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I was in the gun store, comparing prices on ammo, when I heard a voice behind me. “Do they let Jews buy guns?” I didn’t recognize the voice and, when I turned around, I didn’t recognize the face, either. He was a big guy — bulky, and at least 6″ taller than I am — with a bit of a paunch. He looked about 60. I noticed he wore a hamsa on a dogtag chain.
“Nah, they’re too scared of us,” I answered with a smile.
Soon my new friend, Rafael, and I were talking about terrorism in San Bernadino, in Paris, and in Israel. We agreed things are more likely to get worse than better. He showed me some Hebrew Facebook memes about the Paris attacks that his son had sent him. Raphael has been in the country for 30 years, but his son lives in Tel Aviv. “The latest stabbing was just a block away from his office,” he tells me.
Rafael is proud that his son just earned his concealed carry license. “You know, it’s much more difficult to get one there,” he beams.
This is true. Israel has recently been liberalizing its carry regime, and encouraging those with licenses to carry all the time, in response to a wave of Palestinian knife attacks. Still, Israeli permit requirements are difficult to satisfy. Most permitees are combat veterans. According to Nir Barkat, the mayor of Jerusalem, only about 3 percent of Israelis are licensed to carry, as opposed to 5 percent of Americans.
“You carry, don’t you?” Rafael is insistent. “You should carry all the time. Do you carry?”
I reply sheepishly, “Only to synagogue.”
This past week, there were two “security incidents” at synagogues near where I live in Connecticut. On Saturday, two women wearing hijabs and caftans visited a large Conservative synagogue. A girl was celebrating her bat mitzvah, and the two women were assumed to be her family’s guests. But when people tried to welcome the women and engage them in conversation, they responded evasively and suspiciously, offering information that was contradictory and incoherent. The two women were also spotted the next night at the public Chabad Hanukkah candle lighting ceremony.
Then, a couple of days ago, an African American man in camo fatigues showed up for morning services at an Orthodox synagogue. His behavior was suspicious too, and someone called the police. The cops took him away in cuffs; it seems there was an outstanding warrant for his arrest.
These events have prompted important conversations in our Jewish community about the balance between being welcoming and being vigilant. Since I’ve lived here, the prevailing attitude has been that our sleepy New England town is off the radar, and that violent attacks would never happen here. Even as our community leadership discusses enhanced security, however, it is clear that the old mindset still dominates.
Of the local Jewish institutions, my (Orthodox) synagogue is probably among the more advanced in its thinking. We operate on a shoestring, lacking the resources to install the cameras or bulletproof glass or concrete barriers or intercom systems that others have. But in a way, having to rely on volunteers has given us a better system: We post sentries for 30-minute shifts. This allows us to provide a welcoming face for guests, and a quick assessment of potential threats. An alarm — which also notifies the police — can be activated by remote control. A disproportionate number of our members carry concealed weapons.
Since we’ve started this system, no one has sounded the alarm. But each of us who’s taken our turn was close to doing so at one time or another. The man with the heavy suitcase? The truck with tinted windows idling across the street? In today’s climate, nothing can be taken for granted.
According to FBI statistics, 57 percent of anti-religious crime last year was directed at Jews. Just over 16 percent was directed at Muslims. But you wouldn’t know this from following the media or listening to President Obama. This past Sunday, the President lectured us from the Oval Office on the dangers of Islamophobia:
Here’s what else we cannot do. We cannot turn against one another by letting this fight be defined as a war between America and Islam. That, too, is what groups like ISIL want. ISIL does not speak for Islam …
[J]ust as it is the responsibility of Muslims around the world to root out misguided ideas that lead to radicalization, it is the responsibility of all Americans — of every faith — to reject discrimination. It is our responsibility to reject religious tests on who we admit into this country. It’s our responsibility to reject proposals that Muslim Americans should somehow be treated differently. Because when we travel down that road, we lose. That kind of divisiveness, that betrayal of our values plays into the hands of groups like ISIL. Muslim Americans are our friends and our neighbors, our co-workers, our sports heroes — and, yes, they are our men and women in uniform who are willing to die in defense of our country. We have to remember that.
CNN anchor Ashleigh Banfield tried to discredit any connection between Muslims and terrorism — by citing the existence of “Jewish terrorists.” The Swedish Prime Minister who admitted last month that his country has been “naive” about the threat of native Islamist terror also denies that indiscriminate Palestinian knife attacks qualify as such.
Such attempts at even-handedness are either agenda-driven, or delusional.
San Bernardino, Fort Hood, Chattanooga, Boston; these are “security incidents” on a national scale. Our nation’s leaders, just like my local Jewish community’s, are tasked with balancing being welcoming and being vigilant. Unfortunately, the Obama administration and its enablers appear to have agendas and delusions that make it impossible to do so effectively. I can take steps to help protect myself and my family and my community. But who will protect the country?