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This weekend's events in Texas where four people were taken hostage at a synagogue have renewed concerns about potential targeting of groups and the threats of anti-Semitism. Amna Nawaz reports on how this latest anti-Semitic incident is impacting the Jewish community, and what it says about the state of hate in America more broadly.
This weekend's events in Texas where four people were taken hostage at a synagogue has renewed concerns about potential targeting of groups and the threats of anti-Semitism.
Amna Nawaz has our coverage.
After surviving more than 11 hours on Saturday held at gunpoint in his Texas synagogue, Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker spoke today with "CBS Mornings."
Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, Congregation Beth Israel:
It was terrifying, it was overwhelming.
Sharing for the first time how and he and other hostages escaped.
Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker:
I threw a chair at the gunman, and I headed for the door. And all three of us were able to get out without even a shot being fired.
The FBI has identified the hostage-taker as Malik Faisal Akram, a 44-year-old British citizen.
On Saturday morning, Akram entered Congregation Beth Israel in the Fort Worth suburb of Colleyville, taking the rabbi and three congregants hostage during a livestreamed sabbath service. More than 200 local, state, and federal law enforcement quickly converged on the site, and hostage negotiators engaged with Akram, reportedly heard on the livestream demanding the release of Dr. Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani neuroscientist convicted in 2010 of trying to kill American soldiers in Afghanistan.
Currently serving an 86-year sentence in a Fort Worth federal prison, Siddiqui has become a cause celebre for Islamist extremists. The synagogue standoff stretched on for hours. Around 5:00 p.m. Saturday, an elderly hostage was released unharmed. Around 9:00 p.m., the others managed to escape.
Law enforcement reportedly approached the building, shots were fired, and Akram was left dead. It's unclear how he died. Later that night, the FBI provided an update.
Matt Desarno, FBI Dallas Special Agent in Charge: We obviously are investigating. We will continue to investigate the hostage-taker. We will continue to investigate his contacts. Our investigation will have global reach.
On Sunday, in Northwestern England, British police detained two teenagers for questioning as part of the probe.
Back in the U.S., in a Sunday night statement, the FBI called the attack — quote — "a terrorism-related matter" in which the Jewish community was targeted, this at a time of rising anti-Semitism in America.
According to the Anti-Defamation League, more than 2,000 anti-Semitic incidents were reported in 2020, the third highest year on record. In recent years, Jewish institutions nationwide have ramped up security, including training for their community.
In a Sunday statement, Rabbi Cytron-Walker said those trainings at Congregation Beth Israel saved their lives, writing — quote — "In the last hour of our hostage crisis, the gunman became increasingly belligerent and threatening. Without the instruction we received, we would not have been prepared to act and flee when the situation presented itself."
In the aftermath and, as a precaution, an increase in security at Jewish institutions across America.
For more on how this latest anti-Semitic attack is impacting Jewish communities and what it says about the state of hate more broadly, I'm joined by Jonathan Greenblatt. He is the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League and the author of a new book called "It Could Happen Here: Why America Is Tipping from Hate to the Unthinkable and How We Can Stop It."
Jonathan, welcome back to the "NewsHour." Thank you for being here.
The rabbi is saying that the only reason they all made it out alive was because of trainings. The idea that they had prepared for something that could potentially happen to them was just one of the most revealing moments in the last day or so.
And I have to ask you, how widespread is that fear, that fear in Jewish communities that it could happen to them too?
Jonathan Greenblatt, Anti-Defamation League:
Well, Amna, I will start out by saying how grateful we are that the rabbi and the other hostages were rescued safely.
His heroism clearly saved the day, as well as the brave work of law enforcement, particularly of the FBI.
That being said, I was also humbled that the rabbi mentioned specifically that training from the FBI and the ADL helped save their lives. Jews across the country are terrified in this moment, as you and I have talked about before on this program.
We have seen Jews attacked at JCCs, synagogues, kosher supermarkets, again, what happened just this weekend. They are alarmed. And there is so much anxiety right now to see our sacred spaces under siege in this way.
The reality is, as the rabbi said, indeed, clergy across the country who want to study Torah end up having to learn tactical maneuvers because of evil people with anti-Semitic ideas who are willing to bring violence into our communities.
The data doesn't lie. Despite the fact that Jews are less than 2 percent of the U.S. population, 60 percent of the faith-oriented hate crimes target Jewish communities across the country. So they are feeling vulnerable right now to violence. They are worried. And so all of us are just in a state of shock.
And, Jonathan, you and I have talked about these rising numbers before. A number of people report on them again and again. And yet there are a lot of people who don't believe this is happening.
Your colleagues at the ADL wrote about the reaction online, in very extremist circles, we should note, ranging from Islamist extremists sort of hailing this, but also a bunch of people sort of denying that it happened or calling it a staged or a fake attack that they say Jewish people are using to get sympathy.
How — where does that come from? And, also, has that kind of denialism been getting worse?
It's stunning and sickening, but not surprising.
If you were to ask me, why are we living in this moment, I think social media, which has brought an unfettered flow of sewage from the margins into the mainstream, has a lot to do with it.
The demonization of Jews, of Israel, of Zionism makes all Jews feel literally vulnerable and under a kind of siege. And the failure of the big platforms to do anything, but also, Amna, the honestly the failure of people in public life to speak out clearly and consistently on both sides of the aisle.
People on the left people on the right, they weaponize these claims, and, honestly, Jews get caught in the middle. So I do think, as our country is more polarizing than it's been in literally generations, you're seeing this play out more and more, where anti-Semitism is amplified, and all kinds of hate are on the rise.
And, again, unfortunately, there's simply a real history and there's real-world violence that occurs when this kind of rhetoric just explodes all over our platforms in the public conversation.
Which brings me to your book title, because that's a worry I think a lot of people have, the idea of tipping from hate to the unthinkable.
What are you worried that we're heading towards? And how do we keep from going there?
Well, look, I mean, the unthinkable is, I would go to shul on a Saturday morning and end up held hostage for 12 hours.
The unthinkable is that my wife would go to a kosher supermarket, and suddenly she could be shot and killed by an evil Black Hebrew Israelite. The unthinkable is that a college town like Charlottesville could be marched upon by white supremacists out in the open. And, today, people still deny what happened just a year ago.
Look, I'm the grandson of a Holocaust survivor from Germany, Amna, who never could have imagined that the only country he had ever known would turn on him, destroy everything that he loved, and slaughter almost his entire family and friends. And I'm the husband of a political refugee from Iran, whose family, the only country they had ever known, it turned on them after the Islamic Revolution, destroyed everything that they loved, and they fled for their lives.
So, today, in a moment, where we have to have the kind of security at our synagogues that you associate with Fort Knox, we're moving toward the unthinkable. And I think it's time all of us realize, this anti-Semitism, Amna, it's not a Jewish problem. It's an American problem.
This is a failure of our democracy. And we need to — we need to take it that seriously.
Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, thank you for speaking with such clarity. We really appreciate you being with us today.
Thank you for having me.
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Amna Nawaz joined PBS NewsHour in April 2018 and serves as the program's chief correspondent and primary substitute anchor.
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