Menu JTA Search

Joy, Tears, Prayers and Sorrow Mark End of 39-hour Siege B’nai B’rith Leaders Appeal for Measures to

B’nai B’rith leaders have appealed for effective measures to combat the kind of terrorism that paralyzed Washington for 39 hours when 12 members of the Hanafi Moslem sect seized three buildings last Wednesday and held 134 persons hostage. “Unless people become more concerned about terrorism, one of man’s most precious gifts–freedom–will be destroyed,” said David Blumberg, president of B’nai B’rith. Mrs. Kay Kash, head of B’nai B’rith Women, said she hoped the tension and the threats in Washington “will inspire national and international laws against terrorism” and cause countries to cooperate “to wipe out this crime.”

Of the 134 hostages, 107 were held in the B’nai B’rith building. The others were held at the Islamic Center and the District Building (City Hall). A majority of the B’nai B’rith hostages were women and up to one-third of the total were non-Jewish. Some of them were construction workers employed in the building and one was a women who had come to the building looking for a job. Blumberg and Dr. Daniel Thursz, executive vice-president, asked police to negotiate an exchange, offering themselves to replace the women. Police officials rejected this proposal. Of the 107 hostages, sixty percent were Jewish, forty percent were non-Jewish and thirty percent of the total were Black.

Among the senior B’nai B’rith officials held hostage were: David Brody. Washington representative of the Anti-Defamation League; Rabbi Norman Frimer, national director of the Hillel Foundation; Norman Feingold, head of the career and counseling service; Horace Gold, director of administrative services; William Korey, director of the International Council; Sidney Closter, director of the B’nai B’rith Foundation; Norman Buckner, director of the International Council’s field programs.

Also, Rabbi Samuel Fishman of the Hillel Foundation; Albert Z. Elkes, membership director; Patience Levine of B’nai B’rith Women; Charles Fenyvesi and Diane Cole, editor and assistant editor, respectively, of the B’nai B’rith magazine, National Jewish Monthly; Joseph Sklover, director of finance; Hannah Sinauer, administrative secretary and Bernard Simon, B’nai B’rith public relations director.

Sidney H. Closter, director of the B’nai B’rith Foundation, said the Hanafis behaved “alternately with civility and great cruelty.” He said anti-Semitic tirades and epithets were hurled frequently at the hostages who were told that “we were responsible for all the ills of the world.” Bernard Simon, B’nai B’rith public relations director, said the Jewish hostages were not singled out for special attention by the gunmen even though the Hanafis said repeatedly they were anti-Zionist. Old men were told they would be decapitated by the Hanafis who wielded machetes and automatic weapons. Some men were pistol whipped and kicked, apparently without provocation, one released hostage said. The women, however, were left untied, unlike the men, most of whom were tied with electric cords and neckties.

When the terrorists entered the B’nai B’rith headquarters, which has gold-lettered Hebrew teachings prominently displayed on its exterior, they brandished their weapons and shouted anti-Semitic curses. Security has apparently never been adequate for such an invasion. The question was raised as to why the more than 150 men and women in the B’nai B’rith building did not resist more forcefully when the terrorists began their floor by floor roundup.

Some hostages who spoke of it afterwards said they were too surprised and failed to realize what was happening till they were within range of the guns and machetes. Another said: “In a way it’s very simple. We all became sheep. People talk about Nazi Germany, they ask why the Jews did not fight back, why they didn’t do something. If these people had been at B’nai B’rith, they would have understood.”

Khalifa Hamaas Abdul Khaalis, the Hanafi leader who stationed himself at the B’nai B’rith building and directed the city-wide rampage from there, asked someone to assist him with phone calls. Betty J. Neal, secretary to B’nai B’rith’s personnel director, volunteered. Khaalis asked if she was Jewish and she said no. He replied, she said, “OK, I don’t want any of those Jew bastards taking my calls.” She also reported that he refused to charge long-distance phone calls to B’nai B’rith.

Several of the hostages said the captives had very little to eat during the siege. One reported that they were fed coffee and doughnuts in the morning and “lousy” corned beef sandwiches in the evening. “Who eats corned beef with mayonnaise?” asked one of the hostages. “For a Jew, that’s a travesty.”

The 12 Hanafi Moslems who participated in the siege were tentatively charged with armed kidnapping. Government prosecutors said they would also seek murder charges against the 12. A young radio reporter, Maurice Williams, was killed during the takeover of the District Building. Eight of the gunmen were held because they could not meet the bail of $50,000 to $75,000. Khalifa Hamaas Abdul Khaalis, leader of the sect, and three others, were released without bail apparently as part of the deal to end the siege.

Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd (D. W. Va.) and Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D.Tex.) assailed the decision to free Khalifa Hamaas Abdul Khaalis, the Hanafi leader, and three of his followers without bail. “It’s abborrent in our society that individuals can commit these atrocious crimes and then be let out on their own recognizance.” Bentsen, noting that a radio reporter was killed, called Khaalis’ release an outrage. “What kind of precedent does this set for those who would contemplate future acts of violence?” he asked.

Three ambassadors from Islamic countries helped break the siege by joining in the negotiations. They reasoned with Khalifa Hamaas Abdul Khaalis, leader of the Hanafi sect, and recited Arabic poetry and portions from the Koran. The ambassadors were Sahabzada Yaqub-Khan of Pakistan, Ashraf Ghorbal of Egypt and Ardeshir Zahedi of Iran. They became involved after Ghorbal offered his services to L. Douglas Heck, director of the State Department’s office on terrorism, about the same time Heck was being asked for help by the Washington police.

Yaqub-Khan, former chief of staff of the Pakistani army, has been Ambassador to the United States since December, 1973. Ghorbal, who also has been Ambassador to Washington since December, 1973, was chief of the Egyptian interest section of the Indian Embassy in Washington from 1968 to 1972 when he returned to Cairo to become a national security advisor for President Anwar Sadat. When relations were resumed between the U.S. and Egypt. Ghorbal was named ambassador. Zahedi has been Ambassador from Iran since 1973 and had served in that post previously from 1959 to 1961.

The three Islamic ambassadors won praise for their efforts by the B’nai B’rith, American Jewish Congress, President Carter and Secretary of State Cyrus Vance. David Blumberg, B’nai B’rith president, phoned them to thank them for their intercession. “They all responded cordially and thanked me for the call,” he said. Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, AJ Congress president said, “It is deeply reassuring that political concerns and disagreements were put aside (by the envoys) in the interest of preserving and safe-guarding human life. We earnestly hope that this joining together in common compassion for life will become a paradigm for future relations between all people.”

B’nai B’rith officials said the terrorists caused an estimated damage of at least $250,000 to the building. There were bullet holes in the walls, doors were smashed and furniture upset and broken during their rampage.

After the siege ended, the hostages were quickly removed at 2 a.m. Friday morning from the B’nai B’rith building, the Islamic Center and the District Building (City Hall). After medical examination, the largest contingent, from B’nai B’rith, was taken to the Foundry Methodist Church where most of the relatives were waiting and an emotional and tearful reunion ensued.

A prayer of thanksgiving climaxed the jubilation that followed the arrival of police on the eighth floor of the B’nai B’rith building where the hostages were held. It was, one of the released hostages said, a simple thanks to the Almighty “who has kept us in life, sustained us and brought us to this moment.”

Most of the hostages and their friends and relatives attended synagogue services Saturday. Elation at their release was tempered with sadness for the death of Maurice Williams, a 22-year-old reporter for the Howard University radio station, who was shot Wednesday in the District building by one of the Hanafis.

Rabbi Stanley Rabinowitz of Temple Adas Israel told worshippers Saturday “Violence and terror seized our community this week. We share the relief of those released, just as we shared their anguish.” Referring to Williams, Rabinowitz stated: “Our cup of joy is diminished by his death. We deplore the death of an innocent man and convey our heartfelt sympathy to his bereaved family, even as we convey our prayerful hopes for healing to those who suffered injury.” Prayers were said for Williams at synagogues throughout the Washington area Saturday morning.

NEXT STORY