving local ethnic communities “a sense of ownership and responsibility.”
Daniel Pipes, president of the Middle East Forum and an expert on Islamic terror in the United States, cast the issue in a larger, more global context.
“There’s been, for years, a drive to deny the connection between Islam and terrorism,” Pipes said. However, “governments recognize the unique singling out of one race or religion because of special circumstances in all sorts of ways, such as with affirmative action.” But when it comes to security, Pipes said, “we indulge in ‘security theater,’ to make ourselves feel good.”
He pointed to the situation at airports, where old white or black women and young Islamic men are treated as equal threats. The Israeli approach at airports, said Pipes, “is to pay more attention to the people. The Israelis do it because they are under extreme threat. If we were under extreme threat, we might do it too, but we’re not, or we don’t feel we are, anyway.”
Back in Riverdale, Andrew Wolf, the Riverdale Review publisher, is still grappling with the nuances of the debate. It was not lost on him that, according to The New York Times, the police acknowledged that the Muslim surveillance “never generated a lead,” although ABC News reported that the NYPD had thwarted 13 terrorist attacks in the city since 2001, through its own intelligence work or in cooperation with the FBI.
Even if the number of arrests from surveillance is unknown, Wolf said, “Sometimes just people knowing the police are watching is enough to dissuade criminal behavior. We know that within the Muslim community there are those who would like to recruit for jihad, and knowing that there is no longer surveillance may loosen the restraints. … Homegrown plots are not so unusual now. Look at last year’s Boston Marathon.
“I may not be happy about surveillance, but I’m not so naïve as to think the absence of surveillance is the absence of the threat.”
In Riverdale the other day, Wolf noticed a police car parked in front of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, as police were also guarding other neighborhood synagogues around the time of Passover. “I appreciate that,” he said. “It confirms that the police know that there’s a threat.”