Security experts are warning that last week’s deadly shooting at the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle is part of a tide of anti-Jewish sentiment that has been rising since the beginning of Israel’s incursion into Lebanon — and could lead to more violent attacks against Diaspora communities.
The shooter in Seattle, who has been described as mentally unstable, appears not to have acted with any organizational support; he is what is known as a “lone wolf” in security circles. But security experts say that lone wolves tend to act during times of conflict. Moreover, Jewish defense agencies said that since the current conflict in Lebanon began, they have seen a rise in the sort of antisemitic incidents that serve as precursors and prods to violence.
At the same time, security experts have been publicly worrying about attacks by organized terror cells in America, particularly ones linked to Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shii’te militia that is battling with Israel.
“There is an increased danger to Jewish institutions based on anyone’s objective analysis, including the FBI,” said Steve Pomerantz, a former FBI counterterrorism chief. Pomerantz is now director of counter-terrorism programming at the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs.
American security officials were reluctant to quantify the increase in threatening incidents, but said there has been a spike in threatening e-mails and telephone calls to, as well as vandalism of, Jewish institutions around the country. Similar trends appeared to be taking hold across the Atlantic.
Officials at the Community Security Trust, a British Jewish defense agency, say that since the start of the conflict in Lebanon, the number of antisemitic incidents in England
has doubled in comparison to the same time last year. In recent days, two major attacks have been launched against Jewish institutions in Australia.
Law enforcement officials have said there has been no specific terrorist threat against a Jewish institution in America. But even before the attack in Seattle, the Secure Community Network — a New York-based agency set up by a few national Jewish organizations — had sent out an e-mail alert to Jewish organizations across the country, warning them that the FBI and other law enforcement agencies “are exercising more than the usual vigilance in light of the prevailing events in the Middle East.”
In the last week, the Anti-Defamation League reported incidents of antisemitic vandalism in Brooklyn, Miami, Detroit and Chicago. Given the Seattle shooter’s use of the Internet to track down the Jewish federation, an equally pressing concern is anti-Jewish rhetoric on the Web. The head of intelligence at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups, said he had seen “an uptick not only in radical right criticism of the Jews, but also mainstream criticism of the Jews.”
The head of the center’s Intelligence Project, Mark Potok, added: “This is not merely parlor room discussion of politics in the Middle East. It is a discussion about the evils of Jews.”
Potok also said that Muslim and Arab Americans were still more likely than Jews to be the target of hate crimes in the United States.
In Australia, on Sunday night, a synagogue in the Sydney suburbs was attacked by a group of men who stoned the building and threw concrete blocks at two cars on the property. Witnesses said they saw 10 men who appeared to be of Middle Eastern origin running away from the synagogue in Parramatta. In a separate attack early Wednesday, vandals attempted to set a Jewish youth center in Sydney on fire, according to the daily newspaper The Australian. Wooden blocks were doused with oil and set on fire inside the center, but little damage was done.
Geoffrey Zygier, executive director of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, said that both attacks were part of a larger climate of violence and tension that has been aroused by the conflict in Lebanon and Israel. Australia has a community of some 125,000 Lebanese.
“There’s an increase in tension,” Zygier said. “There is concern in our community that there will be spillover.”
The violence rekindles a long-running debate about whether Israel should consider the effect its policies might have on Diaspora Jewish communities. Two years ago, an Israeli think tank, the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, issued a report recommending that “Israeli decision-makers should take into account not only what happens in Israel or to Israelis.”
That report had particular bite because the Jewish Agency, an organization jointly run by the Israeli government and Diaspora philanthropies, sponsors the think tank. The recommendation was roundly rejected by many American Jewish leaders as a leftist effort to subvert Israeli sovereignty — and was criticized again this week by Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.
“It’s not a government mandate, and it would be inappropriate,” Foxman said. “Security issues in America are in the hands of law enforcement and the Jewish community here.”
The head of the Jewish Agency think tank, Avinoam Bar-Yosef, said that before the current incursion into Lebanon, the Israeli government had, in fact, considered the implications for the Diaspora community and had talks with organizational leaders. Bar-Yosef refused to discuss the particulars of these talks, and the Israeli embassy in Washington did not return calls seeking comment on the issue.
The prime incident that caused concern in the past was the 1994 attack on the Jewish communal building in Buenos Aires, which killed 85. The attack is attributed to Hezbollah and is viewed as retribution for Israeli military action in southern Lebanon.
The current violence is again raising the specter of Hezbollah attacks outside the Middle East. In 2003, the FBI testified that Hezbollah had 12 sleeper cells in the United States, according to Yehudit Barsky, director of the American Jewish Committee’s division on Middle East and international terrorism. Barsky says that in recent weeks, Middle Eastern media reports indicate that Hezbollah was recently called in by the Iranian government, which funds Hezbollah, and asked to consider striking in Western countries.
“With emotions running high right now, you have the possibility of an individual getting very exercised, but you also have operatives of the Iranian government and cells of Hezbollah,” Barsky said.
For now, Jewish defense agencies have been particularly focused on potential perpetrators acting alone. Before the shooting in Seattle, it was a lone wolf who shot at a bus of Hasidic teenagers on the Brooklyn Bridge in 1994. Soon after, an Israeli Jew killed 29 Muslims who were praying in the West Bank. In 2002, it was another lone actor who opened fire at an El Al ticket counter at the Los Angeles airport, killing three.
Security agencies have flown into action since the Seattle shooting. The Secure Community Network, which has existed for a year and a half, set up a 24-hour hotline and ran a steady stream of conference calls with Jewish agencies across the country. With those calls, the network has recommended that agencies assign security coordinators in every location, and that Jewish organizations provide a map of their buildings to local law enforcement officials.
In one particularly revealing conference call Tuesday, a law enforcement official said that some of the carnage in Seattle might have been avoided if the federation had a lockdown plan. With such a plan, employees would have been notified of the attack and then moved into a single room that could be locked from the inside until the shooter was neutralized. The head of the New York Jewish Community Relations Council, David Pollock, said that after the conference call he urged New York Jewish institutions to create a lockdown plan.
Jewish institutions have long been aware of the threat of terrorist attacks. In Seattle, the federation had a double-door security system that the shooter foiled. Now, federations across the country are announcing additional measures. In such cities as Cincinnati, Boston, Denver and Miami, armed security guards have been in front of the federation building since the shooting.
In Denver, the federation offered to pay for security at other local Jewish institutions for the next week. The Chicago federation has moved up an annual meeting between law enforcement agencies and synagogues from its normal September date.
Miami has been tense, in part because two synagogues and two Jewish businesses were hit Sunday with graffiti that included swastikas and the message “U R Next.” The head of the Jewish Community Relations Council, Judy Gilbert-Gould, said the vandalism appears to be the work of a few immature adolescents. But Gilbert-Gould also said that the FBI and police have contacted the federation and are increasing their patrols around Jewish institutions.
Politicians also have been prompted to act. Rep. Anthony Weiner, a New York Democrat, convened a meeting on synagogue security with law enforcement officials in Brooklyn. In the nation’s capital, two Democratic senators, Barbara Mikulski of Maryland and Maria Cantwell of Washington, held a press conference calling for the release of $25 million of funding from the Department of Homeland Security, which is supposed to go to not-for-profit institutions but has been tied up in red tape for the last year.
“We are now contending not just with the escalating tension amid the Mideast crisis, but also with well-founded reports that there are Islamic radicals mobilizing in this country who espouse Al-Qaeda’s terrorist ideology, but who are not formally linked to the group,” said William Daroff, vice president for public policy at the United Jewish Communities. The UJC is the national body of the network of local Jewish charitable federations in North America.