My colleague and friend Rabbi David Wolkenfeld of Chicago said it best in a tweet: “Being a Rabbi means knowing when to pour a cup of tea, and when to throw a chair.” I’ve been thinking about that a great deal as I reflect on the events this past week in Colleyville, Texas.
By now, all of us are familiar with the heroism, bravery and intelligence Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker displayed during his 11-hour ordeal. After a week in which we have been inundated with news, with opinions, with phone calls, with security briefings, how should we respond? Here are a few related ideas I’ve been mulling over.
The terror attack in Colleyville left many of us feeling both very supported and extremely alone. We watched with bated breath as the situation unfolded, and breathed tearful sighs of relief when the hostages broke free. The expressions of support and prayer from non-Jews across the political spectrum and spanning all religious traditions were truly touching.
But as heartening as it was that so many joined with us in praying for a positive outcome, it was equally infuriating that so many refused to identify what it was: an act of antisemitism at the hands of an Islamic terrorist. Even saying this sentence can cause someone to be labeled an Islamophobe, so let me be clear that I do not consider all Muslims to be terrorists, G-d forbid. But this was an act of terror with a distinct Islamic motivation, as the terrorist attempted to use it to secure the release of one of his most infamous colleagues, Dr. Aafia Siddiqui – “Lady Al Qaeda” – who is the subject of an aggressive campaign to secure her freedom, and the organization that is at the forefront of this effort is the Council on American Islamic Relations.
It must be said that CAIR did condemn Malik Faisal Akram’s actions and that not all Muslims consider CAIR to be their representative organization. But CAIR spokespersons have called Zionist Jews the enemies of human rights, and have said, “We need to pay attention to the Zionist Synagogues.” Siddiqui is one of the most infamous architects of acts of terror currently in captivity. In the terrorist world, she is a cause celebre, and her antisemitism is legendary: she demanded that all jurors in her trial take a DNA test to prove they have no Jewish blood. When she was sentenced to 86 years in prison, she turned to the jury and said, “This verdict is coming from Israel, not America.”
Cytron-Walker said that the terrorist repeatedly expressed his belief that Jews control the world, yet another iteration of that conspiracy theory that regularly rears its ugly head, as dangerous as it is irrational. Right now, in the northwest provinces of China, millions of Faisal Akram’s fellow Muslims from the Uyghur ethnic group are being subjected to an actual, modern-day physical and cultural genocide at the hands of the Chinese government. Yet, when looking for a cause with which to express solidarity, and a target for his deranged, murderous designs, Akram traveled halfway around the world and chose a synagogue, a place where Jews pray, where Jews gather in community, where Jews perform acts of kindness – the very pretext he used to insinuate his way into the premises in the first place.
When an FBI agent said that the demands of the terrorist had “nothing to do with the Jewish community,” it was false. To say that this had nothing to do with antisemitism is an act of antisemitism itself.
And yet we continue to allow ourselves to be gaslighted by government officials and in media coverage of this incident. We have been told that the FBI freed the hostages, when in fact they freed themselves. Media coverage has called Malik Faisal Akram “the hostage-taker,” a euphemism only reserved for those who attack Jews – as if taking hostages is like taking your temperature or taking a census; attacking an Asian salon or a church or a mosque would justifiably label one a racist terrorist, but somehow that appellation is not granted to those who attack Jews.
It should not be the job of Jews to fight antisemitism; we shouldn’t have to educate others on what is and what isn’t antisemitic. The sad reality, though, is that we have to, because it is part of our daily lives, yet no one really cares all that much about the fear with which we live. The least we can do is welcome allies of any faith and all political persuasions who will fight with us and for us without trying to change us, in good faith and without ulterior motives.
Yes, I’ve been thinking about how the world reacted to this incident, but I’ve also been thinking about how we reacted to this incident. In his Torah commentary titled Ktav Sofer, Rav Avraham Shmuel Binyamin Sofer of Pressburg offers a fascinating insight. We think of the revelation at Sinai, which is partially repeated in this week’s parsha, as a moment of mass unity. As our Sages tell us, “‘And there Israel encamped as one man and with one mind’ – but all their other encampments were made in a murmuring spirit and in a spirit of dissension.” (Mechilta d’Rabbi Yishmael 19:2:10)
The Ktav Sofer pointed out that it defies belief that every Jew wanted to accept the Torah. No doubt at least several weren’t on board. But they recognized that it was the right thing to do, so they suppressed their misgivings or negativity for the sake of unity – an example I wish some of us had followed. First, there was a report online accusing Rabbi Cytron-Walker of a lack of faith and belief because he didn’t mention G-d in his Facebook post right after he escaped (though he did repeatedly in the service his community ran the following night).
Then, it was the extensive discussion about how his congregation had voted not to renew his contract and the anonymous congregant who said that the event of Shabbos had “changed nothing.” There were the repeated references to his views on Israel that so many people sent me, as if he therefore deserved to be taken hostage, or was less deserving of his subsequent freedom.
Cytron-Walker has since asserted his strong support for Israel, and has denied, on record, stating that Israel is an apartheid state. But even if he did think that, it would be irrelevant. It didn’t matter to the terrorist; political and religious viewpoints never do, not in Colleyville or any of the other locations that were the sites of recent terror attacks.
Terrorists didn’t care that the Tree of Life is a Conservative congregation, that Chabad of Poway is a Chassidic community, and that Congregation Beth Israel is a Reform temple. Rabbi Cytron-Walker and three of his congregants were taken hostage for one reason, and one reason only: he is a Jew, and that’s reason enough to identify with him, to empathize with him, to pray for his family and his community, to praise his heroism and to thank G-d without qualification and with no asterisk that he emerged safely.
We may have religious differences with our heterodox brethren, and we may have political differences with plenty of other Jews, but the lesson of the unity of receiving the Torah is that even if you are thinking something wrong or divisive, it might not be the most opportune time to express it – now, and maybe not ever. This kind of negativity is not who we should be! I am deeply proud of the way my community responded on Saturday night, as 210 screens, representing many more people, signed in to our virtual Tehillim session. I know that many other communities and shuls from all Jewish denominations across the country conducted similar prayer sessions. This is who we are. There are times when we need to make tea, and times when we need to throw chairs – and this was a time to make tea.