At this writing, it’s one full day after the horrific hostage crisis at a synagogue in Texas ended. A lot of information is being withheld from the public, and many questions still remain. But we already know enough that we should recognize two things: this was indeed an antisemitic attack and it was one that was very different in nature, as well as outcome, from others in recent memory.
In a clumsy statement, an FBI spokesperson said that the attack was motivated by an issue “not directly connected to Jews or Israel.” Unsurprisingly, this got interpreted by many as saying that this was not an antisemitic attack. In all fairness, that is not what the spokesperson said, and it doesn’t seem likely to be what he meant.
Still, it’s true that the motivation–at least as it was reflected in the assailant’s demands–centered around a Pakistani woman accused of terrorism and serving an 86-year sentence for a crime many believe she did not commit. That crime, indeed had nothing to do with Israel or Jews, at least not directly.
So does that mean, as some interpreted it, that this was simply a matter of opportunity, and the synagogue was just unlucky? It may be possible, but other circumstances make this very unlikely.
The fact that the assailant came to the shul in late morning on Shabbat, when services would obviously be going on is one point. That the assailant asked to speak to a New York City rabbi, believing she could help him secure his demands, also points to an intentional targeting of the Jewish community.
On the other hand, the fact that one hostage was released and that no one was physically harmed (let’s not ignore, as we too often do, the trauma the hostages must have endured) despite the assailant’s agitation suggests that harming Jews was not the primary intention here.
This idea is bolstered by the fact that he specifically asked to speak with a prominent NYC rabbi, apparently in the belief that she could help him get the release of Dr. Aafia Siddiqui, as he was demanding. [It should be noted that Dr. Siddiqui’s lawyer released a statement disavowing the assailant and the action and calling on him to release all the hostages]
So it doesn’t seem that hatred and a desire to harm Jews was the primary motivation here. That does not mean this was not an antisemitic attack. But it does stand as separate from other attacks, such as the one in Pittsburgh in 2018, or the one at the Chabad House in Poway in 2019, or similar antisemitic violence.
Rather than being motivated by animus toward, and a desire to harm, Jewish people, the early evidence seems to point to the assailant believing that Jews, at least in the United States, have an inordinate power to affect political and legal decisions. He spoke with Rabbi Angela Buchdahl of New York’s Central Synagogue and told her he had a bomb (it seems, at this point that this was untrue) and wanted her to help release Dr. Siddiqui.
That the man knew of Rabbi Buchdal and apparently believed that she had enough sway to get a woman whose case was fairly prominent, quite controversial, and connected to the beginnings of the “Global War on Terror” suggests he bought into antisemitic myths about Jewish power.
Far from being disconnected from antisemitism, this pernicious myth of Jewish power–bolstered though it might be by the unusually large political activity of the U.S. Jewish community, which is still far less impactful than the myth would hold–seems to have been at the root of the assailant’s decision to take Jewish hostages.
It is still very early, and I will update both my assessment and this article as new information that may change this calculus comes to light. Indeed, as I was reporting on social media about this event, although I immediately decried this attack on Jews, I would not call it antisemitic until evidence confirmed it. Eventually, it did.
But right now, the picture that is emerging is one where antisemitism motivated this person’s strategy, rather than being the motivation for the crime in the first place. It’s still very much an antisemitic crime, but one that is fundamentally different from the attacks we have seen in recent years, whether from people claiming (and we should always remember we have little evidence, other than their epithets, of the veracity of these claims) to be attacking Jews in defense of Palestine or the far more common attacks from right white nationalists. It needs to be thought of differently, and it needs to be understood and addressed differently, though with the same zeal and care.
This appears, at this early stage, to be an attack motivated by an antisemitic myth that convinced the perpetrator that Jewish leaders, merely by virtue of being Jewish leaders, could make a phone call or two and fulfill a demand that more than a decade of activism, even including efforts by a foreign government (in this case, Pakistan), have failed to make any progress on.
It’s not only hate speech that endangers people and communities, but the bigoted myths that are perpetuated about them, too. That appears to have been the case here, where a Jewish community was placed in the line of fire not because the assailant wanted to harm them, but because an antisemitic myth convinced him he could use them to get what he wanted.
As a postscript, it’s important to note how much support there was for the Jewish hostages from all quarters. Jews of all denominations and political persuasions came together, as we very rarely do, in prayer and hope for the safety of the hostages. Churches and Christian groups did as well.
Perhaps most important was the support we saw from Muslim groups, leaders, activists, journalists, and, really everyone across the spectrum. It mattered. It must not be forgotten.
Edit: One of the hostages seems to have conclusively verified my point. See this article at the Times of Israel