Monday, January 17, 2022

Scattered Thoughts on the Colleyville Hostage Incident

Like most Jews, I imagine, I'm still in a semi-state of shock about what happened in Colleyville, Texas yesterday. Part of that shock is precisely because I am not shocked. Things such as this happening -- well, it's not constantly in the forefront of my mind, but it's never far from the background either. The most important feeling is gratitude that all of the hostages emerged without injury, and gratitude to all of those who worked feverishly to bring about that outcome.

Beyond that, my thoughts are more ... scattered. On a personal level, my wife and I have just started house-hunting, and one element we're considering is whether we want to live in a "Jewish neighborhood". Portland is like many medium-to-large American cities that are not New York, Washington, or Los Angeles, in that there is certainly a well-established Jewish community here, but not a particularly large one. In effect, that means "a Jewish neighborhood" is really "the Jewish neighborhood" -- Hillsdale. There are Jews elsewhere in the city and suburbs, of course, but Hillsdale seems like the only area which is notably Jewish in the way that I grew up in Bethesda (think of the role St. Louis Park plays in the Twin Cities).

Of course, Colleyville, Texas isn't exactly what springs to mind as a Jewish hub either. Which gives a bit of gallows-humor silver lining to the week's events -- while there are advantages and disadvantages to living in a heavily Jewish area, Colleyville underscores that antisemitic terrorism can happen anywhere, so as a factor to consider in where I should plant roots it's pretty much a wash. What a reassuring thought.

On a more socio-political level, well, first things first -- I'll repeat what I said after the attack on a synagogue by a White supremacist in Germany in 2019 (and it disgusts me that I can appeal to precedent on this subject): if our response to White supremacist violence against Jews is not to call for expulsion of White people, or shutdown of White immigration, or restrictions on White civil rights, then the same holds true for Muslims. Ultimately, the key battle line that divided this terrorist from his victims was not Muslim versus Jew, or East versus West. It was between those who are willing to terrorize innocents and destroy families for ideological gain, and those whose politics are about safeguarding families and caring for their neighborhoods. And in that battle, anyone who uses this horror to stir up Islamophobia or any other form of hatred is fundamentally on the side of the terrorist.

Also in the realm of the obvious: it was already a disgrace that Deborah Lipstadt hadn't sailed through confirmation to occupy the role of antisemitism envoy, and I do not want to hear a word about "opposing antisemitism" from any Republican who has blocked her nomination. She should have been confirmed yesterday, and barring that she absolutely must be confirmed tomorrow.

Other things:

  • This was an antisemitic attack, and I am flabbergasted that some people are trying to describe it in any other terms. Yes, it appears true that the attacker's immediate political motive was not something as direct as "I hate Jews" -- it was to secure the release of Aafia Siddiqui from prison. But anyone whose understanding of antisemitism is limited to that narrow horizon needs to wake up. The attacker did not choose a synagogue by throwing darts; he chose it because he believed the fundamentally antisemitic conspiracy theory that "the Jews" were in a position to control American policy with respect to the war on terror (it must be said that this sort of antisemitism is something that he appears to share with Dr. Siddiqui). And, conspiracy theory aside, the conscious decision to target Jews in their house of worship for whatever purpose evinces a conscious disregard for Jewish humanity and equal standing that could and should only be characterized as antisemitism.
  • Already, we have seen in some quarters of the Jewish world disdain or even hatred directed at this congregation and this Rabbi because they are Reform Jews with avowedly liberal politics. This is not the first time these murmurs have been overheard, and with each passing year they grow louder. It is not something we can ignore for much longer, and it links up to other ways in which liberal Jews are constantly treated as second-class citizens within the Jewish world (whether at the Western Wall or in organizations like the Conference).
  • Likewise, there is a direct line between the rhetoric presenting synagogues as the "enemy" who must not be "collaborated" with, and incidents like these. The former is not excusable political hyperbole, it is not an opportunity to engage in elaborate theoretical justifications and hem-hawing. It has stakes, and it has consequences, and incidents like this are among those consequences. I saw many people lauding the Rabbi of this synagogue for his strong commitment to interfaith work, a commitment which showcases the strength of solidarity and communal bonds. And they are right to do so -- but that work and that solidarity and those bonds of kinship are exactly what some people are trying to eliminate under the guise of anti-normalization.
  • The Rabbi of this congregation was direct in giving credit to prior outreach and training with local law enforcement and groups like the ADL, which gave him and his congregation the tools they needed to survive this incident. These connections and these trainings keep Jews alive. It is one thing to envision other mechanisms for keeping Jews safe. It is quite another to act as if the only reason Jews have these connections and trainings is because we are eager comrades of the carceral state, and to point to these linkages as proof of our "complicity" in evil.
  • The media is terrible at talking about antisemitism, because it doesn't know much about antisemitism. In fairness, this is not something unique to either the media or the subject of antisemitism -- most people don't know much about most things. But there is a tendency by many to believe that of course antisemitism is understood and covered fairly and comprehensively, and it isn't true -- a fact that is a commonality, not a divergence, from the travails endured by other communities facing other issues.
Ultimately, each time an incident like this happens it should confirm that dangerous antisemitism is a real thing and a real threat. That sounds like it should be obvious, but I don't think it is -- too much of our national conversation about Jews and about antisemitism treats it as an opportunity to take political cheap shots by poking at a source of trauma that is fundamentally viewed as a joke. I've seen too many cases where "antisemitism" -- and this includes people who purport to be fighting it as well as people who are downplaying it -- is treated as an opportunity for trolling more than anything else, because the participants don't actually think "antisemitism" carries any stakes. Will any Jews really be hurt, if we use a synagogue's ties to the ADL call for boycott; will any really be hurt, if we exploit a violent assault to pretend as if Jews are calling for a ban on Muslim immigration; will any really be hurt, if we keep the antisemitism envoy position vacant for a little while longer while we grandstand for the base? Either those who act this way think the answer is no, or they don't care that the answer is yes. Both options are disgraceful, and reflect the core disease that permeates every discussion we have as a country about antisemitism and Jewish safety.

I wish I could say things will be different this time. But I would put money down on nothing changing one bit.

UPDATE: One other thing I forgot to mention. The primary effects of terrorism on its victims are bad enough. But a secondary effect -- and often a secondary objective -- is to convert the openness of societies and institutions into vulnerabilities. Just as Dylann Roof was invited into the church he'd eventually massacre because they thought he wanted to participate in the Bible study, the attacker at this synagogue was invited inside because they thought he was a homeless man and wished to provide him shelter. It is tempting -- and a perfectly understandable temptation -- to respond to that exploitation by closing one's doors. But ultimately, that is a choice that gives the terrorists a posthumous victory, and we should do everything in our power to avoid that terrible outcome. I don't pretend that the choices between security and welcoming are easy or straightforward, but a Jewish community which does not remain open to member, neighbor and stranger is a Jewish community that is no longer recognizably Jewish.

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