There is a synagogue located on the block where I live, at which Friday night and Saturday services are protected by armed guards and traffic barriers. After a few years of walking my dog past such precautions, they seem normal. They are not. To those who attend the synagogue, these must be weekly reminders of the precariousness of Jewish life in America and in the nation’s capital. And attacks such as the one Saturday at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Tex., demonstrate, once again, that the sharpened end of antisemitism can gouge anywhere.
The hostage grab by Malik Faisal Akram is being investigated as terrorism with possible international involvement. President Biden has declared it “an act of terror.” A spokesman for British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has described the incident as “a terrible and antisemitic act of terrorism.”
The use of the t-word is clearly intended to elevate the seriousness of the matter. But the continuing power and appeal of antisemitism also require some explanation. “We know that some people just don’t like us,” Rabbi Charles Cytron-Walker, who was among the four hostages taken, preached late last year. But why?
During the hostage negotiations in Texas, an imam, a rabbi, a priest and a pastor prayed together for a peaceful resolution. But even more darkly impressive is the ecumenism of antisemitism. It is found among Islamists and Christians, among tenured radicals and white-supremacist agitators, among left-wing politicians using “anti-Zionism” as a pretext and among right-wing demonstrators chanting “Jews will not replace us.” Few movements encompass a larger range of ideology and sociology than the systematic dehumanization of Jews.
Historians have uncovered layer upon layer of explanation for such durable hatred. The original and greatest impetus came from Christian teaching about the collective guilt of Jews for the death of Jesus. By A.D. 386, the Christian preacher John Chrysostom was referring to Jews as “Christ-killers.” In 1555, Pope Paul IV issued a papal bull condemning Jews to “perpetual servitude” for their role in the crucifixion. This is the theological context that produced pogroms, ghettos and (through a renewed paganism) the Holocaust.
Modern antisemitism is a varied phenomenon. But all its forms are premised on the fear and hatred of outsiders. Islamist radicals, white supremacists and leftist activists seek to overcome the dangers of a foreign faith, held by a foreign people, possessed by a foreign agenda. In the Jewish homeland, this hostility is periodically expressed by Hamas rockets. In Crown Heights, Brooklyn, it took (and takes) the form of random, vicious assaults. In Pittsburgh in 2018, it caused so much death at the Tree of Life. In Colleyville, it arrived in an 11-hour synagogue standoff. In every case, Jews have been the entity on which non-Jews project their anger, resentments, fears and venom.
Any adequate response to antisemitism begins with the concerted response of a wounded community. This involves condemnation of antisemitism by social and religious leaders, and immediate comfort for its victims. Here Colleyville has made a start. The public cooperation and shared prayers of Muslim, Jewish, Catholic and evangelical religious figures can have an influence beyond anything they expect or intend. It is more powerful to demonstrate social healing than to call for it. It is more important to model mutual grace than to urge it. Human beings are drawn toward embodied virtues.
Confronting antisemitism is a public cause that begins in the moral and personal realm. It is our ethical duty to confront and marginalize antisemitic tropes. And this is always more effective when we police our own traditions. Liberals have more credibility when they oppose academic antisemitism. Conservatives have better standing to criticize the hard right when it enters the antisemitic fever swamps. The same is true when Christians confront antisemitism among Christians and Muslims oppose antisemitism among Muslims.
None of this is a substitute for the effective pursuit and prosecution of terrorists. And it makes perfect sense, as the Anti-Defamation League has urged, to double funding for the Nonprofit Security Grant Program, which helps bolster security at Jewish schools and houses of worship. Synagogues such as the one down my street deserve all the security that planning and preparation can provide.
But we should not accept the presence of guards and traffic barriers at synagogues as somehow normal or acceptable. It is not. It is a scandal of the first order when religious worship in America involves routine fear.