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Texas synagogue hostage-taker's antisemitism not taken seriously by the FBI

The FBI's statement that the hostage attack wasn't antisemitic failed to capture the very nature of antisemitism.
Image: Congregation Beth Israel synagogue
Congregation Beth Israel synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, on Monday.Emil Lippe / Getty Images; MSNBC

Of the many horrifying moments in the hostage standoff at a Texas synagogue Saturday, one of the most painful was hearing an FBI spokesperson tell the public that it was “not related” to the Jewish community.

The hostage-taker’s targeting a synagogue was deliberate in ways that can’t be dismissed.

It’s hard to imagine a more incorrect statement about an apparent act of terrorism at a site of Jewish worship. It’s true that the attacker had objectives that were bigger than violent harm toward the hostages themselves: He apparently sought to use them as leverage to secure the release of a Pakistani woman serving an 86-year sentence in the U.S. for having tried to kill American soldiers in Afghanistan. In this sense, the hostage-taker’s strategic aims differed from those of other recent U.S. and global terrorist attacks on synagogues that have targeted Jewish worshippers with violence. This may have been what the FBI was trying to say when it dismissed the crime’s connection to the Jewish community.

But the hostage-taker’s targeting a synagogue was deliberate in ways that can’t simply be dismissed as unrelated. His own words make this abundantly clear. In the livestream of the attack, the captor explained that he chose a synagogue because he believes the U.S. “only cares about Jewish lives.”

The FBI’s assertion was therefore wrong on its face; the attacker picked a synagogue precisely because the Jewish community worships there. But it was also wrong because it failed to capture the very nature of antisemitism and how it’s embedded in a wide range of age-old and contemporary conspiracy theories about power, elites, U.S. governance and global cooperation. As Yair Rosenberg explained in The Atlantic this week, antisemitism is not only a discriminatory prejudice, but also “a conspiracy theory about how the world operates.”

Most conspiracy theories are built on a scaffolding about a cabal of elites who seek to maintain power by orchestrating some nefarious outcome in pursuit of their own gain. In many of these theories, those elites are Jewish, though they’re sometimes identified using antisemitic code words such as “globalist.” The hostage-taker was so far down the rabbit hole of those kinds of conspiracy theories that he “literally thought that Jews control the world,” as Beth Israel Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, after he escaped, told The Forward: “He thought he could come into a synagogue, and we could get on the phone with the ‘Chief Rabbi of America’ and he would get what he needed.”

Most conspiracy theories are built on a scaffolding about a cabal of elites.

Those antisemitic and conspiratorial beliefs drove the attacker to target the synagogue closest to the prison where Aafia Siddiqui is incarcerated because he wanted Jewish hostages — whom, as Wajahat Ali wrote in The Daily Beast this week, he saw as “members of this insidious, powerful collective that are the supposed architects of his own misery or had magical access to power that would force the United States to free Siddiqui and return her to Pakistan.” He didn’t seek random hostages to use as leverage. He specifically sought Jewish ones.

Antisemitic conspiracy theories have directly inspired terrorist violence against Jews in the recent past. A widely circulating conspiracy theory falsely claiming that liberal financier and philanthropist George Soros was funding migrant caravans to the southern U.S. border relied heavily on antisemitic tropes that painted him as the mastermind of a group of elite globalists working to dismantle white Christian nations through immigration. The suspect charged with the mass shooting that killed 11 people in a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018 is believed to have been motivated by this very theory; authorities say he believed that he was called to stop the “slaughter” of white people and prevent the creation of a multicultural society being brought on by Jews who were working to resettle refugees.

Experts in the field of extremism — including members of other targeted groups — reacted with dismay online after the FBI’s dismissal of a connection to the Jewish community. Eric Ward, executive director of the Western States Center, an inclusive democracy organization, tweeted that the media’s uncritical repetition of the FBI’s statement reflected “painful bias,” noting that “Jews were targeted because they were Jews" and adding, “He didn’t pick a McDonalds.”

The good news is that a lot of ordinary people did immediately recognize that the hostage situation was a direct and deliberate assault on the Jewish community. The local interfaith community in Texas is a clear example. Throughout the 11-hour standoff, an evangelical pastor, an imam, a Catholic priest and a rabbi held a vigil in the FBI command center and helped law enforcement officers negotiate with the hostage-taker.

It’s also clear that the FBI is well aware of the threat arising from conspiracy theories. In May 2019, the FBI’s Phoenix field office issued an intelligence bulletin warning that conspiracy theories are very likely inspiring domestic terrorists, suggesting that “certain conspiracy theory narratives tacitly support or legitimize violent action.” The bulletin also notes that it expects this phenomenon to evolve and grow, in part because of the wide circulation of conspiracy theories online.

The FBI is well aware of the threat arising from conspiracy theories.

That acknowledgment makes the FBI’s rejection of a connection between the Texas hostage situation and the Jewish community all the more baffling. At a moment when antisemitic conspiracy theories regularly motivate terrorist violence and help mainstream extremist ideas — through language about immigrant “replacement” and invasion, alleged funding for migrant caravans and ideas about power and control in the U.S. and globally — the dismissal is especially troubling.

Elected officials, law enforcement representatives and others in the public sphere should actively work to combat conspiracy theories. This requires denouncing them wherever they appear — including in a hostage crisis built atop a conspiracy theory about the “value” of the hostages. The fight against violent extremism will never succeed if we can’t even name the ideological and conspiratorial roots that underpin so much of it.