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November 2006

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Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle building.

The Chosen Targets
Six shot, one killed at Seattle Jewish Federation.

-- Bruce S. Ticker

The Seattle shootings at a Jewish philanthropic facility reinforced long-held fears in me.

I have had a range of concerns about the vulnerability of being Jewish in America. In many ways the United States can be wonderful for Jews, in some ways it can be uncomfortable and somewhat threatening. It depends on location, economic status, current events and other factors. Anti-Semitism is not nearly as prevalent as it once was, but it still lurks in my hometown, the United States and the rest of the Diaspora. What are the chances that it can erupt into violence? How often?

Erupt into violence it did at 4 p.m. on July 28 when 30-year-old Naveed Afzal Haq forced his way into the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle building and shot six women. Pam Waechter, a 58-year-old mother of two who converted to Judaism and directed the federation's community fundraising campaign, died at the scene, and five others were wounded. Waq identified himself as an American Muslim upset with America's presence in Iraq and Israel-Lebanon conflict. The Associated Press reported that he told a 911 dispatcher, ?These are Jews, and I'm tired of getting pushed around and our people getting pushed around by the situation in the Middle East."

The Seattle tragedy was identified as the most dramatic anti-Semitic episode worldwide when Jewish leaders from five continents converged on Jerusalem shortly before Labor Day to review troubling incidents in places such as Oslo, Greece, Bogota, Serbia, Britain and Caracas after the war in Lebanon broke out last July 12, The Forward reported. Anti-Semitic incidents anywhere are not always tied to Israel, and Seattle is the latest among incidents marked by blatant violence against North American Jews in the past 15 years.

  • Aug. 19, 1991: As a group of black youths yelled, ?There's a Jew! Get him," Australian native Yankel Rosenbaum, 29, was fatally stabbed during the first of four nights of unrest in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, where he was a visiting scholar studying the Holocaust. His assailants were enraged after Gavin Cato, a 7-year-old African-American child, died following a traffic accident that involved a car driven by a Hasidic Jew. Jews in the neighborhood were terrorized for four nights as the police allowed rioters to run roughshod.
  • August 1998: With Israel at relative peace, a man armed with a high-powered gun burst into the North Valley Jewish Community Center in Granada Hills in southern California where he sprayed the lobby with up to 30 rounds, wounding a 68-year-old receptionist, a 16-year-old teacher's aide and three young children. 
  • July 4, 2002: A 41-year-old Egyptian emigrant, Hesham Mohamed Hadayet, was identified by authorities as the lone gunman who murdered two Jews at the ticket counter of El Al Airlines at Los Angeles International Airport. Hadayet fired with a .45-caliber handgun and had in his possession a 9 mm handgun and a 6-inch knife, an FBI spokesman said. Shot to death were a 20-year-old female El Al ticket agent, an Israel national, and 46-year-old diamond importer Yakov Aminov, an Israeli who lived in the Los Angeles area who was dropping off friends at the airport. The gunman also shot and wounded a 61-year-old woman; pistol-whipped a man; and stabbed the El Al security chief in the back, officials said.

It is well known that Mel Gibson's drunken ranting against Jews was amply covered by the media while the Seattle shootings were mainly published inside the major newspapers. Two prominent Jewish weekly newspapers relegated stories on Seattle inside while others published the incident on the front page. So-called Jewish leaders have opined on Gibson's comments far more than on the Seattle death.

Gibson, who was arrested in Malibu for drunken driving 12 hours before the Seattle incident, might well have saved Jewish lives when he publicly apologized and denounced his earlier accusations that Jews are responsible for all wars. As a friend pointed out, fans who revere celebrities could have acted on Gibson's words. Obviously, the star and director of the Oscar-winning ?Braveheart? has issues with the Jewish people and might have had self-centered reasons for issuing apologies, but he nonetheless performed a public service.

My personal experiences with anti-Semitism compelled me to worry that entrenched attitudes could translate into violence. Colleagues at one job in a heavily white Christian town regularly cold-shouldered me; a small-town city councilman cornered me at a laundry and bashed Israeli policies; a former boss once pressured me to convert to Christianity; and a high-level manager at a city agency repeatedly displayed anti-Israel signs on her bulletin board.

Violence against Jews in the United States has occurred. In fact, until Yankel Rosenbaum was murdered I could not think of anything so appalling since Leo Frank was lynched by a horde of Georgia white men in 1915, after he was found guilty of a murder he did not commit at the Atlanta pencil factory which he managed. 

The people with whom I had conflicts were so insensitive to my feelings that I could imagine them carrying out their urges, or ignoring outrages, in a less civil and legalized society. The attitudes against Jews are there and most recent incidents were instigated by intense events that influenced one or more deranged individuals. Imagine what can happen if anti-Semites in America were capable of organizing or terrorists were better able to plan attacks here.

Anti-Jewish episodes in the United States frequently emerge. Two weeks after Mel Gibson expressed his alcohol-influenced views, former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young charged that Jews, Koreans and Arabs "ripped off our (African-American) communities" where they operated grocery stores. A side door at Baltimore Hebrew University was firebombed on Aug. 2, causing a small fire that was extinguished by maintenance workers. In Berkeley, Calif., the editor of The Daily Planet published a screed by Kurosh Arianpour, identified as an Iranian student studying in India, blaming the Jews for their own "racist attitude" as being the Chosen People, declaring, "Since they they think they are the Chosen People, they can murder Lebanese and Palestinian children. The Chosen People have become the Chosen Murderers."

Countries in Europe and elsewhere are treated to worse offenses. News outlets have reported that two Israelis were beaten in Serbia, a Jewish man was attacked in England, a synagogue near Sydney was severely vandalized twice and a Jewish boy wearing a skullcap was assaulted in Oslo, Norway. In Caracas, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez compared Israel's bombing of Lebanon to Nazi war crimes.

The Forward reported that Jewish leaders from the Diaspora told Israeli officials how the war with Lebanon and the overall Middle East conflict is affecting attitudes in other Jewish communities, especially those which are smaller and more isolated. Rabbi Israel Singer of the World Jewish Congress was quoted to say that ?the situation in the Middle East is not just Israel's problem, but it reflects on small Jewish communities all around the world."

Negative attitudes about Israel result from either false perceptions, genuine transgressions or plain confusion. The answer is for Israeli officials and Diaspora leaders to set the record straight, concede when Israel is wrong (with an explanation of the context) and/or admit when they do not understand what is going on. That's what I do, and it works with most reasonable people. A straightforward approach will not work with extremists, but it will chip away at their support network.

The Jewish community in general needs to pay substantial attention to this pattern. Jewish weeklies that downplay the murder of a Jew at a Jewish institution, as in Seattle, do not help their readers, many of whom can probably relate their own experiences with anti-Semitism today. We must never waver from our support for Israel, but we must recognize, equally, that other Jews around the world are threatened by anti-Semitic violence.

Bruce Ticker community @ is community editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Voice