In the wake of the attack on a synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, authorities have indicated that the hostage taker’s demands were not specifically connected to the Jewish community. This is a reminder of the bizarre privilege that those who attack Jewish people and Jewish communities around the world often enjoy in the eyes of officials and the media.
While there are ample statements condemning the attacks, there is not a great willingness to examine how a global milieu of rising antisemitism often leads perpetrators to target Jewish communities, even if their main goal isn’t an attack on Jews.
Prefacing this discussion by noting that a day after the incident we don’t know the full details of the perpetrator or how it unfolded, we can conclude that the person targeted a synagogue. Officials have also indicated that the hostage taker was apparently motivated by a demand to have Aafia Siddiqui released from prison.
Siddiqui was convicted in 2010 after attacking US military personnel in Afghanistan. Her case has garnered support from extremists and the government of Pakistan. She is also known for antisemitic statements.
The desire to disconnect the attack from the synagogue and see it as solely part of the wider cause of Siddiqui and the popularity she enjoys among Islamist extremists, as well as some human-rights groups, is part of a wider pattern where attacks on Jewish communities are often portrayed as random.
This was the case in the attack on the Hypercacher kosher market in Paris in 2015. That attack was carried out by ISIS supporter Amedy Coulibaly. US president Barack Obama said the attack was related to “a bunch of violent, vicious zealots who behead people or randomly shoot a bunch of folks in a deli in Paris.”
Except there was nothing random about it. It’s not reasonable to conclude that in a Paris with thousands of supermarkets and delis a perpetrator just happens to attack a kosher supermarket belonging to a small minority group.
The attack on the supermarket was one of many attacks targeting Jews in Europe. In 2015, there was an attack outside a synagogue in Denmark. In 2019, a synagogue in Halle was attacked. “A 16-year-old Syrian boy and three other people have been arrested in Germany over a suspected Islamist plot to attack a synagogue [in Hagen], officials say,” the BBC reported last year.
In the UK, on London’s Oxford Street, a gang of men attacked Jews celebrating Hanukkah last December. Two years ago, a suspect in a 1982 attack on a Jewish restaurant in Paris was detained in Norway. More recently, there was the case of the Mumbai terrorist attacks in 2008, when the Mariman House, a Chabad House, was attacked, together with many sites targeted by a Pakistan-based terrorist network.
In another vile attack, an Islamist terrorist in 2012 targeted a Jewish school in Toulouse, France. He did so after killing French soldiers in the Pyrenees. Once again, the pattern of attacking one landmark and then killing Jews was part of the manifesto.
When we look at the wider pattern – whether it is an ISIS-inspired attacked in Paris leading to an attack on a kosher supermarket, or groups linked to Palestinians attacking Jewish sites in the 1980s, or murdering Leon Klinghoffer aboard the hijacked cruise ship Achille Lauro in 1985, targeting a Chabad House in India, or a synagogue in Texas – there is almost always the same pattern.
Jews are attacked as a “normal” target for every group that has grievances, usually groups inspired by Islamist extremism, and official accounts tend to see the attacks as random, as opposed to part of systematic anti-Jewish hate crimes. This is because a more convenient explanation is to see the perpetrators as randomly choosing a Jewish target than asking deeper questions about how those targets enter their minds in the first place.
We prefer the random and “crazy” or “deranged” narrative with the “thoughts and prayers” ending, or the “senseless act of violence” narrative, to asking about how all over the world similar movements with similar origins and links tend to communicate to their followers that killing Jews as part of an “operation” is a positive part of “martyrdom.”
Uncovering the way in which Jews are described by the milieu that create ISIS terrorists, by the groups in Pakistan that back attacks in India, by the hateful groups in the UK that organized a caravan of cars to call for the raping of Jewish women in May during Israel-Hamas hostilities, would be to look more deeply at how Jews are portrayed by far-right governments, such as Pakistan, and extremist groups such as ISIS, al-Qaeda, Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Anti-Jewish views that lead to attacks on synagogues, kosher delis and Jewish communities are part and parcel of a global far-right Islamist milieu. The Hamas Covenant, a kind of manifesto issued in 1988, is full of antisemitic conspiracies. Malaysia’s government was, for many years, run by the openly antisemitic Mahathir Mohammed, an extremist who called Jews “hook-nosed,” mocked the Holocaust and claimed Jews rule the world. Despite his hatred, he received invitations to speak at universities in the UK and US.
In all these cases and many more there is a clear trend: Groups and individuals push antisemitic views as part of a wider world view. These views percolate around so that people who become radicalized may hold both extremist anti-Jewish views and also claim to be part of some other agenda or movement, such as al-Qaeda, ISIS, Pakistan-based terrorist groups that attack India, “Palestine” supporters or some other cause.
It’s not unusual to see leaders of countries such as Pakistan draw parallels between their anger at European countries for anti-Muslim cartoons and denying the Holocaust, as if Holocaust denial somehow is a way to offend Europeans and “get back” at them for cartoons.
The leader of Pakistan made this comparison in 2021. “[I] call on Western governments who have outlawed any negative comment on the holocaust to use the same standards to penalize those deliberately spreading their message of hate against Muslims by abusing our Prophet,” Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan tweeted.
Iran held a cartoon contest several times to mock the Holocaust as a way to get back at European countries for cartoons. In essence, “the Jews” become the natural scapegoat and victim in each of these cases.
When Iran is angry over offensive cartoons in Europe, it attacks the memory of the Shoah and Jews. When Pakistan is angry, it attacks Jews. When al-Qaeda is angry, it targets Jews. When ISIS is radicalizing people, it encourages attacks on Jewish targets. When countries or groups want to insult each other in the Middle East, they compare their enemies to Jews.
“Jew” is a word of derision, an insult. That extremists then target kosher delis, synagogues, schools and Jews throughout the world, from India to the US, is part of this milieu.