Guard my synagogue? No, thank you

“A sign of the times,” an acquaintance sighed as the two of us approached the entrance to our Orthodox Jewish synagogue in Passaic, New Jersey a few months ago. At the glass doors of the building stood two young men whose appearance was familiar, but not their posture: instead of walking inside to pray like the rest of us, these fellows were standing stiffly just outside the entrance, looking warily in all directions, yarmulkes pushed back, walkie-talkies at the ready.

And then I remembered: our synagogue was now training volunteers as amateur door guards – putting them through a quick course in martial arts, teaching them how to spot “trouble” in the offing, how to summon police by radio, how to question suspicious-looking people.

Because – “Well, you know…you never know.”

I’ll say. I guess some people never do know what they know – at least, not if they think turning synagogue members into part-time janissaries is the way to deal with what they call “security” and I call a guilty conscience.

Oh yes, I know the standard line: “We’re only trying to protect ourselves.” Spare me that one. If you can’t even admit what you’re really afraid of – which, in plain language, is that some angry Arabs or Muslims may have noticed our religious community’s complicity in Israeli atrocities and are thinking of paying us back – I can’t sympathize with either the hand-wringing or the tough-guy posturing.

And besides, if you’re not training volunteers to protect mosques, where they’re demonstrably needed much more acutely than in front of synagogues, then even by your own standards you’re not solving anything; in fact, you’re part of the problem.

Think I’m being contrary? Maybe you’ve forgotten the ominous warning circulated by the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York just before Passover this year, to the effect that synagogues were “attractive targets for multiple terrorist groups…and their adherents” – even though the same report conceded the absence of any evidence “indicating a specific threat to New York City or Jewish institutions during the Passover holiday.” In fact, JCRC couldn’t produce evidence of a single recent attack on a synagogue in the United States.

But oh, weren’t we all agog about that warning! – in fact, by that time my own synagogue’s door-guarding program was well under way. Yet my community uttered not a word over the fact that, during that same year, some 35 mosques had already been attacked or vandalized in the U.S. by the time the JCRC did its public head-shaking about Muslim “terrorist groups” – just as it had remained silent throughout the previous year, when the Council of American Islamic Relations reported 139 similar anti-mosque incidents. Who is really facing danger, and who is just making noise about it?

Sure, we wanted “security.” But why did we think we needed it in the first place? You know the answer. For years, our community – our religious community, not some “radical Muslim” one – has given carte blanche to Israel’s brutal occupation of Palestinian territory, and to the vicious tactics its army uses to enforce it. We’ve either looked the other way, or openly applauded, as children were tortured, as homes were demolished, as Israel imposed an apartheid regime on millions of Palestinians and turned parts of Gaza – where 2 million people live crammed into what even the U.K.’s David Cameron called “an open-air prison” – into a moonscape.

And now we’re afraid, is that it? – afraid some people may know about this, and may not like it?

Suppose that’s true. Isn’t there a simpler solution than posting guards at the door? Why not announce publicly and forcefully that we, as Jews committed to the moral principles of Judaism, repudiate the crimes committed by Israel? Assuming we do face some kind of backlash because of Israel’s actions, such a declaration should have cut off that danger at the roots.

But we didn’t do that, did we? As I write this, Ami Magazine (one of the country’s biggest Orthodox Jewish weeklies) is reporting about the catastrophic flooding in Houston, where Rabbi Gidon Moskovitz laments that “approximately 20 families from his congregation have lost their homes.” Seeing “footage of one of the families entering the [temporary shelter]…broke my heart,” says Rabbi Moskovitz. The rabbi’s heart was similarly affected by the kidnapping of three Israeli settler youths in occupied Palestinian territory in June 2014, as his public statements at the time attest. Yet I can find no record of any compassionate utterance from the rabbi about more than 100,000 Palestinians left homeless in Gaza later that same summer by Israeli bombs and artillery, not to mention the 2,200 Gazans killed in Israel’s assault, including over 500 children. And that ghastly double standard was pretty much the rule throughout Jewish media.

Want to tell me that threats to synagogues in other countries could presage similar troubles in this one? Don’t bother: you’ve picked up the story by the wrong end. I too remember the hoopla about a mob of anti-Semites that supposedly attacked a Paris synagogue on Bastille Day in 2014 (while helpless Jews “cowered” inside) at a time when Israel’s campaign against Gaza had already killed more than 150 people. But I also know that a video available on Youtube shows the synagogue was never attacked at all; the violence was started by Jewish Defense League hoodlums who assaulted a group of demonstrators engaged in a noisy but nonviolent protest in the street outside.

And the big story of that day – one never told in Jewish media – was that the site itself had been chosen by the JDL (who announced their plans in advance) for a rally in support of Israel’s murderous assault under the title “Keep Calm and Kill Hamas.” Jews – not Palestinians, not Muslims – deliberately picked the street in front of the Synagogue de la Roquette as a venue for celebrating mass murder. And this was neither protested by the synagogue at the time nor condemned by the organized Jewish community afterwards. Are we still going to try to play the innocent victim?

Yes, there’s been plenty of propaganda about “rising anti-Semitism” in Europe – Deborah Lipstadt’s column in the New York Times in August 2014 (just in time to deflect attention from the Israeli massacre) was particularly shameless, as were a couple of Jewish academics at Johns Hopkins not long afterward, one whom claimed that it is now “harder for Jews to be openly Jewish in Europe without being harassed.” But the truth is different. Jews received overwhelmingly favorable marks in France and Germany in a 2008 Pew Research Center poll examining public attitudes toward religious groups. An even more recent survey taken by France’s National Human Rights Consultative Committee concluded that “Jews are by far the best accepted minority in France today.” Since when does such a minority get to claim it’s uniquely under siege?

So take the guards away. I don’t want them. To me, they reek of hypocrisy, of the fussing and fidgeting people do to avoid looking in a mirror. I can still remember when the Orthodox Union boasted of its religious efforts to “build up the soldiers in the field” in order to make them “better fighter[s]” as they spread death and destruction in the Cast Lead slaughter, killing over 300 children in Gaza in just 22 days. Guarding our synagogue doors is our way of saying we’re not going to apologize for endorsing such things – we’re not even going to change course. On the contrary, we’re doubling down. Am I supposed to sympathize with that?

And for heaven’s sake, don’t ask me how I’ll feel if something does happen. Because you’re asking that question of the wrong person. My honesty didn’t create this situation. The moral cowardice of Jewish leadership did. The issue isn’t how to protect our doors. The issue is, or should be, how to end a long and shameful story of complicity in crimes all Jewish communities should have condemned a long time ago.

If we can’t do that, we’ve got much deeper problems than how to train young Jews to interrogate strangers or call the police. Problems we ought to be facing. Right now.

About the Author
Michael Lesher is an author, lawyer and Orthodox Jew who lives in Passaic, NJ. His most recent book is Sexual Abuse, Shonda and Concealment in Orthodox Jewish Communities (McFarland & Co., 2014).
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