On Saturday, a gunman entered Congregation Beth Israel in the city of Colleyville, Texas as they were beginning their Shabbat prayer service via Zoom and Facebook at 11 AM. The gunman took four Jews (including the rabbi) hostage. One male hostage was released at 5 PM. After an 11-hour siege, police charged the site and freed all the hostages.
In Israel, several leading rabbis monitoring the event united in an emergency message to American Jews – ‘Come home to Israel.’
— LockharTVMedia (@LockharTVMedia) January 16, 2022
The live stream, being watched by more than 8,000 people, was taken offline at about 2 PM but during the video, the man was heard ranting angrily, occasionally talking about religion. The man repeatedly mentioned Islam and used profanities. He was heard asking for his “sister” to be released from prison. The man said several times that he didn’t want anyone to be hurt though he also said repeatedly he believed he was going to die. He also spoke about his children.
Authorities have not revealed the identity of the gunman but he initially demanded the release of Aafia Siddiqui who he referred to as his sister. She is a Pakistani who is currently serving an 86-year sentence at a facility in Texas. She was convicted in 2010 on seven charges, including attempted murder and armed assault on US officers in Afghanistan. Siddiqui had a history of antisemitism and blamed Israel for her imprisonment. During her trial, she told her judge she didn’t want Jews in the jury “if they have a Zionist or Israeli background,” adding: “I have a feeling everyone here is them, subject to genetic testing.” After her conviction, she said, “This is a verdict coming from Israel and not from America. That’s where the anger belongs.”
State and federal SWAT teams were brought in to assist with the situation, as well as the FBI’s hostage rescue team, which flew to Texas from Quantico, Virginia. It is unclear whether the gunman was killed or committed suicide. During the siege, the gunman made statements on the live-video stream claiming to have explosives but police have not commented on whether any weapons were found.
A loud bang followed by what sounded like gunfire was heard about 9:12 PM and an exclusive video taken by WFAA-TV photographer Josh Stephen shows at least some of the hostages running out of a door at the synagogue at 9:15 PM just before FBI agents enter the building. The footage shows a man who appears to be holding a gun following the hostages as they escape, then almost immediately going back inside.
Authorities have not revealed the identity of the gunman but he initially demanded the release of Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani who is currently serving an 86-year sentence at a facility in Texas. She was convicted in 2010 on seven charges, including attempted murder and armed assault on US officers in Afghanistan. Siddiqui had a history of antisemitism and blamed Israel for her imprisonment. During her trial, she told her judge she didn’t want Jews in the jury “if they have a Zionist or Israeli background,” adding: “I have a feeling everyone here is them, subject to genetic testing.” After her conviction, she said, “This is a verdict coming from Israel and not from America. That’s where the anger belongs.”
The attorney who represents Siddiqui released a statement on Saturday saying “she has absolutely no involvement with” the taking of hostages at the synagogue.
FBI Dallas Special Agent in Charge Matthew DeSarno denied that the attack was anti-Semitic, saying that the FBI was still searching for a motive.
“We do believe from our engaging with this subject that he was singularly focused on one issue, and it was not specifically related to the Jewish community, but we’ll continue to work to find the motive,” DeSarno said.
This was echoed by President Joe Biden, who released a statement about the attack soon after the release of the hostages.
“There is more we will learn in the days ahead about the motivations of the hostage-taker,” the statement read. “But let me be clear to anyone who intends to spread hate—we will stand against anti-Semitism and against the rise of extremism in this country.”
The Council on American-Islamic Relations did, however, acknowledge the religious motives behind the attack.
“This antisemitic attack against a house of worship is unacceptable,” CAIR’s Houston chapter said in the statement. “We stand in solidarity with the Jewish community, and we pray that law enforcement authorities are able to swiftly free the hostages and bring them to safety.”
It should be noted that last month, CAIR defended remarks by a Muslim activist who told attendees at a pro-Palestinian conference last month to focus on “Zionist synagogues.” The Muslim organization noted that such criticism was often used to silence critics of “Israeli apartheid.”
Jawaid Alam, president of the Islamic Center of Southlake, praised Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker who was taken hostage, saying “he and his family are considered part of the Muslim community, and he considers us part of the Jewish community.”
The rabbi has accused Israel of being an apartheid state and forbade his congregants from coming to the synagogue bearing weapons.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center, an international Jewish human rights organization, said in a statement, “It’s no accident that a synagogue was chosen for this attack.”
“By all available information, this was a well-planned scenario designed to gain entrance into the synagogue by posing as a homeless man,” Simon Wiesenthal Center CEO and founder Rabbi Marvin Hier and Abraham Cooper, associate dean and director of global social action, wrote in the statement. “The terrorist and those who planned this attack counted on the kindness of a rabbi to gain entry into the synagogue.”
Rabbi Berger: “Cry out to God before redemption”
Rabbi Yosef Berger, the rabbi of King David’s Tomb on Mount Zion, saw the attack as a clear sign of imminent redemption.
“God wants all the Jews to come to Israel,;’ Rabbi Berger said. “This could not be clearer. ‘Ishmael’ means ‘God will listen’. The function of the Arabs is to make the Jews cry out to God. God did not take the Jews out of Egypt until we cried out to him. The same is true now. The final redemption is certainly coming very soon but it can come in kindness from our turning to God or it can come through difficulties. We are seeing more and more attacks on Jews. They must choose how the redemption will come for them.”
Rabbi Winston: “History is undeniable”
Rabbi Pinchas Winston saw the incident as a divine warning, a process with strong historical precedents.
“The Jews always get warnings but we seem to have forgotten what they mean and how God works,” Rabbi Winston said. “God usually gives warnings. For someone who has no faith in God, these aren’t warnings. These are random acts. History is a long string of random acts with no plan. So it is easier to ignore these warnings.”
“It is more difficult, though clearly not impossible, for people of faith to ignore these warnings. They should understand that there is a message and a plan. These are clearly not random events. But the power of inertia is enormous and can convince intelligent people not to act. All throughout history, violence against the Jews has only increased, as it is currently doing in the US. It has never decreased. Clinging to false ideas about the past, clinging to an illusion about current events and what they mean for the future, never ends well.”
“By the time it is indisputable and clear, it is already too late. So this message is not for the people who won’t listen. The fact that there are warnings is evidence that there are still people who are undecided. And it is still possible to leave.”
Rabbi Kahana: “Surpising turn of events”
Rabbi Nachman Kahana was only partially surprised at the event.
“For the last 20 years, I have been shouting to anyone who will listen that it is time for the Jews to come home.” “I am very surprised. I am not surprised that a Muslim attacked Jews in a synagogue. That happens all the time. I am surprised that there are Reform Jews who still pray on Shabbat.”
Rabbi Kahana noted that there is currently a $54 million program from the Jewish Federations of North America for LiveSecure, a program of security resources to help protect the Jewish community.
“They are talking about security cameras and steel doors, security guards, and self-defense,” Rabbi Kahana said. “They have accepted the inevitability of the threat to Jews. They know that the violence is going to increase. Once the anti-Semitism starts, you can’t stop it. The only answer is to pack your bags and come home.”
“But just like 80% of the Jews died in the plague of darkness, the Jews who stay in the US are going to be a footnote in a history book if they are remembered at all. They have no relevance to the future of the Jewish people. Just like we don’t know a single name of a Jew that stayed in Egypt or Babylonia, they will be forgotten and their grandchildren will disappear. God is choosing his team and everyone in the world gets to choose whether they are going to be on his team. For the Jews it is easy, it has always been easy. If you want to be relevant to the Jewish people, it is only here in Israel.”
“If you want to be a Reform Jew in Texas, you will be lucky to stay Jewish and even lucky to stay alive,” Rabbi Kahana said.