Is a synagogue a security risk?
The question inspires derision, but unbelievably enough, a municipal council in Australia recently banned the construction of a Chabad-affiliated synagogue, Congregation of Friends of Refugees of Eastern Europe, on precisely these specious grounds.
The decision, taken in the Sydney suburb of Bondi, was upheld by a land use court, causing understandable indignation in the Jewish community. The Land and Environment Court ruled that the proposed shul, a few hundred meters from one of the most famous beaches in the country, would pose a threat to both congregants and local residents.
The verdict was handed down amid reports that two Arab men from Sydney had been arrested last month on charges of trying to smuggle a bomb abroad a plane. The explosive device was supplied by Islamic State, the jihadist organization which has taken credit for a string of bombings around the world. Australian police described it as the most sophisticated plot of its kind in years. Since 2014, the authorities have foiled 13 terrorist plots.
It’s possible, perhaps probable, that the municipal council and the court were influenced by the spectre of terrorism, which haunts Australia today. But even if this supposition is incorrect, their respective decisions were silly and illogical, an implicit invitation to terrorists to wreak yet more havoc.
Peter Wertheim, the executive director of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, correctly pointed out that the decisions were not only “perplexing,” but “concerning.” As he observed, “The threat of Islamist terrorism is directed at everyone, not only the Jewish community. Are we going to stop building churches and Hindu temples in our suburbs, simply because they might become the targets of Islamist terrorists? Are we going to stop building mosques simply because they might become the targets of anti-Muslim extremists?”
The chief executive of the Jewish Board of Deputies, Vic Alhadeff, made an important point as well, lamenting that a dangerous precedent had been set by two otherwise responsible bodies.
“It is a very sad day for Australia if an established community, which needs a house of worship, is refused permission to build because of fear that others may pose a threat,” he said. “This simply shows how we’re all losing our freedoms. Those who want us to be afraid are winning.”
In the ongoing battle against Islamic extremism, of which Islamic State is but one manifestation, governments and institutions must show resoluteness, boldness, strength and confidence in their values. If they succumb to fear and appeasement, they will only embolden Muslim radicals and encourage them to launch yet more indiscriminate attacks.
Under no circumstances can terrorism be rewarded. But that’s exactly what the Bondi municipal council and the Land and Environment Court did in denying the Jewish community permission to build a synagogue.
This misguided and absurd decision should be rolled back immediately. There is absolutely no room for it in a society that upholds democratic and pluralistic norms and cherishes freedom of religion.