Colleyville synagogue attack: Where do we go from here?

"Jewish lives are in danger. Is that not enough? Why do Jewish lives only matter when they're part of something bigger?”
A law enforcement vehicle sits in front of the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue on January 16, 2022 in Colleyville, Texas, the day after the hostage situation. (Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker was visibly shaken on Sunday morning as he recounted being held at gunpoint at Congregation Beth Israel, along with three other hostages, during Shabbat morning services the day before. In an interview with “CBS Mornings” on Sunday, Cytron-Walker said he and the remaining hostages managed to escape after he threw a chair at the gunman.

He and the other hostages were “terrified,” Cytron-Walker said, especially in the last hour of the 11-hour standoff when the gunman — Malik Faisal Akram — “wasn’t getting what he wanted.”

“When I saw an opportunity where he wasn’t in a good position…The exit wasn’t too far away. I told [the other two hostages] to go, I threw a chair at the gunman and I headed for the door, and all three of us were able to get out without even a shot being fired,” Cytron-Walker said. An FBI Hostage Rescue Team killed Akram after the hostages fled to safety, CNN reported.

After this hostage crisis at the Colleyville synagogue, we wanted to unpack the conversation in the Jewish world during and after the attack. Here are a few key conversations that have been happening about this incident, the state of antisemitism in the U.S. and globally, and where we as a community go from here.

“This could have been my synagogue”

U.S. President Joe Biden said in a statement after the crisis, “There is more we will learn in the days ahead about the motivations of the hostage taker. But let me be clear…we will stand against antisemitism and against the rise of extremism in this country.” He later said that the attack on the synagogue was “an act of terror.”

Akram was heard on a livestream of services demanding that the U.S. government release Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani national who has been called “Lady Al Qaeda,” who is serving an 86-year sentence at a facility in Texas. 

Siddiqui was convicted in 2010 of attempting to murder U.S. soldiers and officials in Afghanistan. She also has a history of antisemitic comments: for example, during her trial, she demanded that jurors take DNA tests to prove they were not Jewish.

As the situation unfolded, many Jewish people expressed the sentiment that what happened at Colleyville could happen at any synagogue.

“People genuinely don’t seem to understand that this could happen at any synagogue in America,” Alex Edelman, a Jewish stand-up comedian based in New York City, tweeted. “Any synagogue anywhere,” Rabbi Steven Wernick of Beth Tzedec Congregation in Toronto, replied.

This is more than just a feeling: statistics show that antisemitism has been on the rise in the U.S. and globally in recent years, with a recent poll finding that 1 in 4 American Jews experienced antisemitism in the last year.

Additionally, according to data released last year by the FBI, Jews are the target of 58% of all religiously motivated hate crimes in the U.S. despite constituting a mere 2% of the population.

“Not specifically related to the Jewish community”

Another conversation that unfolded in the Jewish community related to the “motive” of the hostage taker and the notion this was either not motivated by antisemitism or that the motive was unclear.

At a news conference after all four hostages were safe, Special Agent in Charge of the Dallas Field Office Matthew Desarno stated that the gunman “was singularly focused on one issue and it was not specifically related to the Jewish community,” adding, “We are continuing to work to find motive.”

This narrative was quickly picked up by the national and international media despite the clear evidence that this was indeed an antisemitic attack.

“Saturday’s news coverage exposed multiple failures by the national and international media,” Unpacked Publisher John Kunza wrote in an essay critiquing the media’s response. “At worst what happened was journalistic malpractice. At best it was inexperienced weekend staffers committing multiple mistakes that went unchecked.”

“Here the media failed us at every level,” he added. “This is why we as Jews feel entirely gaslighted by the FBI and the media. The media took a baffling statement made by the FBI at face value and moved on.”

The FBI clarified its comments in a statement late Sunday: “We never lose sight of the threat extremists pose to the Jewish community and to other religious, racial, and ethnic groups…This is a terrorism-related matter, in which the Jewish community was targeted.”

Meanwhile, President Biden said in remarks the day after the incident that the gunman’s motivations remain unclear, stating, “I don’t think there is sufficient information to know…why he [made] antisemitic and anti-Israeli comments… We just don’t have enough facts.” 

In a blog post, journalist and author Bari Weiss criticized Biden for failing to call the attack antisemitic, noting that National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan did call the event an “act of terrorism” and an “act of antisemitism.” But Sullivan’s “notable exception proves the rule,” Weiss lamented. “His boss, President Joe Biden, could not manage to describe what any normal person could see.”

Responding to these comments, many Jewish people questioned why officials did not regard this attack at a synagogue as antisemitic.

“It’s SO WEIRD how all these men who aren’t antisemitic keep ending up in synagogues with guns!!” writer and comedian Lee Kern sarcastically remarked.

Are Jewish lives simply a canary in the coal mine?

Meanwhile, an interesting debate unfolded about why people should care about antisemitism and this hostage situation in the first place. Some Jewish leaders made the case that people should care because antisemitism ultimately threatens everyone, not just Jews, while others were critical of this line of reasoning.

In an interview with CNN’s Poppy Harlow the night of the incident, Rabbi Steve Leder of Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles, said he hoped people will “realize that this is a threat to all Americans, not just Jews.”

“I think it’s really important, Poppy, for people to realize in this particular case this act of terrorism and hatred is being perpetrated in order to free someone who was not targeting Jews but who was targeting members of the American military, of our troops in Afghanistan,” he said.

Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis, made a similar appeal on CNN. Speaking about the outpouring of support he had received from the interfaith community, Potasnik said, “We are surrounded by people who care, because you know very well that the person who hates me today is going to hate you tomorrow, so it may start with Jews, it doesn’t stop with Jews.”

Josh Feldman, an Australian writer who focuses on Israeli and Jewish issues, objected to this general approach, tweeting, “Rabbi Steve Leder tells CNN he hopes America will realise that this is a threat to all of America, not just Jews. Why should it matter? Jewish lives are in danger. Is that not enough? Why do Jewish lives only matter when they’re part of something bigger?”

Does the world care about Jewish lives and antisemitism?

As all of this was being discussed, many expressed disappointment and alarm that the world was not reacting to this attack in the way they hoped.

“Was there a New York Times or Wall Street Journal alert about the hostage situation I somehow missed?” Daniella Greenbaum Davis, a writer living in New York City, asked on Twitter. “How is it possible that I am the one breaking this news to so many Jews I know who don’t live on Twitter? Why don’t our lives and our trauma deserve the same coverage as everyone else’s?”

Aaron Parnas, an attorney who lives in Miami, stated the point more bluntly: “How many more Jews need to die before the world starts caring about the rise in antisemitism?” he tweeted.

Meanwhile, Sarah Tuttle-Singer, a new media editor at The Times of Israel, tweeted her gratitude for her non-Jewish friends who shared their support for the Jewish community:

“To my friends who are not Jewish and are posting messages of solidarity with the Jewish community over the hostage nightmare in Texas, thank you. Thank you for seeing us. Thank you for standing with us. Thank you for making us feel a little less alone.”