I learned with shock, as we all did, of the attempt of four former convicts from New York, Muslim converts, who reportedly out of opposition to the U.S. war in Afghanistan, decided to blow up synagogues, and presumably Jews, in the Bronx. Does that make any sense?
Surely we will come to learn more details in the days and weeks ahead, but the strange conflation of American foreign policy, Israel, militant Islam and anti-Semitism is as dangerous as it is puzzling. Yet we have been conditioned to accept the notion that virtually any controversial event in the world somehow becomes linked to Israel, Zionists and Jews, in a negative way.
So whether it is AIDS, the Iraq war or in the most frightening and exasperating recent example, the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, there are millions of people, particularly in the Arab and Muslim world, from government officials and newspaper editorialists to the ‘man on the street,’ who insist that Jews are to blame. How depressing that some circles don’t seem to have progressed beyond the prejudice and hysteria of 14th-century Europe, when Jews were viewed as responsible for the Black Plague. Thousands of Jews were killed at that time for allegedly poisoning the water.
In my interview last week with Gen. Keith Dayton, the U.S. security coordinator charged with heading the multinational team overseeing the training of Palestinian police forces, he mentioned how disturbed he was to find intimations of anti-Semitism in Iraq. It was Dayton who for more than a year led the search for weapons of mass destruction, and he said that when he visited mosques in Iraq, he noticed murals that depicted the Temple Mount in Jerusalem with a snake, featuring a Star of David, entwined around the Temple. The clear implication was that Judaism was the enemy of Islam.
Of course it is politically incorrect to pursue this line of thinking, and it is curious to note how the mainstream press downplayed the fact that the four men arrested were associated with Islam.
More importantly, none of the many news reports I read and saw about the almost tragedy in Riverdale sought to explain why the arrested men harbored such hatred of Jews, or to link those feelings to their opposing U.S. military actions in Afghanistan. The men were quoted, from taped transcripts, of talking about how they wanted to target synagogues and kill Jews. But no explanations even were attempted, no context offered, as if none were necessary. When the men thought they had tested their explosives successfully, they were quoted as saying “Allah akhbar,” the Muslim phrase for “God is great,” often the last words shouted out by suicide bombers in terror attacks in Israel and other countries. Presumably we were to fill in the blanks and make the connection ourselves.
Much of our mainstream media dances around the edges of the combustible connection between Islam and terror, rarely dealing with the fact that while the great majority of Muslims are peace-loving people, the great majority of terror attacks in recent years have been perpetrated by Muslims carrying out jihad, or holy war.
In an eerie coincidence, the day before the Riverdale arrests I was cleaning out some drawers in my office and came upon a thick file labeled “Brooklyn Bridge.” I pulled it out and started reading the initial coverage of the Brooklyn Bridge shooting death of 16-year-old Ari Halberstam, and the wounding of three other Lubavitch young men, 15 years ago. It brought back the fear and sadness of that dark time.
In the news reports, several Lubavitch rabbis who were interviewed insisted that the crime was the work of an Arab terrorist seeking revenge on the 29 murders of Arabs committed in Israel a few days before by Baruch Goldstein, in a Hebron mosque. But the authorities, including the mayor and police commissioner, were, understandably, guarded and cautious. It turns out, though, that the rabbis were correct. The shooter, Rashid Baz, born in Lebanon and living in New York, was convicted of murder in the second degree and sentenced to 141 years in prison.
What are we to make of these terrifying events, past and present? The rational part of us reminds us that these are aberrations, the work of deeply disturbed individuals, and that education is the key to the solution. But the fact is that anti-Semitism, often couched as anti-Zionism, is growing in Europe and parts of South America, and that often it is the most educated segments of the population who are the most biased.
The ongoing lesson for us is to maintain balance, however precarious, in our outlook — always vigilant against those who wish us harm, yet committed to the principles of freedom, democracy and tolerance. And we need to remind the world, and even ourselves, that excuses for anti-Semitism must always be questioned, challenged and vigorously opposed.
(Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of The New York Jewish Week, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This column previously appeared in The Week.)