Friday, Apr 12, 2024

FBI Downplays Antisemitism in Texas Synagogue Attack

By Avi Yishai and Yaakov Kornreich

The Jewish community was greatly relieved by the success of the FBI in safely freeing four Jews who had been taken hostage by armed Muslim terrorist Malik Faisal Akram last Shabbos morning at, Congregation Beth Israel, a Reform synagogue in the Ft. Worth suburb of Colleyville, Texas. However, a number of local and Jewish leaders expressed concern about the statement issued by FBI Special Agent in Charge Matt DeSarno at the press conference that Motzoei Shabbos during which he announced the end of the siege and the death of the terrorist in a shoot-out with the FBI.

Desarno said, “We do believe from our engaging with this subject that he was singularly focused on one issue, and it was not specifically related to the Jewish community. But we’re continuing to work to find motive,” ignoring the fact that the terrorist had specifically singled out the small synagogue for attack during its Shabbos morning services.

During the 11-hour siege, Akram demanded the release from a nearby federal prison of convicted Muslim terrorist, Aafia Siddiqui. She had been nicknamed by American security experts as “Lady al-Qaeda,” for having planned a mass terrorist attack against New York City.


Siddiqui was born in Pakistan and came to America on a student visa in 1990. She graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and then obtained a doctorate in neuroscience from Brandeis University.

When she was arrested in Afghanistan in 2008, she was found to be in possession of detailed plans to use her scientific training to produce and deploy deadly chemical weapons. While being held in custody, she stole a rifle which she tried to use to kill her American military interrogators. She was tried in a federal court and found guilty of the attempted murder of US nationals and government employees. Because of her declarations during the trial supporting terrorism and calling for “Death to America,” the judge sentenced her to serve an 86-year term behind bars. She is currently being held in a federal prison hospital at the Carswell U.S. Air Force base, about 25 miles from the Colleyville synagogue.

Since her sentencing in 2010, Siddiqui has served as a poster child for international terrorist organizations. ISIS and the Taliban have both demanded her release. Terrorism researcher Seamus Hughes says that Siddiqui’s continued imprisonment, “plays an outsized role in jihadi folklore.”

Siddiqui’s anti-Semitic rants have been an integral part of her international reputation, and it is obvious that they must have motivated Akram’s decision to stage a hostage-taking in a synagogue in order to seek her freedom.

Yet the media immediately picked up on the FBI agent DeSarno’s decision to downplay the clear anti-Semitic nature and motivation for the hostage-taking incident. The story about the incident published by the London-based Guardian newspaper, for instance, placed the word “hostage” in quotation marks. The initial Associated Press story of the standoff ran under a headline which emphasized that “the hostage taker’s demands were not connected to the Jewish community,” even though the body of the story made that connection very clear.


The Colleyville Police Department said it received its first called about the hostage situation at 10:41 a.m. local time. The synagogue, which was established in 1999, has about 150 members, but because of the pandemic, most of them were at home, watching its morning services on Facebook.

The terrorist, armed with a gun, took Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker and three other congregants hostage, and began marathon discussions with local law enforcement and later FBI negotiators over his demands for Siddiqui’s release.

During the hostage negotiations, Akram had Cytron-Walker call another, more prominent Reform rabbi,Angela Buichdahl of the Central Synagogue in New York City, to demand that she use for presumed influence with federal authorities to secure the immediate release of Siddiqui from prison.

Akram released one of the hostages at about 5 p.m., but the negotiations dragged on for another 4 hours before the heavily armed FBI Hostage Rescue team, flown in that day from Washington, DC, stormed the building and ended the siege.

Cytron-Walker later said that the gunman became “increasingly belligerent and threatening” in the last hour of their hostage crisis and credited the active-shooter and security courses that he and his fellow survivors had previously received for having been “prepared to act and flee when the situation presented itself.”

At 9:33 p.m. Texas Governor Greg Abbott tweeted: “All hostages are out alive and safe.”


Akram had described himself during the siege as Siddiqui’s “sister,” but Siddiqui’s lawyer and Akram’s family in England insisted that wasn’t true. His brother, Gulbar, on the family’s behalf, posted a message on the Blackburn Muslim Community Facebook page.

“We would like to say that we as a family do not condone any of his actions and would like to sincerely apologize wholeheartedly to all the victims involved in the unfortunate incident. . .[Even though Malik Akram] was suffering from mental health issues, we were confident that he would not harm the hostages. . . [But] there was nothing we could have said to him or done that would have convinced him to surrender,” the family’s message read.

Malik Akram had been allowed to fly into JFK airport in New York City from London in late December because his name did not appear on either British or American known terrorist lists. He then traveled to Texas and spent three nights beginning on January 6, at a homeless shelter in Dallas, checking in and out multiple times before he left the shelter for the final time on January 13, about 48 hours before staging his attack.


During his conversations with negotiators during the siege, Akram demanded that Siddiqui be brought to the synagogue so they could both die together. He was heard saying during two phone conversations that had been picked up on the livestream Facebook feed, “I just want a bullet in me, and I want to go — that’s it,” and, “I’m gunned up. I’m ammo-ed up. Guess what, I will die.”


Fox News was the only major American news outlet which published a separate story outlining the tremendous backlash on social media condemning the FBI statement which sought to deny the clearly anti-Semitic character of the synagogue hostage-taking.

The Fox News story cited a tweet by conservative talk radio show Jesse Kelly the morning after the standoff ended, which said, “The FBI is now an organization solely focused on destroying the domestic enemies of the Democratic Party. Any Republican Congress or Presidential candidate who doesn’t loudly proclaim his intention to massively reform or disband this organization should not be considered.” The story cited another angry tweet which cited its false characterization of the hostage-taking incident as more proof of the current conservative criticism that, in recent years, the FBI has become “an irreparably corrupt and broken agency that needs to be defunded and eliminated.”


To his credit, the day after the standoff, President Biden, attending an event in Philadelphia, told reporters that it, “was an act of terror,” which was “not only” related to the release of Sidduqui, but also to the anti-Semitic hatred which motivates her. “There is more we will learn in the days ahead about the motivations of the hostage taker … Let me be clear to anyone who intends to spread hate—we will stand against anti-Semitism and against the rise of extremism in this country.

Biden said that he told his attorney general, Merrick Garland, “that we’re not going to tolerate” such attacks on synagogues and other places of worship and that US authorities have the capacity to deal with “the antisemitism that is going up.”

In answer to a reporter’s question, Biden said “I don’t think there is sufficient information to know about why he targeted that synagogue, why he insisted on the release of someone who’s been in prison for over 10 years, why he was using ant-Semitic and anti-Israeli comments. We just don’t have enough facts,” the president said.

After the FBI confirmed that Akram was a British national, Britain’s Foreign Secretary Liz Truss called the hostage-taking an “act of terrorism and antisemitism.”

“My thoughts are with the Jewish community and all those affected by the appalling act in Texas,” Truss posted on Twitter. “We stand with the US in defending the rights and freedoms of our citizens against those who spread hate.


News of the ongoing standoff in Texas sparked great interest when it reached Israel on Motzoei Shabbos, and tremendous relief when it was resolved without any harm done to the four freed Jewish hostages. Prime Minister Naftoli Bennett, who had been kept abreast of developments by U.S. officials during the siege, then placed a phone call to Texas Governor Greg Abbott, to thank him for the “determined and professional action of Texas law enforcement forces.”

The attack on this synagogue follows the October 2018 shooting at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue which took 11 lives, and the death of another congregant in April, 2019 at the Chabad of Poway in Southern California, as well as two other fatal anti-Semitic attacks in recent years in Monsey, New York, and Jersey City, New Jersey.

“You are not alone. We are one family and we stand strong and united together,” Bennett said.

Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai was also outspoken in declaring that the incident in Texas had to be recognized as, “nothing less than anti-Semitism” since it occurred at a synagogue. “The target was Jewish and no one can hide it,” Shai said. “Why a shul and not a supermarket across the street? The terrorist knew where he was going.”


Several secular American Jewish organizations, including the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the Anti-Defamation League, and the Federation-sponsored Secure Community Network also issued statements decrying the anti-Semitic nature of the incident in Colleyville, Texas.

The Presidents Conference statement said, “Collectively, we must spare no effort to ensure that American Jews are safe in their houses of worship and community centers. Pittsburgh, Poway, Jersey City, and now Colleyville, must not become the ‘new normal’ for our community.”

Evan Bernstein, national director and CEO of the Community Security Service, said that the threat to American Jews “remains real and dangerous.”

“We will be dissecting lessons from this incident as details emerge, and redoubling our efforts to strengthen the safety and security of synagogues and Jewish institutions across the country. Today’s events serve as another clear reminder to Jewish communities nationwide that prioritizing security is paramount.”


While the siege was still ongoing, Renee Lafair, regional director for the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) based in Austin, Texas said, “What’s happening today is a whole other level, when human life is at risk. I think when you see a series of antisemitic incidents that grow in frequency and grow in scope and danger, for a lot of people in the Jewish community this brings fears of greater societal issues and harkens back to some of our history, so it makes people concerned and scared.

“When antisemitism increases, it’s usually a sign of greater issues of hate and division going on in society,” she added.

The ADL had been tracking a recent spurt of anti-Semitic attacks throughout Texas, recording at least 10 significant anti-Semitic incidents since October.

Last October 31, a fire that caused about $25,000 in damage to an Austin synagogue, after students vandalized an Austin public high school’s parking with swastikas and other expressions of racist hatred.

A group calling itself the Goyim Defense League has been distributing anti-Semitic hate literature, posting banners and sponsoring protests throughout Texas. Outside a Jewish community center in San Antonio, it put up a banner that read: ‘Honk if you know the Holocaust is Fake.’  The same group staged a protest outside a San Antonio church holding a fundraiser for Israel and hung a banner on an overpass near the Shalom Austin Jewish Community Center in Austin that read “Vax the Jews.”


Neither is this current outbreak of anti-Semitism outbreak limited to Texas. In October, the American Jewish Committee published the results of its nationwide poll which found that 90% of Jews surveyed believe that growing anti-Semitism is a problem in America today.

While 17% said that they had been the target of an anti-Semitic remark in and 12% reported anti-Semitic abuse on-line, and just 3% reported being attacked physically, 39% reported that they had changed their behavior during previous year, refraining from posting pro-Israel or pro-Jewish content online, or wearing items in public that would identify them as Jewish.

Many of those reported anti-Semitics incidents occurred in May 2021, during the deadly exchange of terrorist rocket attacks from Hamas-ruled Gaza and retaliatory Israeli air strikes.


A large part of the recent upsurge in anti-Semitism is due to the failure of five major social media platforms, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Youtube and TikTok, to take down a large majority of posts which had already been flagged by their internal systems as anti-Semitic.

A non-profit British-American group called the Center to Counter Digital Hate (CCDH) tracked a total of 714 officially reported anti-Jewish posts which appeared on the five platforms between May and June of 2021 and had been viewed 7.3 million times. The social media companies failed to take action on 89% of those pushing anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about 9/11, the pandemic and Jews controlling world affairs, 80% of posts denying the Holocaust, and 70% of posts with overtly neo-Nazi and white supremacist images.

The platform with the worst overall record, according to the CCDH study, was Facebook, which failed to act on 89% of the anti-Semitic posts, while Tik Tok removed just 5% of posts with Holocaust denial messages. In October, Facebook announced a shift in policy under which the platform would now “prohibit any content that denies or distorts the Holocaust.” At the time, its CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, who is Jewish, posted a statement on Facebook saying, “I’ve struggled with the tension between standing for free expression and the harm caused by minimizing or denying the horror of the Holocaust … with the current state of the world, I believe this is the right balance.”

This is the broader context of the attack on the Colleyville synagogue, which stands revealed as anything but an isolated anti-Semitic incident. As Presidents Conference CEO William Duroff accurately explained it. “It is a reality of the time we [Jews] live in that there is danger from the far left, the far right and Islamic extremists.”


But very little of that anti-Semitic context came through in the mainstream national news coverage of the siege of the synagogue in Texas. While the mainstream newspaper and cable news channels gave the story front page headline treatment, providing every available detail of the siege itself, the reporting was almost entirely out of context. It contained few references to the previous attacks on synagogues and, following the lead of the FBI, deliberately downplayed the anti-Semitic motivations of Akram, the hostage-taker, and Aafia Siddiqui, the notorious Islamic terrorist he sought to free.

During her trial in 2009, Siddiqui demanded that all jurors in her case have their DNA-tested and be removed “if they have a Zionist or Israeli background,” and dismissed her legal defense team because she said the lawyers were Jewish. She also wrote a letter to then-president Barack Obama telling him that Jews “have always back-stabbed everyone who has taken pity on them and made the ‘fatal’ error of giving them shelter.”

“It is this cruel, ungrateful back-stabbing of the Jews that has caused them to be mercilessly expelled from wherever they gain strength. This is why ‘holocausts’ keep happening to them repeatedly! If they would only learn to be grateful and change their behavior!!” she wrote.

After the jury announced her conviction and was leaving the courtroom, Siddiqui exclaimed: “This is a verdict coming from Israel and not from America. That’s where the anger belongs.” However, the presiding federal judge in her trial said the “strength of the government’s case was overwhelming,” in justifying her long prison sentence.


The prompt condemnation of the hostage taking by Ed Ahmed Mitchell, the national deputy director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), superficially seemed to send the right message. He said, “This latest anti-Semitic attack at a house of worship is an unacceptable act of evil. We stand in solidarity with the Jewish community… No cause can justify or excuse this crime. We are in contact with local community leaders to learn more and provide any assistance that we can.”

But the soothing words and spirit of that statement are contradicted by CAIR’s long history of excusing acts of Muslim terrorism, promoting anti-Semitism and organizing programs and protests demanding Siddiqui’s release. In November, CAIR’s Texas chapter co-hosted a Facebook online discussion titled “Injustice: Dr. Aafia and the 20-year legacy of America’s wars.” The program featured Linda Sarsour, an outspoken Palestinian-American anti-Semite, and former Women’s March leader. She is now the executive director of MPower Change, a Muslim activist group, which also co-hosted the event.

That same month, CAIR’s San Francisco executive director, Zahra Billoo, speaking at a convention for American Muslims for Palestine, said: “When we talk about Islamophobia, we often think of the vehement fascists… but I also want us to pay attention to the polite Zionists, the ones that say, ‘Let’s just break bread together’… We need to pay attention to the Anti-Defamation League, we need to pay attention to the Jewish Federation, we need to pay attention to the Zionist synagogues, we need to pay attention to the Hillel chapters on our campuses.”

Given the anti-Semitic reality of CAIR’s recent history and declared policies, its face-saving condemnation of the attack on the synagogue in Colleyville must be dismissed as a deliberately misleading piece of public relations disinformation.


On the other hand, an editorial published the next day in the region’s main local newspaper, the Dallas Morning News, contained some of the most insightful and moving comments on the outcome of siege:

“The attack on Congregation Beth Israel ended without the bloodshed of the innocent, an answer to many prayers being sent up from every faith community in this region. We are all thankful for that.

“The relief is almost overwhelming that what could have been a massacre of our neighbors in their own place of worship ended not in their deaths but with the brave actions of our law enforcement officers and the safe return home of those who were held captive. . .

The fact that a Jewish synagogue was targeted is a reminder of how an entire people have been scapegoated and demonized throughout history. It can happen again, and we must not let it.

“Even as we think about these things, there is also an opportunity to reflect on what is good.

Inside that synagogue, where Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker and three others were held for 11 hours, great courage and the deepest human decency were on display.

According to reports from the live stream. . . the hostage-taker was [initially] welcomed with kindness. . .

This is at the heart of human goodness, opening the door to the stranger, sheltering him, feeding him. One of the great ancient offenses is to take advantage of those who would open their doors to us. . .

“It matters that we speak up for one another and for those most at risk. American Jews are a tiny fraction of our population, but they are the targets of a disproportionate number of hate crimes, primarily from domestic extremists, according to federal authorities.

“They are singled out and ‘othered’ here and throughout the world.

“We know that we are becoming an increasingly intolerant people — intolerant of one another’s differences and perspectives. Jewish people understand that comes at a terrible price when it turns from disagreement to prejudice to violence.

“We should use this moment — thankfully without the spilling of innocent blood — to reflect on all of these things.”


JNS contributed to this story.



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