Jews In The Crosshairs: From Riverdale To Chicago


The Jewish Week asked eight rabbis, thinkers and communal leaders to reflect on the foiled Chicago synagogue bomb plot and what it says about Jews in America today. While it is unclear whether Jews were actually the target of this latest plot (authorities now believe the addresses on the packages did not match those of Chicago synagogues and believe the explosives were intended to go off in the air), it is clear that the Yemeni plot, like many before it, has ignited fear and consternation in the Jewish community.

Striking The Right Balance

Abraham H. Foxman

Overall, I believe the community has struck the right balance in the face of such bomb threats. They are taken seriously. Security procedures that already exist are reasserted and in some cases reinforced. But there is little sense of panic or a need to change the way we live.

Yet we need to continuously examine and recalibrate the balance between civil liberties and ensuring safety and security.

This speaks to the very different character of Jewish life in America today than decades ago, a greater sense of being fully part of American society. This means that we recognize, as happened on 9/11, that we’re all in this together and even when Jews appear to be the specific target, there’s a sense of all Americans rallying round.

At the same time, consensus on security issues will not lead to the end of polarization that has gripped society in general as well as the Jewish community.

There are profound differences as to how we read the threat of Islamic extremism and how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict affects the broader picture. In my view, we have to work diligently to recapture the kinds of consensus and middle ground that long existed in the community. The center has hardly disappeared, but those who believe in its value must do more to reinvigorate it in the face of polarizers both on the left and the right.

Abraham H. Foxman is national director of the Anti-Defamation League.

The ‘Expansiveness Of Hate’

Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum

The attempted bombing of Or Chadash in Chicago is a painful reminder of how Jews have been violently targeted throughout our history — it forces many of us to relive past traumas of persecution that we carry with us and the brokenness we experience as a result.

As an American Jewish community, we have responded in two distinct ways to this type of tragedy. The first is to respond with fear. When we respond this way, we only look inward. The trauma takes over, and all we can think about is how vulnerable and hated we are. We refuse to trust others or seeothers’ pain.

The way we need to respond is by remembering how expansive hate can be. We remember that those who hate us for being Jewish also hate people for their race, their nationality, their gender, their sexuality, for all kinds of differences.

When we remember this, we stand in coalition with our neighbors and refuse to be demonized. We march in solidarity with our Muslim friends, and we work to prevent the bullying of our queer youth. We hold our oppression close, but no closer than the oppression of our neighbors, as we pursue justice together.

Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum is spiritual leader of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in the West Village.

Victimhood Shouldn’t Define Us

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield

Aside from the physical threats, about which we must remain vigilant, the danger of the recent terror attempts to the Jewish community is that they deepen an already overwrought sense of victimhood that defines too much of American Jewish life.

We are always dying and always under attack — that is among the most popular public narratives we possess, and that narrative, more than the reality it claims to portray, is the real danger. We may need more guards at the door, but posting them is an unfortunate necessity, not the defining feature of Jewish life.

Don’t get me wrong. When there is an immediate physical threat, it must be destroyed by, Malcolm X would have said, any means necessary. But in the absence of that immediate threat, we would do well to spend more time on Jewish existence than on the threats to it.

Rav Kook taught that the only response to sinat chinam, senseless hatred, was ahavat chinam, senseless love. None of us may be ready to love the terrorists, but we could at least focus on what we love about being Jewish and celebrate it at least as boldly as the terrorists would destroy it.

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is co-president of CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.

Diaspora Jew As ‘Marked Man’

Thane Rosenbaum

We are all Israelis now.

For decades the events in the Middle East played out like a surreal movie. Israelis boarded buses and entered pizza shops knowing they might never reach their intended destination or ever eat another slice of pizza again. Meanwhile, American Jews fretted about summerhouses and where their children would attend college.

The Israelis were a different breed of Jew, we believed — taller, tanner, ready with either machine gun or pitchfork — and they existed in an altogether different reality. To live in Israel was a modern reaffirmation of the Promised Land, but it was also a risky move for anyone afraid of venturing outside in the game of Islamic roulette.

For the past 60 years American Jews have been emotionally and biblically bonded to Israel; today their bonds have much more to do with bombs. The long, sorry history of anti-Semitism has now gone global. The diaspora Jew, finally secure in his home country, is still a marked man, endangered by terrorism, the Arab world’s chief export.

How did it happen that Israelis eating falafel in Tel Aviv suddenly feel safer than Chicago Jews afraid to unpack deadly office supplies?

Thane Rosenbaum, a novelist, teaches at Fordham Law School.

Unity In The Face Of Threats

Jonathan D. Sarna

News of the bomb plot serves as a timely reminder that however much Jews may differ over American politics and Israeli policies, we all share a common fate.

Centuries of Jewish history have taught us that many times over, but the lesson cannot be reiterated too often. To be sure, as American Jews, we worry less about the security of our synagogues than our brethren in Europe do. There, armed guards and sophisticated security devices are commonplace at every Jewish house of worship.

But even as we have been fortunate enough to be spared so far, we know that enemies lurk. So even as we breathe a sigh of relief and thank those who foiled the terrorists this time, we must consider ourselves warned.

Not only must we be more vigilant in the months ahead, we also need to remember that in the face of a common threat what unites us will prove far more important than what divides us.

Jonathan D. Sarna is the Joseph H. and Bella R. Braun professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University and director of its Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program.

Anti-Zionism And Anti-Semitism

Cynthia Ozick

American Jews, particularly the liberal-minded who are chiefly accustomed to domestic debate and dissent, are generally reluctant to equate anti-Zionism with overt anti-Semitism.

Too often the hostile forces that promote lethal anti-Zionism, among them a handful of self-flattering Jews, will hide behind such innocent phrases as “criticism of Israeli policies” while pursuing radical delegitimization of Israeli sovereignty. Too many American Jews, in and out of the voting booth, exhibit a complacent indifference to the accelerating global menace of anti-Zionist activism, not so much of the “It can’t happen here” variety as, rather more perilously, out of a disordered sense of existential political priorities.

If Israel is under defamatory duress, no Jew anywhere is safe: and this has neither been recognized nor felt (although it has begun to be viscerally felt on certain campuses). Terror aimed at Israel means us, and if until now the majority of American Jews have been placidly ignorant of this jihadist axiom, then the Yemeni bombs have made it brutally manifest.

Cynthia Ozick is a novelist. Her latest book is “Foreign Bodies.”

‘About Jews, But Not Only’

David Harris

Once again, Jews are in the jihadists’ crosshairs. We may focus on the perceived differences among us — political, denominational, organizational — but it should be painfully evident that our adversaries don’t. They didn’t in picking the two Chicago-area synagogues as intended addresses of powerful explosives originating in Yemen, anymore than they did, say, in selecting two Riverdale synagogues — one Reform, the other Orthodox — for attempted terrorist attacks.

Isn’t it high time to wake up and smell the coffee? On how many more occasions do we have to be targeted before we realize the nature and magnitude of the threat? The natural response ought to be maximum unity, but too often we Jews defy logic. Some would prefer to believe they are immune from danger or, perhaps, simply refuse to see it in the first place. Others may think of themselves as “good Jews” who can somehow escape the wrath of the hate-filled plotters.

In essence, this is about Jews, but not only. Such assaults aim at the core values of pluralistic societies like the U.S. And thus, just as Jews need to stand together, so do all Americans. In reality, an attack on any of us, whether 9/11, Fort Hood or the recent thwarted attempt, is an attack on all of us — and nothing less.

David Harris is executive director of the American Jewish Committee.

React To Realities

Jerome Chanes

What’s a Jewish telegram? “Start worrying. Letter follows.”

Once again, our community is called upon to balance our feelings of insecurity with the reality that we are in an era, and in a place, of unprecedented security.

How can the majority of American Jews say, “I feel comfortable in America,” and also say, “Anti-Semitism is a serious and perhaps growing problem in the U.S.?” And to complicate matters, this comes as anti-Semitism here is at a historic low ebb, and — more important — has little effect on Jewish security. Jewish security? It’s the ability of Jews to participate in the society. Has anyone seen many American Jews recently who cannot participate fully? 2010 is not 1910, and America is not Europe. We are secure.

Or are we?

There are good reasons why many Jews fell insecure; events abroad, shipped home by UPS, cannot but have an effect on our collective psychology. That’s the easy part.

What’s not clear is the matter of “unity.” The divisions in our community are the hallmarks of a pluralistic society. The question is that of the role of our national agencies in an era when the center of gravity has shifted from “national” to “local.” Our national organizations need to react responsibly, and not hysterically — and for the most part they have. Our reactions need to be to realities, and not to the Jewish telegram.

Jerome A. Chanes is editor of the forthcoming collection “The Future of American Judaism.”