The Need To Confront A Shocking Reality

Yesterday, it was announced that an 18-year-old Jewish, Israeli-American was in custody in Israel, accused of placing the majority of bomb threats recently directed at Jewish institutions.

Jonathan A. Greenblatt, the CEO of the ADL issued this formal statement yesterday:

We are relieved there’s been an arrest in the majority of the bomb threats against JCCs, schools, synagogues and several of our offices across the country. We are deeply grateful to the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and the state and local law enforcement officials who made this investigation the highest priority.

While the details of this crime remain unclear, the impact of this individual’s actions is crystal clear: These were acts of anti-Semitism. These threats targeted Jewish institutions, were calculated to sow fear and anxiety, and put the entire Jewish community on high alert.

Even though it appears that the main culprit behind the majority of these attacks has allegedly been identified, anti-Semitism in the U.S. remains a very serious concern. No arrests have been made in three cemetery desecrations or a series of other anti-Semitic incidents involving swastika graffiti and hate fliers.  JCCs and other institutions should not relax security measures or become less vigilant.

We appreciate the support of so many community and organizational leaders, both within and outside the Jewish community, who spoke out and condemned these threats. They understood not only how disruptive they were, but also how they traumatized the people affected, especially young children and senior citizens who were evacuated as a result of these threats.

Also yesterday, The Jewish Federation of North America sent out this press release:

Ten days ago, and again this morning, Jewish leaders were briefed by top officials from the FBI. From those briefings, we learned about the unprecedented level of time and resources that were committed to this investigation along with high levels of cooperation with the Department of Homeland Security and a long list of partners, including Israeli law enforcement. It was heartbreaking to learn that a Jewish man is a prime suspect.”

Our ability to adapt quickly and liaise with law enforcement officials was in large part due to the work of the Secure Community Network. As a community and a society we must remain vigilant in our effort to counter anti-Semitism and other hate crimes as they appear. We are fortunate to know we have partners in law enforcement who will do whatever it takes to bring these perpetrators to justice.

While I whole-heartedly agree with everything shared in the above statements, they do not adequately address the gut-wrenching reality that one of our own is allegedly responsible for terrorizing us. As a community, I believe that we have an obligation to ourselves, our Jewish community and the larger communities of which we are a part, to confront this shocking reality.

In a Tweet yesterday, the American Jewish Committee began to do just this: “If proven, this Israeli teen’s culpability in JCC bomb threats is a lesson in not leaping to assumptions.” Many of us assumed that the anti-Semite or anti-Semitic group that was behind the bomb threats would have links to alt-right organizations, white supremacists and/or radical Islamic terrorists. Learning that a Jewish kid allegedly placed these calls from his home in Israel teaches us a very powerful lesson about making assumptions. If the allegations against this teen are true, this nightmare reminds us that we can be our own worst enemies.

We do not yet know the motives of the accused teen. It has been reported that he suffers from a non-malignant brain tumor that prevents him from making rational decisions. Yesterday, while being taken into custody, it was reported that he grabbed an officer’s gun. In addition, authorities assert that the teen threatened Delta Airlines back in 2015, forcing a plane to make an emergency landing. We also know that he was in possession of complex hacking technology that he used to terrorize the Jewish community. He appears to be a disturbed young man with many issues. He has caused terror in the Jewish community. The financial ramifications of his actions to the Jewish community and the local, national and international resources that were used to find him have been tremendous. In Judaism, there is the drastic tradition of excommunicating (herem) someone who seriously threatens the Jewish community. There is also the concept of teshuvah or repentance. While the courts will determine this young man’s fate after weighing the evidence and evaluating his mental health, many of us within the Jewish community – still reeling from weeks of threats – are struggling with our own feelings about what should happen to him.

On top of this, we must recognize that this young man’s actions have the potential to jeopardize the Jewish community’s global fight against anti-Semitism. As a community, we have been outraged by these threats and demanded that our political leaders and law enforcement agencies take action and protect us from those who hate us. And all the while, the perpetrator was hiding among us. We understand that in no way does the fact that this teen is a Jew diminish the anti-Semitic nature of his actions that terrorized us all. However, outside of the Jewish community, this might not be so easily understood. In fact, his actions have the potential to belittle our demands for more protection and security. We run the risk of becoming the community that “cried wolf” even though there are still many individuals and organizations out there that seek to do us harm – even though anti-Semitism is still very, very real.

Therefore, as a Jewish community we must do more than express our heartache that the alleged perpetrator of these threats was a Jew. We must express our horror that one of our own would endanger the wellbeing of the Jewish community and add fuel to the long burning fire of hate that continues to threaten Jews across the planet. We must remind our political leaders and law enforcement agencies that the plague of anti-Semitism is not over just because this individual has been caught.

On another note, you might have read about possible budget cuts in Florida that could affect local Holocaust survivors. I have been in touch with Commissioner Steve Geller about these cuts and he suggests that we call the following people, not because we have been told to do so, but because these cuts are a concern to us as Florida voters. The budget cuts are not final and phone calls are being monitored closely:

  • Senator Anitere Flores (she is the Chair of the committee overseeing cuts): 850-487-5039
  • My friend, Senator Kevin Rader – who does not want these cuts to go through: 850-487-5029
  • Senator Jack Latvela (Chair of the Budget Committee): 850-487-5016

A BDS Leader’s Fundraising Campaign Leaves Me Stumped

This week, the Jewish community continued to be rocked to its core by anti-Semitic acts, including more bomb threats called into Jewish institutions across the country and the desecration of the Chesed Shel Emeth, a Jewish cemetery in University City, Missouri. While the President has been criticized by many for his delayed response to this hatred, the outpouring of support that the cemetery has received has been tremendous. The Vice-President visited the cemetery on Wednesday along with people of all different faiths to stand in solidarity with the Jewish community. Our own Julie Cole, a student at Washington University, has worked with her Hillel to raise funds needed to repair the damage done to the cemetery, which is just ten minutes from her apartment. Many other individuals and organizations are doing the same thing, including Linda Sarsour, the outgoing Executive Director of the Arab American Association of NY, a former Democratic National Convention delegate (she was a supporter of Bernie Sanders) and an organizer of last month’s Women’s March on Washington. Ms. Sarsour, in partnership with Tarek El-Messidi of Celebrate Mercy, has raised more than $100,000 for the cemetery on Launchgood.com.

During this challenging time, it’s extremely meaningful to see so many people from various faiths and backgrounds reach out and support the Jewish community. This being said, I’m struggling with Ms. Sarsour’s support. My struggle is based on a larger struggle I have with “intersectionality,” the trendy, sociological term that describes how different groups that form around various religious, socio-economic, national, racial, ethnic and/or gender identities can, at times, share a common struggle. Unquestionably, both the American Jewish and Muslim communities have been confronted with terrible hate and violence. We do understand, to an extent, each other’s pain and fear and must stand with each other during these trying times. Many members of the Jewish community have supported the Muslim community when they have faced acts of hate, and I’m grateful to all members of the Muslim community who have supported our community – including those who have given to Ms. Sarsour’s Launchgood fund – when the hate has been directed at us.

This being said, Ms. Sarsour is a staunch advocate of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Campaign (BDS) which is designed to delegitimize the State of Israel. Democratic Senator Chuck Shumer states very clearly that BDS is a “modern form of anti-Semitism.” And the Anti-Defamation League, which has stood in opposition to all forms of Islamaphobia, states:

The delegitimization of Israel is at the heart of contemporary anti-Semitism. BDS is one of its most visible and dangerous manifestations.  ADL is committed to exposing the bigotry at the core of the movement and discrediting the leaders of BDS.

Ms. Sarsour, who has built strong relationships with some American Jewish organizations and leaders, claims she’s not an anti-Semite. Her strong support of BDS (watch Ms. Sarsour testify on behalf of BDS in NYC last September here), however, tells a different story. And her hateful comments about Zionists drive this story home:

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Interestingly, while organizers of the Women’s March on Washington worked hard to keep Israel-Palestine issues from being part of last month’s protest, Ms. Sarsour’s involvement in the BDS Movement did keep some individuals and organizations from participating.

In addition to being a staunch BDS advocate, Ms. Sarsour believes that the solution to the Israel-Palestinian crisis is a one-state solution, a solution that will ensure a Palestinian majority and, thus, the end of the Jewish State (yes, during the press conference with President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu earlier this month, you heard about a one-state solution that would favor Israelis). Ms. Sarsour states:

I don’t think a two-state solution is viable, is logistically possible…My hope is that it will be one state, one man one vote, that everyone is treated equally. Then you can say that part of the world is a true democracy.

Ms. Sarsour, who has been subject to a great deal of scrutiny lately, believes that by supporting the restoration of the graves at Chesed Shel Emeth, we can send “a united message…from the Jewish and Muslim communities that” makes it clear that “there is no place for this type of hate, desecration, and violence in America.” I certainly agree that as two powerful religious communities, we do have the ability to send such a message. However, I personally believe that Ms. Sarsour’s involvement in the delivery of this message is completely inappropriate and inauthentic to her position and the position of many of us in the Jewish community.

Pinned to the top of Ms. Sarsour’s Twitter account is the following tweet:

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Sadly, Ms. Sarsour has no problem denying the rights of others to exist. We see this in her support of the BDS Movement. We also see her reject those who want to stand up to Islamaphobia but don’t meet all of her requirements. When Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO of the ADL, promised to register as a Muslim if the Trump administration created a religious database, Ms. Sarsour attacked Mr. Greenblatt’s promise by tweeting:

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Ms. Sarsour belittles Mr. Greenblatt’s support because the ADL has come out againstCongressman Keith Ellison becoming the chair of the Democratic National Committee due to anti-Israel and anti-Semitic statements he made. You can read the ADL’s statement on Congressman Ellison here.

Back in November, American Muslims for Palestine (an organization that, according to the ADL, promotes anti-Israel and anti-Semitic views) held their Annual Convention for Palestine in Chicago. Ms. Sarsour spoke at the convention saying (you can also hear a recording of her speaking these words here):

We have limits to the type of friendships that we’re looking for right now…and I want to be friends with those whom I know have been steadfast, courageous, have been standing up and protecting their own communities, those who have taken the risk to stand up and say – we are with the Palestinian people, we unequivocally support BDS when it comes to Palestinian human rights and have been attacked viciously by the very people who are telling you that they’re about to stand on the front line of the Muslim registry program. No thank you, sisters and brothers.

Ms. Sarsour told NPR earlier this week that her fundraising effort for Chesed Shel Emeth is “another way for us to publicly defy the idea that Muslims and Jews can’t get along.” However, her comments at the American Muslims for Palestine convention, comments which are very similar to her pinned tweet posted above, make it explicitly clear: if you don’t share her views on BDS and the Palestinian cause, you are no friend. And if you are an Israeli, she will work tirelessly to undermine your country’s legitimacy. How does this encourage Muslims and Jews to get along?

As troubled as I am by Ms. Sarsour’s statements, she has every right to say them and believe in them. But, her positions highlight the absurdity of intersectionality here.  She wants the Jewish community to join her and stand up to hate. But, in order for us to do so, to genuinely stand with her, she has one major condition: we must support the delegitimization of the Jewish State – a condition that many of us see as anti-Semitic – a condition that is grounded in hate.

There are those who believe that, despite Ms. Sarsour’s condition, her effort to help Chesed Shel Emeth is admirable. Some American Jews can separate the hateful rhetoric of BDS from the well-being of the American Jewish community. I can’t. Working to undermine the existence of the Jewish State is, as Senator Shumer states, anti-Semitism. And anti-Semitism is hate that is dangerous to Jews in Israel, in America and across the globe. I can’t enter into a partnership with someone who threatens the very survival of Israel.

Many of us in the Jewish community stand in opposition to BDS and in support of the ADL. Given this, Ms. Sarsour would not befriend us, making it extremely difficult to stand together against the desecration of Chesed Shel Emeth. And this leaves me struggling to figure out why Ms. Sarsour is raising funds for the cemetery. Is it a good will gesture? A show of compassion? An attempt to build bridges? If she dropped the condition to unequivocally support BDS – perhaps. But, since this condition is still very much on the table as Ms. Sarsour leaves her position at the Arab American Association of NY and lands in the national spotlight, I can’t help but wonder if this is a well-orchestrated public relations campaign. If so, it’s worked exceptionally well. Everyone is talking about Ms. Sarsour’s support of the Chesed Shel Emeth. But, for those of us whose pro-Israel and anti-BDS positions would keep Ms. Sarsour from befriending us, we’re willing to be the “out of key instruments” in that well-orchestrated campaign. While on the surface, Ms. Sarsour’s support of the cemetery seems like a beautiful effort to unite the Jewish and Muslim communities, when we dig deeper it is clear that there are more genuine ways for Jews to support the restoration of Chesed Shel Emeth. I encourage you to learn more about Washington University’s Hillel fundraiser by clicking here. And, as always, I urge you to do your homework before you give your resources and lend your name to a cause.