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They simply wanted to pray

| Thursday, February 3, 2022

“The Praying Jew” by French artist Marc Chagall depicts what one would expect: a devout Jew, wrapped in his prayer shawl, praying as he worships G-d. When I saw the painting, I was drawn to the awed expression on the man’s face, as if he could feel G-d’s presence. I felt a connection to the painting, the same one I feel to my ancestors and other Jews when I participate in our traditions. The wonders of prayer.

That beautiful experience of prayer is exactly what congregants of Beth Israel Synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, intended to partake in more than three weeks ago. Instead, they were met with hostility as they were taken hostage. Over the course of 11 hours, we watched the latest episode of Jews’ persecution unfold. Thankfully, the four hostages escaped the situation unharmed. Despite this gracious ending, the fact must be recognized that nearly every aspect of this tragedy, from the attacker’s motivation to the public’s reaction, is marked by the bitter taste of antisemitism.

I wasn’t sure whether to publish this in The Observer, but the lack of attention to this event in our own community convinced me it was necessary. Personally, I can count on one hand the number of people affiliated with Notre Dame who reached out to me about the hostage situation (to those people, I am thankful). A similar story can be said for other Jews on campus. Greater attention needs to be paid towards minority faiths on this campus, especially during times of crisis. As I’ve written and said before, the University has an obligation to its non-Catholic students. If we want religious life to be fruitful for everyone at Notre Dame, regardless of faith, active steps towards inclusion are necessary. Part of the second-annual Antisemitism Awareness Week this semester will address these issues. I hope everyone participates in those discussions.

Malik Faisal Akram, the attacker at Beth Israel Synagogue, was motivated by antisemitism. He sought to free Aafia Siddiqui, who is currently serving a life sentence for attempted terrorism at a federal prison located near Beth Israel Synagogue. He demanded to speak with Rabbi Angela Buchdahl from New York’s Central Synagogue, believing that she could free Siddiqui. Rather than siege a government building or speak with a federal official, Akram specifically chose a synagogue as his venue and a rabbi as his mechanism. Akram’s actions are a manifestation of the classic antisemitic trope that Jews control the world and can influence the highest levels of government and society. He even admits this himself, saying “I’m coming to you because I know President Biden will do things for the Jews.” Such beliefs are common among antisemites and demonstrate how these dangerous views lead to violence. The public must recognize this reality and commit to fighting it.

Moreover, news coverage of the event displays a lack of seriousness devoted to the situation. Initial reports utilized rhetoric that diminished the severity of the crisis, such as stating hostages are “apparently” being taken or denying the attack was motivated by antisemitism. Other outlets ignored the event altogether, excluding it from front-page coverage. These circumstances suggest either that news outlets lack enough comprehension of antisemitism to adequately cover it or willfully distort their coverage. Either option comes at the expense of Jews, who suffer from the antisemitism perpetuated by such coverage, and the public, who receives an inaccurate lesson on antisemitism and may inadvertently participate in it. The media must do better.

The government’s response was also lackluster. As the FBI’s suggestion that Akram was not specifically targeting Jews indicates, the lack of attention to the Jewish community by government officials was clear. Governor Greg Abbott’s initial response didn’t mention Jews as targets of the attack or that it took place at a synagogue. The government, at both the state and federal levels, must demonstrate its commitment to the Jewish community. While I’m grateful for the FBI’s investigation and President Biden’s statement, the initial response was inadequate. The government must recognize Jews when they’re immediately in danger and work with the Jewish community to combat antisemitism in the future.

Rather than peacefully participating in the sacred act of prayer, the Beth Israel congregants were subjected to violence and hatred the Jewish community knows too well. As a Jew sits in the temple and prays, there is always the worry of another assault. Throughout history, from secret worship services while in exile to security forces guarding synagogue doors, Jews are accustomed to their religious practices being under attack. Such circumstances are abhorrent. The entrance to the synagogue should be met with joy and reverence, not fear and dread. While I’m thankful to law enforcement for ensuring I can practice my religion safely, the fact this has become a norm saddens me. Especially in a nation like the United States that lauds itself for guaranteeing religious liberty to all citizens, its culture and institutions shouldn’t produce situations that require the police to open my synagogue’s door. I desperately want to pray to G-d and worship Him alongside my community, like the man in Chagall’s painting, without worry of whether my synagogue will be the next one featured on the news. Yet, the failings of our government and society enable the persistent cesspool of antisemitism to fester and perpetuate these dangers.

I pray for the day that my people can worship freely without fear of danger. I yearn to proclaim my Jewish identity and not be met with scorn or bigotry. I hope for a world that firmly stands against antisemitism, rather than letting it simmer in the shadows. I aim for this world for all people, regardless of faith (or no faith). Yet, until that day comes, I remain steadfast in my commitment to my Jewish identity. I’ll continue to be grateful to those who protect my community and those who advocate for it. I’ll proudly and publicly combat antisemitism, and I invite others to do the same, as this hatred will never end until there’s a united front against it.

Blake Ziegler is a junior at Notre Dame from New Orleans, Louisiana, with double majors in political science and philosophy. He enjoys writing about politics, Judaism and the occasional philosophical rant. For inquiries, he can be reached at [email protected] or followed at @NewsWithZig on Twitter if you want to see more of his opinions.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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