High Security for High Holy Days

Bombings, shootings, street assaults: this has been a harrowing year, and Jews the world over are battening down the hatches for Rosh Hashanah


By Sandy Rashty, Shirli Sitbon, Toby Axelrod, Nathalie Rothschild, Ted Merwin and Ruth Ellen Gruber, September 6, 2012
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August: Zaka mock-up a full-scale terror attack on a  school in Belgium

August: Zaka mock-up a full-scale terror attack on a school in Belgium

Around the world, preparations are under way to protect Jewish communities during the High Holy Days.

Recent attacks on Jews from Bulgaria to Toulouse have convinced community security organisations that, more than ever, this year is a year to be prepared for the worst.

In the UK, the largest ever communal security operation will be in place over Rosh Hashanah.

Police and members of the Community Security Trust (CST) will patrol areas with a high number of Jewish residents in an operation that has been “many months in the planning”, according to Mark Gardner, director of communications at the CST.

“In recent months, both al Qaeda and Iran have increased their incitement of antisemitic terrorism and we have seen terrorists convicted for plotting against Manchester’s Jewish community, the bombing of Israeli tourists in Bulgaria, and the murders at the Jewish school in Toulouse,” said Mr Gardner.

“We have faced a challenging situation for some time now, which is exactly why the community has robust security measures in place,” he added.

Police officials in London’s Barnet and Westminster forces have confirmed that they will run extra patrols during the Jewish holidays and, in Greater Manchester, police “pods” will be present outside places of worship.

Chief Inspector Simon Causer, of Barnet police, said: “There will be a big visible presence around places of worship, especially when people are leaving synagogues.”

Zaka, the emergency response organisation, is in talks to run training sessions and a bomb drill in London to prepare members of the community for any terror attack.

Shock: grieving friends and relatives of the Bulgaria terror victims

Shock: grieving friends and relatives of the Bulgaria terror victims

Yossi Fraenkel, the operations officer of the international unit at Zaka, said: “Based on the information we’ve been given, the Jewish community worldwide is now under more risk than it was previously.

“We have a 45-50 member team in Manchester ready to be activated to anywhere in the world.”

Several UK leadership bodies, including the Jewish Leadership Council and the Board of Deputies, are planning how to react in the event of a war between Israel and Iran, which could spark terror attacks from Iranian sleeper cells.

A leaked document reveals that discussions have included a proposal for an Iran “war room” equipped with Skype and wi-fi, the release of communal briefing on security, media, political and diplomatic issues as soon as hostilities break out, and the creation of a parliamentary lobby group.

Overseas, meanwhile, security preparations for Rosh Hashanah are well under way. In Belgium, emergency workers recently staged a bomb drill at the Yesodei Hatorah elementary school in Antwerp.

The exercise, in which 60 people participated, involved a mock-up car-bomb explosion and blank shots fired by two actors posing as terrorists. Children covered in fake blood were stretchered into a waiting ambulance

In France, although police surveillance outside synagogues is a part of the New Year holiday tradition — security has been tight since a terrorist attacked a Paris synagogue 30 years ago — this year, it will be even tighter.

“I’ve had dozens of meetings with police officials, communities, the interior and justice ministers in order to get as much security as possible,” said Joel Mergui, head of the French Consistoire, the body that manages France’s synagogues, communities and schools.

“Police deployment is now a habit but, after what happened in Toulouse, we all agreed to go even further. Toulouse has put us in a different place,” said Mr Mergui.

Toulouse was the location for the first deadly terror attack perpetrated in France in over a decade. Mohammed Merah killed four Jews, including three young children, at Jewish school Ozar Hatorah in March after killing three soldiers.

Jews were traumatised not only by the shooting itself but also by the way it was perceived by certain youths. Hundreds showed support for the killer on Facebook and in a demonstration. In dozens of schools, children refused to observe a minute of silence for the victims. Since Toulouse, dozens of violent antisemitic attacks have occurred throughout the country.

“It’s impossible to walk in the street wearing a kippah, even in the safest neighbourhoods,” said Michel, a Jewish pharmacist from Marseille. “It’s not normal to have policemen posted outside our synagogues.”

“It feels like we’re on the verge of a civil war,” said his wife, Edith, who was born in Morocco. “Today’s France reminds me of the atmosphere in Morocco before independence.”

“We’ve increased security everywhere since Toulouse, but we’re particularly concerned about certain areas. French Jews are worried,” said Mr Mergui. “The fact that Nicolas Sarkozy was replaced by Francois Hollande doesn’t change much for us. The socialists and the right have the exact same attitude regarding antisemitism today. We have to do everything to enable Jews to practise their religion freely.”

After two major antisemitic attacks within a week, Berlin Jews are rethinking their safety.

Last week, Berlin Rabbi Daniel Alter was brutally beaten by youths who accosted him and his six-year-old daughter, asking if Rabbi Alter was Jewish. The rabbi required surgery to repair his cheekbone.

In the most recent incident, Jewish schoolgirls in Berlin were subjected to antisemitic abuse by teenagers on Monday.

In both cases, the attackers are believed to be of Middle Eastern origin.

Police are investigating the second incident, in which four teenage girls allegedly shouted antisemitic abuse and took mobile phone pictures of 13 pupils from the Chabad Or Avner primary school. The attackers reportedly fled the scene when a teacher tried to intervene.

In response, Berlin Jewish community president Gideon Joffe has said Jews should avoid wearing kippot in public and has urged Muslims to confront antisemitism within their ranks.

Berlin Jews expressed mixed feelings, although most were concerned enough to ask that their full names not be used.

Shlomit said she would remind her husband to wear a cap over his kippah. “He has forgotten rather often… I used to find his forgetfulness amusing but now I’m worried about that.”

One man said that, despite his usual worries about security in Berlin, he would not give in to fear. But after the attack on Rabbi Alter, he said he would not walk to synagogue with his children.

Rabbi Josh Spinner of Berlin said that, while violent attacks were rare in Berlin, verbal taunting from young Arabs was not uncommon in certain neighbourhoods.

In Rome, the High Holy Days this year mark the 30th anniversary of what many Roman Jews still consider “an open wound” — a bloody Palestinian attack on Rome’s main synagogue.

The attack took place on October 9, 1982, when Fatah terrorists hurled hand grenades and fired on people leaving the synagogue, killing a toddler and wounding about 100 others .

“The anniversary will certainly be on people’s minds,” one official with the Union of Italian Jewish Communities said.

Since that time, security has been stringent at Jewish institutions in the city, with the community maintaining its own internal security operations, in co-operation with the state.

Police guard the main synagogue around the clock and there are ID and handbag checks to enter.

Rome Jewish community President Riccardo Pacifici said that measures had been put in place within the past three months in the wake of the attack in Toulouse, as well as the arrest in northern Italy in March of a young Moroccan suspected of plotting an attack on the main synagogue in Milan and other targets.

“Our enemies update their methods and we are updating ours,” Mr Pacifici said.

In Warsaw, “we already have security measures in place,” said Poland’s Rabbi Michael Schudrich. “We work closely with the police and we have our own increased security for the High Holy Days.”

Security around Jewish community buildings in Sweden is being tightened ahead of the High Holy Days as community representatives warn about potential attacks from Muslim fundamentalists and extreme-right groups.

“We have briefed the authorities about the potential threat and about our security needs,” said Lena Posner-Körösi, president of the Council of Jewish Communities in Sweden.

“We are in regular contact with the police. They have been very accommodating, but we are never quite satisfied.”

The Swedish minister for European affairs, Birgitta Ohlsson, said the government recognises that “synagogues, Jewish schools and Jewish institutions need increased protection. We have recently invested £370,000 in increasing security for the Jewish minority.”

Ms Posner-Körösi said the main threat comes from Muslim fundamentalists and right-wing groups operating in Sweden.

“Our enemies are well aware that the holidays are coming up. They know that many Jews will be gathering in synagogues in the major cities of Stockholm, Gothenburg and Malmö. As we see it, it is the police’s responsibility to ensure that all Swedish citizens are safe and protected.”

On Sunday, Israel solidarity demonstrations were held in Stockholm and Gothenburg. Around 700 people attended the Stockholm rally which had a heavy police presence. Roughly 100 pro-Palestinian activists rallied nearby.

Annika Hernroth-Rothstein, organiser of the Stockholm demonstration, thanked the police for taking her “concerns and questions seriously”.

In the US, the Anti-Defamation League is advising synagogues to take steps to protect their congregants during the holidays.

In partnership with its 30 regional offices, the ADL will conduct security training courses throughout the US over the next two weeks, and will host two web seminars for 400 Reform Movement temples.

ADL national director Abraham H Foxman said: “Jewish institutions should ‘think security’ 365 days a year, and the High Holy Days are a good time to reinforce this.”

Tal Rosen, executive director of KAM Isaiah Israel in Chicago, which is located just across the street from President Barack Obama’s house, said: “There’s a modicum of increased risk at this time of year.”

Joseph Potasnik, executive director of the New York Board of Rabbis, added that “no rabbi ignores security during the High Holy Days. As a time of reflection and re-examination, it gives us an opportunity to look anew at what we can do to protect ourselves throughout the year.”

Last updated: 10:50am, September 6 2012