How can a terrorist attack targeting a synagogue not be anti-Semitism?

“No Fear: A Rally in Solidarity with the Jewish People,” July 11, 2021, Washington, DC USA. Featuring Elisha Wiesel, Arizona House Representative Alma Hernandez, Noa Tishby, Ysabella Hazan, Joshua Washington, Rabbi Shlomo Noginski, Blake Flayton, Meghan McCain. (photo: Ted Eytan)

For many of us who move to the United States, the American Dream isn’t a fancy car, or a nice house; it isn’t swimming pools, supermarkets or the suburbs.

The American Dream- from the beginning of this great experiment in liberty until now- was and is religious freedom. It is a dream of the serenity which only comes from being able to practice your religious beliefs, or lack thereof, openly and in peace; free of fear, far from the threat of force, violence, coercion, or danger.

Religious freedom is something you really only notice when you don’t have it. Until it’s gone, it is so easy to take such a fundamental thing for granted. In a place like the U.S., where religious freedom is so ubiquitous it practically grows on trees, it is perhaps especially difficult to imagine a scenario in which such a thing is stripped away.

On Saturday, American Jews were forced to confront this loss of freedom as a gunman entered a Texas synagogue and took several people hostage.

There are certain places which are sacrosanct; where people should be able to congregate in safety. When we hear about acts of terrorism in such places, it hits us with a particular ferocity.

In news that the Taliban has attacked yet another hospital, for instance; posing as doctors to enter and execute medical staff, patients, even nurses, mothers and newborn babies in a maternity ward; we recognize the act as something far beyond the usual evil of murdering innocent people in a cafe with a car bomb.

Both are terrible; both a heinous evil. What is it about an attack on a hospital, or at a place of worship, that feels so much worse?

A car bomb is perhaps indiscriminate; a terrorist who goes to a synagog, or into a hospital, intending to commit an act of violence is not.

Perhaps the FBI is right; perhaps this hostage taker chose a synagogue for reasons unrelated to the Jewish community.

But that might be a bit of a tough sell. The Jewish community is comprised of a wide idealogical spectrum that encompasses everyone from strict Hasidic Jews to non-practicing Jewish people who consider themselves atheists.

Those who wish to commit violent acts of hate against the Jewish community make no distinctions between the Jewish faithful and those for whom Jewishness is more an inextricable question of heritage and culture.

For Jewish people in the U.S., the last five years in particular have been very challenging. Donald Trump raised the temperature, certainly; but anti-Semitism hasn’t been confined to the right. Far from it.

The Jewish community itself, like any other religious or cultural community, is hardly homogenous. There are Jewish liberal Democrats; staunch Jewish conservatives. Even on a contentious question like Israel, American Jews are hardly united in support or opposition.

The knee-jerk dismissal of anti-Semitism as a motive for this crime, coming as early in the investigation as it does, paints it as more a political matter than a matter of life or death for American Jews. Such a thing does have a tendency to unite the Jewish community.

With obvious relief, Texas Governor Greg Abbott announced that the four hostages taken by a gunman at a Colleyville Texas synagogue were all rescued or released unharmed.

The suspect, 44-year-old Malik Faisal Akram, a British national, is reported to have been shot and killed during the law enforcement operation to end the standoff, but authorities haven’t been forthcoming about details.

There are many questions to be asked about this incident, and it is difficult to know with any certainty what, exactly, motivated this latest attack on the Jewish community, but there won’t be any way to completely whitewash anti-Semitism away in this case.

Unlike in 2018, when a gunman attacked the Tree of Life Synagog in Pittsburgh and murdered 11 people, most houses of worship today live-stream services for those at home who can’t attend.

For this reason, live-stream video of this crime is already a part of the public record. Video and audio recordings of the rantings and ravings of the hostage-taker are a click away for anyone with access to Google and the stomach for it.

In fact, word of the hostage crisis spread throughout the Jewish community like wildfire. Before the feed was eventually cut, thousands of people had already been watching the events unfold in real time.

Jewish erasure, and this tendency to sweep anti-Semitism under the rug, is something that prominent American Jews like writer Bari Weiss are noting with more and more alarm.

It was with great sadness that many in the Jewish community confronted what Peter Kiefer and Peter Savodnik recently called the, “very strange story of the brand new $484 million Academy Museum of Motion Pictures,” which inexplicably failed to include any references to the, “small band of mostly Jewish emigres from Eastern Europe, who created the film industry. The people without whom there would be no entertainment industry.”

“In today’s climate — in which inclusion and diversity are said to be so important — it was an especially ironic omission: The Jews were excluded from almost everywhere,” wrote Kiefer and Savodnik in puzzlement. “Their success signaled the inclusivity and possibility that only Hollywood could afford them. The rise of the industry’s founding fathers should have been an inspiring origin story around which everyone in the community could rally.”

This erasure grated almost as much as the mainstream media’s complete obliviousness to it. Luckily, Sharon Rosen Lieb, writing for Forward did notice and ask: “Jews built Hollywood: So why is their history erased from the Academy’s new museum?”

Some equity and antiracism training courses have also rankled, within the Jewish community and beyond. The refusal by some CRT authorities to include Jewish people or anti-Semitism in any training modules seems to many a glaring oversight.

Increasingly, and under the guise of “free Palestine”, the U.S. progressive left has come dangerously close to committing the sin of the British Labor Party, which allowed anti-Israel sentiment to devolve into outright anti-Semitic hatred against British Jews to the point of Brexit and Boris Johnson.

The Labor Party still hasn’t recovered.

The American left needs to make clear where it stands- against anti-Semitism and violence in any form for any reason. This is not the time for word games and excuses.

During the most recent skirmish between the Israeli government and the forces that hold Palestine, too many American liberals took the opinion that picking on Jews in America was somehow an acceptable response.

Worse, they excused the actions of the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, who retaliated for perceived wrongs committed by Israeli military authorities by launching an attack against innocent Israeli citizens- a war crime.

Anti-Semitism on the left cannot be tolerated. Excusing anti-Semitism, and worse, acts of violence, is leading progressives down a dangerous road to political ruination, to say the least.

Trying to paper over it, ignore it, or pretend it doesn’t exist for the sake of political expedience isn’t going to work.

(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)