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Jewish Communities Ramp up Security

Jewish communities in North America are ramping up security in the face of rising emotions over the massacre of Jews in Israel and the imminent invasion of Gaza, with pro- and anti-Israel rallies being held daily in cities across the United States.

Eric Fingerhut, CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, told VOA that the communities are prepared and have built “comprehensive security programs.” But, he said, last Saturday’s Hamas attack against Israel and its aftermath has brought the threat to an “entirely different level.”

In his meeting with Jewish community leaders last week, U.S. President Joe Biden acknowledged their safety concerns.

“You worry about kids being targeted at school, going about their daily lives, hurt by the downplaying of Hamas’ atrocities, and blaming Israel. This is unconscionable,” he said.

National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told reporters that the U.S. administration is working closely with state and local authorities to identify and thwart potential threats.

Federal and state law enforcement agencies have been increasing security around places of worship and community centers in response to a call by former Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal for the Palestinian diaspora and Muslims worldwide to “join in the fight.” The Department of Homeland Security late Thursday said there are no imminent threats.

Pro-Israel demonstrators react while singing a song during a protest at Columbia University, Oct. 12, 2023, in New York.
Pro-Israel demonstrators react while singing a song during a protest at Columbia University, Oct. 12, 2023, in New York.

On college campuses, intense rallies have become a stage of particular concern for Jewish communities.

“We, of course, support free speech, but free speech stops when it comes to incitement of violence,” said Fingerhut.

He said the Jewish community “will mobilize to ensure that the leaders of universities and other institutions are aware of what is happening inside their institutions and take the steps necessary not just to protect the safety and security of the Jewish community, but to not permit their institutions to become platforms of hate.”

At Red Square, the main gathering point on the University of Washington campus in Seattle, multiple pro-Palestinian activists, some wearing keffiyeh — a traditional Arab scarf — and masks, chanted “Intifada! Intifada!” (‘uprising’ in Arabic). Some posters stated, “From the river to the sea,” implying the expulsion of Israelis from all the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean.

“I just want to remind you why we gathered here today,” began one of the speakers. “To affirm and celebrate Palestinian resistance.” The crowd responded with cheers.

“They fear that we’ll be able to liberate ourselves with our own two hands!” said another speaker, Bissan Barghouti, whose Samidoun Seattle organization lobbies for the release of Palestinian prisoners.

A small group of Jewish students stood behind, holding Israeli flags. Some tried to confront the rally participants, calling Hamas “Murderers! Rapists!”

Several of the Jewish students seemed shaken. One burst into tears, pleading to a university representative standing nearby: “They want our people dead. They want us killed. How are you allowing this? Please end it, please.”

“It’s scary, I don’t feel safe. I mean, you can listen to what they are saying,” another student told VOA as she led a fellow student away from the rally.

Ari Hoffman, president of Bikur Cholim Machzikay Hadath, a local Orthodox Jewish synagogue, walked between the rally participants with an Israeli flag and a mobile phone, asking loudly: “Would you condemn Hamas as a terrorist organization?” In response, he got silence or laughter.

Hoffman told VOA he had decided to come to the rally “to see how bad is the situation for the American Jews.”

“I look around at what’s going on here and I think about my relatives that didn’t survive Nazi Germany. What time did they not realize it was time to get out?” he wondered.

“I’m looking around at an American university where you literally have people who are wearing the colors of terrorists who cut the heads off babies, burned them, who went into houses and burned people alive,” said Hoffman, adding that his synagogue has doubled security, as have most other synagogues in the country. “Everybody knows that this is different, because we see that there are people here who are agreeing with the terrorists.”

Barghouti of Samidoun Seattle told VOA that the fight is not about Hamas, but a Palestinian movement that is fighting against oppression. Asked about Saturday’s attack by Hamas that killed more than 1,300 people in Israel, including 27 American citizens, she was unapologetic.

“Last week was the first time that Gazans have actually been able to see the rest of their Palestinian lands. They broke out of prison that has been imposed on them by a 16-year-long air, sea and land blockade by the Israeli military forces,” she said. “I am not here to reassure any Zionists or Israelis who believe in the erasure and settler colonization of Palestinians on Palestinian lands.”

The Jewish Federations leadership said they intend to speak to college administrations about any on-campus events where lines have been crossed.

University leaders are struggling to find the right balance when such tensions arise. At a town hall meeting on campus, University of Washington President Ana Mari Cauce opened her remarks with a minute of silence for the victims of the Hamas attack.

“We can have debates about the situation in Palestine for the last 75 years,” she said. “But there is no question that these Hamas attacks on civilians were absolutely reprehensible. If you watched on TV, the nature of the attacks absolutely makes your blood curdle and no one should be celebrating these atrocities. And I want to be clear that I condemn any messages and posts that celebrate violence against civilians.”

Cauce mentioned that one of the victims of the Hamas attack was the university’s former Ph.D. student 32-year-old Hayim Katsman.

“Ironically, his scholarship focused on the intersection of religion and politics in that very region in the hopes of creating an understanding that would lead to peace,” Cauce said.

“I hope that all of us can seek to honor his memory by doing all that we can to build bridges of understanding and compassion, even when — especially when — we have different backgrounds, opinions, and viewpoints.”

Source : VOA News