I felt confused by the cantor on the Zoom memorial singing at us with her eyes closed, the words on people’s social media, the blogs, the posts, the filler of the awkward silence in the wake of Jews being taken hostage:
“The Rabbi is amazing.”
“Security protocols work!”
“They all came out alive.”
“No they didn’t!” I heard a voice cry from my heart. One man lay dead from the incident—a deranged, pained, expressive, confused soul of a terrorist who traveled all the way from England to a tiny synagogue in suburban Dallas to kill Jews and amplify his cause. Does this not deeply trouble anyone else?
Reading that day backward—from the luminary local “Rab-lebrity” (that’s a Rabbi who acts like a celebrity) in Dallas arriving at the staging area to snap selfies with his interfaith cohort and swat team while awaiting his colleague to “give a hug” (“What are you doing here?” was the freed hostage/Rabbi’s question, revealing the “Eish Tam” or “Simple/Pure Man” he is); to the Facebook live feed from morning services and early rantings of Malik Faisal Akram’s demands—my mind exploded with questions and disbelief. How is it that this is becoming a discussion of the success of synagogue security protocols? Why did so many colleagues summarize the experience as “Rabbi Charlie is amazing”? He was heroic, patient, and watchful. Shouldn’t the word amazing be reserved for theater, performances, entertainment? But for a hostage situation? What chilled my spine most of all was the general exhale I observed my colleagues sighing—all at once waxing prophetically about the need to double down on interfaith work, security protocols, and hope as a new spin emerged: a sound bite opportunity to glorify American Reform Jewish values.
What emerged in the wake of this tragedy resembled a Mysterious PR Machine: the naivete, well-wishes for brother- and sisterhood, and “we’ll take the high road of inclusivity,” only fans the flames of Islamic hatred toward Americans and Jews. Underneath the soundbites and guitar circles is an idealism that can lead their people to slaughter. This sort of deflection is dangerous and reminds me of German-Jewish nationals in 1938 who were completely in denial of the trouble ahead and already in their midst. Instead of “Olam Chessid Yibaneh” (the URJ’s banner song “We will build this world from love,” which was the main programming and set the tone for Monday Night’s Vigil), the German nationals said, “I am an essential part of Germany, they would never do this to me.” Today’s tome is “We will rise above the hatred and profess Love and Brotherhood of all peoples (unless they support Donald Trump).” There are parallels—both carry an elitism; both are in denial.
While Charlie has his own healing process, the very seductive narrative that emerged around him and the event is what I call “illiberal jingoism”—a trope dedicated to elitist and unrealistic concepts of love, brotherhood, and unity. Meanwhile, somewhere the plot continues to form and will continue to terrorize Jews throughout the world. If this were France, England, Tunisia, Israel, or anywhere else, we wouldn’t see this bravado; indeed, we would see a very different narrative emerging as they don’t have the luxury of geographic isolation to immerse themselves in a fabricated reality that deflects the true issue at hand.
How swiftly Saturday night’s hostage siege was recast: a terrorist situation became a community social media event. The social media rabbinic commentary of the day read like meaning making and history making in real time. We were told with almost immediacy, “this was an isolated incident,” and within 24 hours assured that “Akram had acted alone.” It was almost as if the Mysterious PR Machine doubled down on the opportunity to tell us, “Synagogues are safe. Security Protocols are to be invested in. Crazy people do crazy things. Now go home to your family and come back for your daughter’s Bat Mitzvah.”
But like a false ending to a B-movie horror flick, I feel that the entire story is not yet done. Too many pieces of the story don’t make sense. And maybe that is what bothers me most. If, indeed, Akram represents the 1 percent of Muslim society who are sociopaths, then there are 19,999,999 others out there just like him. And no dollar amount can hire the army of security to keep them at bay—just look at Israel.
It’s not a time to sit all cozy and reflect on how much work there is to be done amongst the interfaith ideologues. It’s too early to have a prayer vigil with an acoustic guitar strapped across my torso like a summer camp song session. It’s not a time for Kumbaya Judaism. This siege on a suburban synagogue’s enduring misunderstanding seems to be that our hearts should be filled with compassion and curiosity for the Other; indeed, build bridges and embrace difference and diversity, outside of our echo chambers. Get a good security protocol in place and turn your sanctuary into an Escape Room… people pay to go to those, and they bring their friends. Nay! It’s time to acknowledge that the Halloween horror movie music is starting slowly and softly, and that an inevitable sequel is yet to be produced.
Scene: Beth Israel Synagogue, Colleyville, Texas. Mid-morning on a cold winter’s Saturday in suburban Texas. Birds chirp.
Establishing Shot: Synagogue entrance. The front door is open. We see the back of a MYSTERIOUS MAN wearing a well-worn heavy winter coat.
Close up: A man’s snow-stained boot on a stair. The MYSTERIOUS MAN exchanges a few words with a RABBI, who holds the door open to let him in.
FADE TO: Hours later in the Situation Room where Hostage Negotiators and Swat Team stage an insurgence. CHIEF NEGOTIATOR on cellphone hears:
Faisal: I said, ‘Is this a night shelter?’ and they let me in. And they gave me a cup of tea. So I do feel bad.”
To Be Continued.