September 20, 2001
As thousands raced from the office towers of Manhattan, Jewish leaders in Los Angeles scrambled in two directions at once.
The safety of the Jewish community during the High Holy Days had to be reevaluated. At the same time, major Jewish organizations expressed the need to speak out on behalf of local Muslims, against stereotyping and accusations.
Throughout the week following the attacks, rabbis stressed that security concerns applied equally to all Americans, that the terrorism was not directed at Jews or any other group. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) emphasized the ongoing need for security at High Holy Day services.
"We've been doing what we always do -- advising Jewish organizations regarding security," said ADL Regional Director David Lehrer. "We advise an appropriate response: to take security seriously, but not to react hysterically. We've checked with our intelligence sources, and we are not aware of any threat to any Jewish organization or institution."
Lehrer said the need for security at synagogues was the same as in previous years. "This is not the 'Leave it to Beaver' '50s. We should be as concerned as any other Americans." He referred concerned synagogue staff and members to the ADL Web site, which has posted a security manual with important guidelines for the High Holy Days.
The ADL guidelines urge congregations to take security seriously, but not to panic. "Security consciousness is a necessity for leaders and members of community institutions," says the introduction, "yet the subject and the specific steps entailed should be approached in a spirit of calm and professionalism, not alarm or panic."
Meanwhile, as gunfire struck a mosque in Texas and police broke up an angry march toward another mosque in Chicago, the ADL and other organizations tried to prevent a possible outbreak of violence directed at Muslims. Within days of the attack, major Jewish organizations released statements emphasizing the need to remain calm and not blame Muslims for the acts of terrorists.
Clergy sensed some danger, they said, at a meeting last Wednesday of the Los Angeles Council of Religious Leaders -- which had been scheduled prior to the attacks. They called upon the citizens of Los Angeles to "pledge to refrain from stereotyping, demonizing and divisive rhetoric."
Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center also spoke of the vital distinction between the perpetrators and Arabs and Muslims in America. "As we mourn our tremendous losses, let us not be tempted to stereotype innocent people merely because of the religion they practice," Hier said. "This is a war against terrorism, not Islam."
Also disturbed by the threat of anti-Arab or anti-Muslim violence were local Muslims, who received threats throughout the week.
At the Islamic Society of Orange County, administrator Fawad Yacoob took notice of a mounting anger directed at Arab Americans and Muslims. "We have heard of incidents of attacks," he said, "Here in Southern California, security has been a major concern."
"We closed all the Muslim schools in Los Angeles," said Sarah Eltantawi of the Muslim Public Affairs Committee. "There's been a feeling of siege and fear, because of threats and looks, and what we've been reading." She added that local Muslim fears were not relegated to news of threats in other states. "There have been specific threats" in Los Angeles, she said, "hate e-mails and general threats."
Both Yacoob and Eltantawi, however, noted that the fear and threats were balanced by widespread expressions of unity, from Jews and others. "In fact, we have been inundated with phone calls of support," said Yacoob. "Some have stated their faith, some have not. They say, 'We remember Oklahoma City. We won't allow that [backlash] to happen again.' Several different rabbis have reached out and invited us to events.
"When the tragedy occurred on Tuesday, the mayor and the police chief [of Garden Grove] came and said, 'You are a part of our community.'"