Jews on guard against anthrax threat


NEW YORK, Oct. 17 (JTA) — Threats to prominent Jewish organizations may be par for the course, but the current anthrax scare has Jewish activists as jumpy as other Americans.

The offices of several Jewish organizations were expected to be checked for anthrax later Wednesday, after spores were found in the offices of New York Gov. George Pataki, whose city offices are located in the same midtown Manhattan building.

The groups — the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations and ARZA/World Union, along with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Agency for Israel — together have approximately 325 employees.

Although the air circulation system in the building was apparently shut down to prevent spread of the spores, the building was not evacuated and the Jewish organizations — which already have security measures in place and, like all New York offices, have been screening mail more carefully in recent days, were continuing with their work.

“It’s obviously very disturbing, but we can’t allow ourselves to become paralyzed by fear,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Presidents Conference.

The threat fear is spreading to Israel as well.

On Wednesday, two people working at Israeli Prime Minister

Ariel Sharon’s office were sent to hospital after opening a suspicious letter containing a strange powder, officials said.

And two members of Israel’s Knesset from the Meretz Party received letters with suspicious contents, prompting the closure of a section of the building amid fears of anthrax.

Legislators Naomi Chazan and Yossi Sarid, accompanied by their assistants, were immediately taken to hospitals, where they were tested and treated for possible infection.

Test results had yet to be released.

On Monday, Israeli authorities conducted anthrax tests on a suspicious powder found on an El Al airplane, and Brandeis University evacuated two buildings after a white powdery substance was believed to be received in an envelope.

Both incidents turned out to be false alarms.

Jewish organizations have experienced a general increase in threatening calls or letters since the Palestinian intifada began a year ago, but Jewish leaders say there has been no additional rise in threats to institutions since the events of Sept. 11.

Nevertheless, they’re not taking chances.

The leading pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, stopped opening mail Monday that lacked a return address after it got word that U.S. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle’s office had received a letter containing anthrax.

AIPAC is now re-assessing its mail policy, spokeswoman Rebecca Needler said.

“We’re going to do everything in our power to secure AIPAC offices all around the country,” she said.

In interviews, most Jewish leaders said they are scrutinizing their mail much more closely, especially letters from suspicious locales — such as Florida, where the anthrax scare began.

Meanwhile, the Israeli Embassy in Washington was temporarily closed Tuesday in response to an anthrax scare.

A letter containing a suspect substance arrived at the building next door, occupied by the United Arab Emirates Embassy.

U.S. authorities are examining the envelope. The embassy later reopened.

At another prominent organization, a letter postmarked from Florida with no return address was quickly hustled into an isolated room, where it was opened with latex gloves and a letter opener.

It turned out to be just another letter from the Messiah — or someone claiming to be.

But that’s typical run-of-the-mill, off-the-wall correspondence, say activists.

“We, like all Jewish institutions, have always received crank communications, threatening communications, some more credible than others,” said Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress. “I don’t see an increase in the quality or quantity of such communications. However, because of the changed circumstances and the sober reality we’re facing, I think we address it in a much more serious manner.”

Jewish communities abroad already had been on high alert since the intifada began a year ago, but have been placed on even higher alert since the Sept. 11 attacks, Steinberg said.

To buttress these efforts, he said, the WJC has established a new “security fund” for these communities to upgrade their building security with, say, reinforced locks or doors or additional television monitors.

Another Jewish leader who is outspoken in his hard-line views said he began to receive threats after the intifada began. Law enforcement officials advised him to purchase a bulletproof vest.

The activist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said he has worn it more often in the past month when he travels to speaking engagements, “because I’m more concerned now.”

However, he said, the heightened alert has had “zero impact” on his criticism of Palestinian terrorism.

“In fact, it’s inspired me even more to speak out more forcefully against those who promote hatred and murder,” he said.

At Brandeis, two buildings were evacuated Monday after an administrative assistant to President Jehuda Reinharz apparently opened an envelope and found white powder on her hand.

The buildings were cleared for three hours while law enforcement officials investigated.

“People are angry that the cost of a stamp can shut down university operations for a couple of hours,” said Dennis Nealon, a Brandeis spokesman.

Jews are not overreacting, activists say, but are mindful of history.

There were a rash of letter-bombs aimed at Jewish leaders in the 1970’s and 1980s, the height of the movement to free Soviet Jews, said Myrna Shinbaum, spokeswoman for the Anti-Defamation League.

“Everyone wants to be safe rather than sorry,” Shinbaum said. “It’s more prudent to implement the safety protocols beforehand than to wait until you get the threat.”

However, Jewish organizations and institutions should be vigilant — but careful not to go overboard, activists say.

“There’s no indication Jews are special targets, but that doesn’t mean we’re not vulnerable,” Hoenlein said. “We should take every necessary precaution, but not allow ourselves to be diverted from our work or paralyzed by fear.”

(JTA intern Amy Sara Clark contributed to this report.)

Recommended from JTA