WASHINGTON (Apr. 24)
Federal investigators are trying to determine the sender and contents of an envelope delivered to the international headquarters of B’nai B’rith here that prompted authorities to seal the building for hours with more than 100 people inside.
Hazardous material experts arrived at the scene to remove the envelope, which contained a note characterized as “suspicious and threatening,” according to B’nai B’rith President Tommy Baer.
The letter was anti-Jewish, but the threats were not specific, knowledgeable sources said. They said a preliminary reading of the letter led them to believe it could be the work of a domestic right-wing political group.
But speculation about the source of the threat ran the gamut.
According to one low-level police official on the scene who had not seen the letter, the note said: The only “good Jew is an Orthodox Jew.” That could not be confirmed.
Baer said no one from B’nai B’rith had seen the letter.
Investigators also were likely to take into account the fact that B’nai B’rith is a prominent player in international anti-terrorism.
It also was recently singled out for attack by French extremist Jean-Marie Le Pen. The leader of the right-wing National Front alleged that French President Jacques Chirac is controlled by Jewish organizations, especially the B’nai B’rith. That prompted the organization to hold a news conference in Washington where it blasted Le Pen, who later denied having made the remarks.
While no one mentioned it, it also was impossible to ignore the fact that the incident occurred in the midst of Passover, the holiday associated with the blood libel, the ancient allegation that Jews murder non-Jews, especially Christians, to obtain blood for holiday rituals.
Baer and other principals were reluctant to draw conclusions prematurely.
“It is impossible for me to speculate if this is the cruelest of hoaxes or something to be genuinely concerned about,” Baer said.
Said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, “We’re in contact with the federal authorities to ascertain what exactly happened and the nature of the threat.
“Should it turn out to be of a serious nature, we will develop an approach to alert and sensitize Jewish institutions to protect” themselves.
At this point, said Foxman, “it would be unwise and improper to speculate as to the source of the package.”
Detailing the day’s events from his office in Richmond, Va., Baer said a mail clerk noticed “red liquid” oozing out of the envelope, which was found in the mailroom Thursday morning.
The mail clerk notified security who, in turn, called the police, said Baer.
The police arrived shortly before noon and sealed the building with employees inside and cordoned off the nearby streets, which quickly became clogged with emergency personnel and reporters.
They also decontaminated two B’nai B’rith personnel who had come into direct contact with the material, hosing them down in their undergarments with a solution of water and chlorine.
A third employee was taken to an area hospital for an unrelated health emergency.
Twelve emergency personnel were also decontaminated and held at the scene.
The FBI did not immediately issue an alert for stepped-up security at other Jewish organizations in Washington. But it plans to ask all local law- enforcement officials to keep their eyes open for similar threats, sources said.
The B’nai B’rith headquarters maintains unusually tight security, at least partly a reaction to a terrorist incident 20 years ago.
In March 1977, 12 black Muslim extremists seized the B’nai B’rith building and two other buildings not affiliated with Jewish organizations. Of 134 hostages held overall, 107 were held in the B’nai B’rith building. The siege ended after 39 hours.
Though Jewish hostages were not singled out, anti-Semitic epithets were hurled frequently at the group.
In this week’s incident, officials began to evacuate the building at about 3:30 p.m., planning to decontaminate everyone and send them to hospitals to be checked, according to Baer and the police.
But about 30 minutes later, they reversed course, telling people who work in the building to return and that they would be “quarantined” until the contents of the substance could be determined.
The substance was removed from the scene about 3:30 p.m. and taken in a motorcade to be tested at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md.
The envelope contained a reference to the scientific name for anthrax, but was misspelled, according to unconfirmed police reports at the scene. Anthrax is an infection usually afflicting cattle and sheep.
Officials said they ruled out anthrax as the substance in the envelope. They said as soon as they identified the substance, they would decide what to do with the people stuck inside the building.
The B’nai B’rith building also houses the offices the Council of Jewish Federations, the National Conference on Soviet Jewry and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.
As the quarantine went into its seventh hour early Thursday evening, the director of CJF’s Washington office, Diana Aviv, said by telephone, “People are nervous and a little anxious, but calm.”
The mood inside took a light turn as she joked about growing hunger pangs of people who had missed lunch and were about to miss dinner, “As in only the Jewish tradition, when in trouble, look for food.”