Colleyville synagogue attack and rising antisemitism

Colleyville attack, Holocaust remembrance, and persistent anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism

By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS

My heart breaks for the act of anti-Semitic terrorism at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas, but the rise of anti-Semitism worldwide numbs the shock of such events. On Saturday, January 15, 2002, the Reform synagogue in the Dallas Fort-Worth metro area was the latest and one of most high-profile cases of anti-Semitism recently. To the horrors of worshippers following along at the homes, they could see the start of the terrorism inside the sanctuary unfolding on the Congregation’s Livestream. It is the third Shabbat in the last couple of years where American Jews were subjected to violence from the mere act of gathering for prayers and the Saturday morning Torah service. Anti-Semitic attacks are at records highs, but at the same time, so are divisions among Jews or different political and religious views. The timing of the attack was even more tragic, just two days before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and ten days before International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

However, the hostage-taking at Beth Israel is but one of the most extreme. Still, North America, the United States, and Canada have seen the highest rates of violent anti-Semitic attacks in the last couple of years that have been recorded. The worst recent attack was the mass shooting at The Tree of Life Synagogue, Or L’Simcha Congregation in Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on October 27, 2018. The shooting happened just as Shabbat morning services began. The shooter killed eleven worshippers and wounded six, with Holocaust survivors among the fatalities.[1] Then barely six months later, on April 27, 2019, the last day of Passover and a Shabbat, a shooter entered the Chabad of Poway, California. One hundred worshippers were attending the service; the shooter injured three, including the rabbi. One woman, Lori Lynn Gilbert-Kaye, was killed trying to protect their rabbi, Yisroel Goldstein. [2]

Another attack of worshipping Jews happened outside the US, the epicenter of 20th century anti-Semitism and the Holocaust planning in Germany. On October 9, 2019, Yom Kippur, a far-right extremist, attempted to enter the Halle synagogue in Halle, Saxony-Anhalt, Germany, shooting and using explosives at the door. The security system was too tight, and the attacker could not enter the synagogue. Still, he went on a rampage, killing a woman outside the synagogue and a man at a local shop, and injured two others. [3] Barely two months later, on December 10, 2019, Black Hebrew Israelite church members led a fatal attack on a kosher supermarket, the JC Kosher Supermarket in Jersey City, New Jersey. The group, which believes they are the true Jews, specifically looked to attack Jews. They left three Jews died at the store, including the proprietor, a student, and a police officer, one before the attack and two police officers at the scene were injured and a customer. [4] The supermarket attack was the worst incident in a wave of anti-Semitic incidents in New York and New Jersey.

On Saturday, January 15, 2022, British national Malik Faisel Akram, who had arrived in the US around New Year’s Day, entered the synagogue in Texas. Some of his rantings indicate Akram came to Forth Worth demanding that Aafia Siddiqui be released from her 86-year sentence in a Forth Worth prison during the hostage-taking. Siddiqui was a Pakastani neuroscientist who attacked American soldiers while imprisoned in Afghanistan. She has been in Fort Worth since her 2010 conviction. [5]

Akram came to the synagogue just before services began. Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker let him and gave him tea, thinking he was cold, as North Texas had a cold spell. The rabbi turned his back not too long after, and Akram had a gun to him, taking him and the three other worshippers hostage present for Shabbat services. Akram demanded to speak to Rabbi Angela Buchdahl, the leader of Central Synagogue in New York City; there were two calls where she spoke to the attacker. Rabbi Cytron-Walker recounted to the Forward, “This was somebody who literally thought that Jews control the world. He thought he could come into a synagogue, and we could get on the phone with the ‘Chief Rabbi of America’, and he would get what he needed.” [6]

Fortunately, the attack at Beth Israel had a good ending, with all four hostages released and uninjured after eleven hours. One hostage was released six hours in, at five in the afternoon, but Rabbi Cytron-Walker knew they had to get out by the evening. He learned from the synagogue security training told the other two hostages to run towards the door while the rabbi threw a chair at the hostage-taker. The rabbi and the worshippers escaped, and the police shot Akram ending the ordeal.

Why Akram chose a synagogue or to take Jewish hostages in exchange for Siddiqui is still unknown. Still, it is difficult not to see the connection between anti-Semitism, Israel, and anti-Zionism as the motivator for radical Muslim planning and undertaking a terror attack. Both American and British officials investigating are calling the attack terrorism. President Joe Biden the hostage-taking an “act of terror,” and the FBI was calling it a “terrorism-related matter.” [7] In Britain, their counterterrorism police are in the process of investigating and have already arrested two. [8]

However, the FBI refused to call the attack anti-Semitism, which angered American Jews. On Wednesday, January 20, FBI Director Christopher A. Wray announced that the Colleyville synagogue hostage-taking was “An act of terrorism targeting the Jewish community.” [9] After a backlash, Wray admitted in a “webinar hosted by the Anti-Defamation League,” “This was not some random occurrence. It was intentional, it was symbolic and we’re not going to tolerate antisemitism in this country.” [10]

However, on Saturday evening after the attack, Special Agent Matthew DeSarno of the FBI’s Dallas field office told the news that the attack was “not specifically related to the Jewish community.” After attacks from Republican members of Congress and the Jewish community, the FBI office announced the attack was “a terrorism-related matter, in which the Jewish community was targeted.” [11] Rabbi Cytron-Walker said that Akram specifically targeted Jews and the synagogue. The rabbi recounted, “I don’t remember all the details, but it was basically the notion that Jews were more important in his mind than everyone else, and that America would do more to save Jews than it would for anyone else. That’s why he specifically targeted a synagogue. That ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion’ type of antisemitism — that’s why he focused on us… I was thinking, this guy really believes that Jews control the world.” [12]

Reactions for the public and leaders indicate how ingrained anti-Semitism is. Hen Mazzig, a senior fellow at the Tel Aviv Institute, spoke to the Washington Post from Britain, expressing, “Being Jewish and alive shouldn’t be a miracle. But it is.” However, he indicated, “We are never truly safe.” [13] Holocaust historian Deborah E. Lipstadt, who is also President Joe Biden’s nominee for the State Department special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism abroad, wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times, “For Jews, Going to Services Is an Act of Courage.” Lipstadt wrote, “It is not radical to say that going to services, whether to converse with God or with the neighbors you see only once a week, should not be an act of courage. And yet this weekend, we were once again reminded that it can be precisely that.” [14]

Rabbi Eliott Cosgrove of Park Avenue Synagogue in New York lamented in a message to members the day after the hostage-taking, “My sadness stems from an awareness that antisemitism remains a lived reality in our world. How is it that the warped mind of an antisemite identifies Jews as the object of their ire and violence? What sort of world is it when Jewish houses of prayer must defend ourselves against the world’s oldest hatred? How do we raise our children and grandchildren to wear their Judaism with pride knowing that there are those in this world who would do them harm just for being who they are? I wake up this morning with more questions than answers — questions, I am sure, shared by all of us.”

While American political leaders, including President Joe Biden, spoke out against anti-Semitism, in Israel Prime Minister Naftali Bennett statement showed the reality and resignation world Jewry feels about anti-Semitism. President Biden expressed, “We will stand against antisemitism and against the rise of extremism in this country.” [15] Prime Minister Bennett took to Twitter where he said something all Jews know too well, “This event is a stark reminder that antisemitism is still alive, and we must continue to fight it worldwide. To the Jewish community in Colleyville and around the world: You are not alone — we stand united with you.” [16]

There was an outpouring of support for the North Texas, Colleyville congregation from all over the world, the Jewish community, political leaders, and interfaith leaders. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took to Twitter and his social media to denounce the attack. Trudeau expressed solidarity, writing, “Antisemitism is not acceptable. Not in Texas, here at home, or anywhere. While I’m relieved the hostages are now safe, the situation at Congregation Beth Israel is a reminder that each and every one of us must remain vigilant and work together to combat hatred in all its forms.” [17]

During the hostage-taking, Imam Omar Suleiman, Pastor Bob Roberts, and Rabbi Andrew Payley gathered next door at the Good Shepherd Catholic Church, praying, helping, and waiting for news about their friend. [14] On Monday, January 17, there was a “healing service at White’s Chapel United Methodist Church in Southlake.” [18] Then on Thursday, January 20, there was a Zoom interfaith gathering of “Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths.” The leaders “came together to condemn antisemitism, call for unity, and give thanks to God and the North Texas community and first responders who supported Congregation Beth Israel when it was attacked on Saturday.” [19]

Despite the unity in the community, the Anti-Defamation League finds that anti-Semitism increased by the Islamic extremists and the radical right, Holocaust denials, and white supremacists. Radical Muslims and Al Qaeda supporters praised Akram’s actions. The radical right used the opportunity to espouse their anti-Semitic and Holocaust denial views just days before the United Nations International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27. The UN resolved to commemorate Holocaust victims in a UN Resolution on November 1, 2005, after the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps. The day was chosen because on January 27, 1945, the Russian Red Army liberated Auschwitz concentration camp. [20]

These radical groups are claiming that American Jews are using the attack to gain sympathy for the Holocaust, using tropes such as Jewish power and influence, or even going as far as saying that it was all staged. Some went as far as to call for more violence against American Jews. ADL views the rise in anti-Semitism in the aftermath of the hostage attack as “a clear indication that acts of antisemitism tend to inspire further expressions of antisemitism. [21]

Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS, is a Professional Librarian (CBPQ) and historian. She is the author of “Silver Boom! The Rise and Decline of Leadville, Colorado as the United States Silver Capital, 1860–1896,” “The Mysterious Prince of the Confederacy: Judah P. Benjamin and the Jewish goal of whiteness in the South,” “We Used to be Friends? The Long Complicated History of Jews, Blacks, and Anti-Semitism,” and the viral article, “OTD in History… October 19, 1796, Alexander Hamilton accuses Thomas Jefferson of having an affair with his slave creating a 200-year-old controversy over Sally Hemings.”

Ms. Goodman has a BA in History and Art History, and a Masters in Library and Information Studies both from McGill University has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies, where she focused Medieval and Modern Judaism. Her research area is North American Jewish history, particularly American Jewish history, and her thesis was entitled, “Unconditional Loyalty to the Cause: Southern Whiteness, Jewish Women, and Antisemitism, 1860–1913.”

Ms. Goodman contributed the overviews and chronologies to the “History of American Presidential Elections, 1789–2008,” edited by Gil Troy, Arthur M. Schlesinger, and Fred L. Israel (2012). She is the former Features Editor at the History News Network and reporter at Examiner.com, where she covered politics, universities, religion, and news. She currently blogs at Medium, where she was a top writer in history and regularly writes on “On This Day in History (#OTD in #History)” Feature and on the Times of Israel. Her scholarly articles can be found on Academia.edu. She has over fifteen years of experience in education and political journalism.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pittsburgh_synagogue_shooting

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poway_synagogue_shooting

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Halle_synagogue_shooting

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2019_Jersey_City_shooting

[5] https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/17/us/texas-synagogue-hostages-escape.html

[6] https://forward.com/news/480928/beth-israel-hostage-standoff-charlie-cytron-walker/

[7] https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/16/us/hostage-texas-synagogue.html

[8] https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/16/us/malik-faisal-akram-texas-synagogue-hostage.html

[9] https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/16/us/hostage-texas-synagogue.html

[10] https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/20/us/fbi-texas-synagogue-antisemitism.html

[11] https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/20/us/fbi-texas-synagogue-antisemitism.html

[12] https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/20/us/fbi-texas-synagogue-antisemitism.html

[13] https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/01/16/jewish-community-texas-synagogue-attack-reacts/

[14] https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/18/opinion/texas-colleyville-antisemitism.html

[15] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colleyville_synagogue_hostage_crisis

[16] https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/01/16/jewish-community-texas-synagogue-attack-reacts/

[17] https://twitter.com/JustinTrudeau/status/1482761591980503047

[18] https://www.washingtonpost.com/religion/2022/01/17/muslim-jewish-hostage-synagogue-interfaith/

[19] https://www.star-telegram.com/news/local/community/northeast-tarrant/article257409012.html; https://www.washingtonpost.com/religion/2022/01/17/muslim-jewish-hostage-synagogue-interfaith/

[20] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Holocaust_Remembrance_Day

[21] https://www.adl.org/blog/extremists-respond-to-colleyville-hostage-crisis-with-antisemitism-islamophobia

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Bonnie K. Goodman

Bonnie K. Goodman

Bonnie K. Goodman BA, MLIS (McGill University) is a Professional Librarian (CBPQ) & historian. Former editor @ History News Network & reporter @ Examiner.com.