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On the safe side

Last week I began getting calls from friends asking, as one put it in an e-mail, “What the hell is going on in New Jersey?”

The firebomb attack on a synagogue in Rutherford was the most serious yet of a series of recent attacks that included arson at Congregation K’hal Adath Jeshurun in Paramus, and spray paint vandalism attacks on synagogues in Maywood and Hackensack in December.

Bergen County Prosecutor John Molinelli said “there was no evidence directly linking” the Rutherford attack to the others — a conclusion I hardly found comforting. When Jewish shops and institutions were smashed in a vandalism spree last year, many of us were relieved when it turned out to be the work of one disturbed suspect (Jewish, it turns out).

Are the attacks in Bergen County the work of one person or perhaps copycats? Are they random or organized?

This is very scary stuff. I live in Bergen County, in a community dense with synagogues. Jewish homes proudly wave Israeli flags, cars flash pro-Israel bumper stickers, and boys and men wear their yarmulkes in the streets. I take these casual, outward displays of pride and faith for granted. Of course I am wary of the violence. But I am even more worried that we’ll let these kinds of attacks paralyze us as communities and force us to change behaviors developed in an atmosphere of tolerance.

There’s a tendency to look at these attacks and see them as the snakehead of some larger movement or trend, when they often turn out to be the work of a lone wolf. We read the annual surveys of anti-Semitic acts from the Anti-Defamation League and mutter, “It can happen here,” while we forget or ignore the freedoms and tolerance that are the more telling indicators of Jewish reality in 21st-century America. Those indicators include the complete absence of barriers in schooling, professions, neighborhoods, and community institutions. They include the evangelical communities’ embrace of Israel and the general public’s willingness to elect a record number of Jewish politicians. They also include, like it or not, the overwhelming willingness of non-Jews to marry Jews (and the blended Jewish-gentile families that result).

If we ignore all these signs of Jewish acceptance and privilege, we end up handing tremendous power to a malicious teen with a spray can.

And for every act of anti-Semitism, we overlook the unequal and opposite reaction. In the wake of the Bergen attacks, local politicians and law enforcement officials have been rushing out statements of solidarity and vows to catch and punish the perpetrators. Sen. Menendez called for a Department of Justice investigation. Gov. Christie asked State Police, the Attorney General’s Office, and Homeland Security to discuss security issues with Jewish leaders. Clergy and community leaders gathered at an interfaith ceremony at the Felician College campus in Rutherford.

The cliche that supposedly trumps all this good will is “The Holocaust started with a swastika.” But of course it didn’t. It started with centuries of cultural anti-Semitism, a devastating depression, a political coup, and what Hitler biographer Ian Kershaw calls “a pervasive sense of national humiliation.” Those are not the conditions under which we are living.

Which isn’t to say that we ignore the vandals and hate-mongers still among us. The Secure Community Network, a joint effort of top Jewish groups, regularly coordinates with law enforcement to make Jewish institutions safer. Since the Los Angeles Jewish Community Center shooting in 1999 and the Seattle Jewish federation shooting in 2006, nearly all Jewish institutions have added new security measures and protocols (which I hope they’re reviewing as we speak).

But before we start overhauling communal policy based on the latest vandalism, let’s remember what the stakes are. It’s a question of resources and lifestyles.

If we act as if the vandals represent the tip of an anti-Semitic iceberg, Jews are going to have to accept the kind of security seen in many European synagogues and Jewish centers: armed guards, 24-hour surveillance, garrison architecture. The costs — literal and in a lost sense of well-being — will be enormous.

Before we start wearing bulletproof vests to shul, we must continue to work with the government and police to review the tactics that are the most effective in foiling terrorism and anti-Semitic vandalism. How do we determine when ugly, Jew-baiting Internet chatter points to the real potential for violence? Are anti-bullying and pro-tolerance efforts in schools hitting their marks? Are the people best equipped to assure our safety — professionals in law enforcement, the military, and in the intelligence services — deploying their resources where they are needed most?

In 2009, after four men were arrested in connection with a plot to blow up two Bronx synagogues, Rabbi Brad Hirschfield put the plot and the “Jewish question” in perspective. “Yes, there are real security challenges which we face both as Americans and as Jews, challenges which are bigger and more serious than they were some years back, and we must be vigilant about them,” he wrote on his blog. “But especially as Jews, we are a whole lot safer than we were a generation or two back, even here in America.”

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