In an unprecedented public discussion last week, Jewish organizational leaders and counter-terrorism experts declared that the American Jewish community has not prepared adequately to protect itself from terrorist attacks.
Among those voicing concern at the January 8 briefing, which drew 65 participants from 35 organizations, were Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of American Jewish Organizations, and Stephen Hoffman, chairman of United Jewish Communities.
“We need to address the false sense of security in our community,” Hoenlein said at the meeting. After Hoenlein spoke, Hoffman declared: “We haven’t driven the security concern into the everyday being of Jewish living as it needs to be.”
The meeting at the Manhattan offices of the American Jewish Committee was held to promote the recently created Secure Community Alert Network, or SCAN, an electronic notification system designed to rapidly alert Jewish organizations and installations in case of a credible terrorist threat. The experts, however, described the system as “only the first step” in addressing the outstanding vulnerabilities of Jewish institutions.
The open acknowledgement of security shortcomings represented a marked shift, according to several officials of other Jewish organizations.
“This is new,” said Yehudit Barsky, a terrorism expert at the American Jewish Committee, who took part in the meeting. “Before this, the leadership has always internalized the concerns, but we realized that we cannot continue operating as we were.”
The decision to publicize the meeting and invite members of the media was condemned by the Anti-Defamation League’s national director, Abraham Foxman.
“I do not think that there is anything that has happened recently that necessitates a crisis approach to the issue of security,” said Foxman, whose organization has a long history of running security programs and offering advice to Jewish institutions. “We must be concerned not to hype it to where it becomes counterproductive. Now people won’t go to day schools and won’t want to identify with the Jewish community.
While organizers emphasized that the meeting was not provoked by any specific threat, security experts in attendance painted an alarming picture when describing the general level of threat to the American Jewish community.
“Our community is one of the prime targets of the most dangerous terrorist groups today,” said Stephen Pomerantz, former head of the FBI counterterrorism unit and currently an adviser to American Jewish groups. He added: “Our weakness has been our unwillingness to think about this, and not listen to what our adversaries are saying.”
Hoenlein resisted the description of his comments as a sudden shift, but acknowledged that his views had changed during the past year after his organization sponsored tests, which, he said, exposed that “we had no capacity to deal with the real world as we face it.”
At last week’s security briefing Hoenlein and other speakers also underscored the urgency of the meeting by referring to the synagogue bombings in Turkey and recent reports that Jewish buildings in America and Britain have been under surveillance by suspicious individuals. All these developments, the speakers said, suggest that no synagogue or community center should feel immune to the threat of terrorism.
Speaking off the record at the meeting, security experts expressed dismay over what they described as the general reluctance of Jewish organizations and institutions to confront the terrorist threat. Later, in interviews with the Forward, they restated their views for publication.
“Osama bin Laden has explicitly said that he is after Jews and Americans,” said Barsky. “There hasn’t been any sense in the American Jewish community that people need to do anything about this.”
Barsky noted that almost no one showed up for her presentation on local security threats that she delivered at last year’s UJC General Assembly.
Barsky and other security experts applauded the creation of SCAN, which they say will raise awareness of the threats facing the community.
“In the past, we had specific threats that we needed to communicate with synagogues and community centers,” said Mark Cohen, deputy director of the New York State Office of Public Security, in an interview with the Forward. “SCAN is a breakthrough in allowing for this swift dissemination of information.”
But other security experts said that SCAN falls short by not providing any forum for collecting or analyzing information about threats. The system also does nothing to improve the level of physical security of Jewish buildings.
The relatively low level of security at Jewish organizations was brought into stark relief by a presentation at the January 8 meeting from Britain’s Community Security Trust. The trust is responsible for securing the British Jewish community and has a force of 3,000 extensively trained volunteers, who work in concert with law-enforcement officials. The trust also boasts its own intelligence department and a telephone line for collecting tips on possible threats.
“We can’t even compare ourselves to what the British have,” Barsky said.
France’s main Jewish representative body, the French Council of Representative Jewish Organizations, or CRIF, has been organizing a similar volunteer structure. In addition, in France and Britain, as in much of the rest of Europe, synagogues are regularly guarded with barriers and heavily armed police.
“Even a synagogue in Zagreb or Sofia is more protected than a synagogue in New York,” said a senior Jewish communal official familiar with the situation, who asked to remain anonymous.
David Pollock, associate executive director and director of security for the New York Jewish Community Relations Council, said he would like to see more physical protection for New York synagogues, “but you just can’t do that in New York City.”
At last week’s meeting, the gap between European and American security measures was attributed to the longer history in Europe of attacks against synagogues. But security analysts said that whatever historical differences previously existed, the threat level to American and European synagogues is now the same.
Referring to the extensive security at European synagogues, Pomerantz told the Forward, “I don’t want to see us look like Berlin — not yet, not now.” But, he added, “if you asked me to do this analytically, I don’t see a dime’s worth of difference in the security situation.”
Pomerantz, who also runs a private security consulting firm, called for “a body to coordinate the access and analysis of threat information.” He also said that physical security should be heightened at Jewish sites.
Foxman, however, adamantly rejected comparisons between the security threats in the Europe and the United States.
“I think that’s off the wall at this point. I don’t think we’re at the point where we need this,” Foxman said. “I don’t think we are in the condition that Britain is, and I think it is irresponsible to adopt their response to problems.”
But Hoenlein said he hoped that the American Jewish community might move in the direction of forming a body like the trust in Britain.
“Law enforcement officials have been suggesting that we utilize this as a model for our own security measures, to get the community more involved,” Hoenlein said.
The most widely lauded element of the British program is its use of Jewish volunteers for security patrols.
“In America people have generally used professional security forces when they use anything,” Pollack said. “Volunteers can be much more effective than professionals because they know who belongs.”
Hoenlein gave no timetable for the development of future security measures, but all the participants at last week’s meeting said that, before any progress could be made, the community would have to examine further the specific threat it is facing.
“We all have to do more so we can say we did our part,” Hoenlein said.
This story "Communal Security Lax, Terror Experts, Leaders Warn at a N.Y. Meeting" was written by Nathaniel Popper.