Malik Faisal Akram’s decision to take four hostages at a Texas synagogue left many wondering: Why Colleyville? Why the Beth Israel Congregation?
Akram wanted the release of Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani woman serving an 86-year sentence in federal prison in Fort Worth for trying to kill American soldiers in Afghanistan. And he apparently thought the Jewish worshipers assembled for the Sabbath could make that happen — drawing upon centuries-old antisemitic tropes and conspiracies that Jews secretly control the moves of politicians and manipulate world events to their advantage.
Akram told the assembled that he chose to attack a synagogue because “America only cares about Jewish lives,” according to Beth Israel member Stacey Silverman, who viewed the online Shabbat service.
“He even said at one point that ‘I’m coming to you because I know President Biden will do things for the Jews. I know President Trump will do things for the Jews,’ ” Jeffrey Cohen, one of the hostages, told CNN. Akram “came here, he came to us, he terrorized us, because he believed … these antisemitic tropes that the Jews control everything, and if I go to the Jews, they can pull the strings,” Cohen said.
Experts have long said the pervasiveness of such antisemitic beliefs in society can fuel violence against Jewish people.
“It’s a variation on a classic antisemitic theme,” said David Feldman, director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Study of Antisemitism, a research institution based in London. “Whereas these ideas about Jewish conspiracy often take shape as an idea of Jews exerting power … [to] advance their own interests, this is a sort of variation on the theme — that if you can only get the Jews to work for you, then you’ll get your way.”
The idea has deep historical roots, Feldman said, from the Middle Ages — “where you get this idea that Jews are in league with the devil” — to the 1900s, when the conspiracy theory that Jews have too much power “was revivified and transformed … with the idea that the Russian Revolution, Bolshevism and communism was itself an expression of a Jewish plot for world domination.”
Feldman added that it “spread further, beyond Christian lands, to the Middle East, probably taken to the Ottoman Empire by French Catholics in the 19th century.”
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) said in an online guide called “Antisemitism Uncovered” that “ideas and fears about Jewish power were codified in the early 20th Century with the publication of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” a forged document that spread from Russia and purported to contain notes from gatherings of Jewish leaders plotting to control the world.
It “heavily influenced Nazi ideology” and “laid the groundwork for modern conspiracy theories about the reach and influence of ‘Jewish Power,’ ” the ADL said.
The FBI is investigating the incident as terrorism. After the hostages were safe and Akram was dead, President Biden said in a statement that “there is more we will learn in the days ahead about the motivations of the hostage taker. But let me be clear to anyone who intends to spread hate — we will stand against antisemitism and against the rise of extremism in this country.”
According to the FBI, 60 percent of all victims of anti-religious hate crimes in 2019 were targeted because of offenders’ anti-Jewish bias. Some 13 percent were victims of anti-Muslim bias.
While Akram seemed to think the hostages could be used as a bargaining chip, the reality is that “a local hostage situation is a job for a SWAT team, not the president (of any country),” Lev Topor, a research fellow at the New York-based Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy, said in an email.
The trope has roots in the times when Jewish people “were often socially limited but highly educated (due to their need to study Torah),” Topor wrote, and “often served in royal courts as advisors, doctors, etc. Later on, this has developed into an anti-Semitic trope about Jewish influence on rulers and leaders, Kings and presidents.”
Feldman says these ideas can be found across the political spectrum.
In 2017, when white supremacists gathered in Charlottesville, to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, some chanted, “Jews will not replace us,” as they brandished Nazi symbols.
The belief that Jews have too much power over world affairs can also be found on the far-left, Feldman said, particularly when Jewish people are blamed — and at times violently attacked — for actions taken by the government of Israel.
While examples of antisemitic violence attract national attention, “most antisemitism is not violent,” Feldman said. “Most antisemitism crops up in … comments, or slurs, or stereotypes … discrimination and so forth.”
Cohen, the Texas hostage, described this as everyday racism with pernicious consequences.
“We need to be aware and call out when we hear these throwaway comments that are made by people that, you know, they’re not really racist … we know them, they are our friends, they’re our neighbors, but they don’t realize how much potential damage those little things do to someone who is mentally unstable,” Cohen said on CNN.
“It builds up until this guy really believed that if I go to the closest synagogue to Carswell Medical Facility and I take Jews hostage, they will let this woman [Siddiqui] out. He really believed that. And that’s scary.”
The key to battling the pervasiveness of these ideas, Feldman said, is education. “I don’t imagine … [that] promoting [a] more realistic and more accurate view of the world is going to be a panacea but it will do some good,” he said.
For American Jews, the Colleyville attack was less a watershed event than one more wearying, numbing reminder that they are targets. After a torrent of threats and attacks — and especially after the 2018 massacre at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, where a gunman opened fire, killing 11 Jews — many houses of worship became forbidding gantlets of protective measures: armed guards, searches, identity checks, questioning.
The coronavirus pandemic may have introduced new dynamics by shifting many day-to-day activities and interactions online. After attending a local interfaith vigil held at a nearby Methodist church on Monday, Rep. Colin Allred (D-Tex.) said more needs to be done to “combat antisemitism and radicalization.”
“I think over the course of the pandemic, some of these forces have gotten worse,” Allred said.
— Marc Fisher, Drew Harwell, Mary Beth Gahan, Bryan Pietsch and Jack Douglas contributed to this report.