Moslem fundamentalists are apprehended in connection with the February bombing of New York’s World Trade Center.
A few months later, eight more Islamic fundamentalists are arrested, charged with plotting to blow up the United Nations, two major thoroughfares connecting New York to New Jersey and Manhattan’s largely Jewish diamond district. The men also allegedly planned to kill a pro-Israel U.S. senator and an Orthodox Jewish state assemblyman.
The story, still unfolding, has attracted international attention.
Yet it has not been a Jewish story.
There has been almost no focus in the media on Israel or on the Jewish community in connection with the story.
And there has been a thundering absence of concern within the Jewish community about the possibility of an anti-Semitic backlash within the United States.
This may be one of the few times in recent memory that a major American crisis — especially one rooted in the Middle East — has not been matched by an upsurge of anxiety within the Jewish community.
This is “very different than what happened in previous times,” said Jerome Chanes, co-director for domestic concerns at the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council.
Fear of backlash ran high among Jews during the 1970s oil crisis, as it did after Wall Street financier and Jewish philanthropist Ivan Boesky’s illegal financial manipulations were uncovered and after former U.S. Navy analyst Jonathan Pollard was revealed to be a spy for Israel.
During the oil shortage, a major topic of conversation among Jews was a bumper sticker which reportedly read “Burn Jews, Not Oil.”
TERRORISM IS A UNIVERSAL PROBLEM
But in the end it was panic born of rumor — no one could say he or she had actually seen the bumper sticker.
Even during events which had no tie to Israel or Jews, like the farm crisis of the 1980s, worry mounted among Jews fearful of a backlash as a result of the dramatic economic and social dislocation in America’s heartland, and because extremist groups promised to become more active.
If there was so much anxiety about anti-Semitism during those crises, why not now?
“Maybe we’re finally getting the message that in American society, different from Europe, conflict situations simply haven’t resulted in an increase in anti-Semitism,” said NJCRAC’s Chanes.
David Gordis, director of the Wilstein Institute of Jewish Policy Studies, said that “in certain ways this is a coming of age.
“While we Jews generally prefer our clouds without silver linings, perhaps we’re beginning to understand that we’re very much part of this country and a problem like terrorism is a universal problem,” said Gordis.
“We share everyone’s problems but don’t need to do so with overly exquisite sensitivity which makes everyone panic.”
Sociologist Steven M. Cohen, a professor at the Melton Center for Jewish Education at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, agreed.
There is “a pattern of American Jews thinking that the rest of the world is staying up day and night relating news to Jews and Israel, and to our regret, most Americans and the world have other things to think about,” said Cohen.
Other analysts, however, trace the lack of focus on Jews to the fact that Jewish individuals and areas are but a secondary target for the ring of Moslem militants, who seemed to be focusing their rage primarily at symbols of U.S. power.
Included on the hit list of the men arrested last month were two Egyptians — President Hosni Mubarak and U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali — making it clear that Jews were not their only enemy.
In connection with the case, Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, spiritual leader of the suspects and of those charged with the World Trade Center bombing, has been arrested in New York on immigration charges.
‘SECURITY IS ALWAYS AN ISSUE’
Egypt is seeking to extradite the cleric. If deported, his followers in Egypt and in the Gaza Strip have threatened to “set off a wave of violence” against American interests worldwide, according to one of the sheik’s lawyers in Cairo.
Fundamentalist Islam “has proven itself to be a hater of all that we associate with democracy and Western culture,” said Deborah Lipstadt, professor of religious studies at Emory University in Atlanta.
“You’d have to be seeing it in a small way to think it’s just going to impact on the Jews,” she said.
New York State Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who was targeted by the terrorists, noted that while the fundamentalists are “not softening up on Israel, which remains the ultimate enemy, it’s not just Israel anymore. It goes broader than that.
“America would be a target even without (being a supporter of) Israel,” he said. “America’s support for Egypt is just as much an issue for these fundamentalists as the support for Israel” is, he said.
Hikind said he did not believe he was targeted solely because he is Jewish, but because he had been outspoken about calling for the arrest of Sheik Rahman.
Some Jewish leaders expressed relief that the Jewish community is not the focus of attention in this latest crisis.
“It is healthier for our cause that it’s not always focused on us,” said Hikind.
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League described the role of Israel and Jews as compared to that of the United States as “little Satan compared to big Satan.”
But despite the lack of focus on the Jewish community, Foxman cautioned that Jewish groups should never feel too secure during a crisis.
“We are always anxious and concerned. Security is always an issue that’s with us.”