As we continue thinking of the 11 poor souls who lost their lives in the massacre at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, we continue wondering how to best protect ourselves and our loved ones. It is a problem to which there may not be a solution, certainly not in a North American context.
In many European, South American and Scandinavian countries, there is heavy military and police protection guarding synagogues, as well as Jewish schools and community centres, around the clock.
The protection is constant because the threat to Jews is constant, whether it emanates from Muslim terrorists, white supremacists, neo-Nazis, or just plain anti-Semites. There is no shortage of people, organizations and movements in the world who hate Jews and the State of Israel, and recent events and social media tell us that in many places the intensity of that hatred is on the rise.
So while Jews in many counties need soldiers and police with machine guns and armoured vehicles to protect them and their synagogues, schools and community centres, the question is how does that fit a North American context where the threat is not considered nearly as grave?
Regular shul-goers in Ottawa know on Shabbat, other than a few minor adjustments, there has been no security to speak of – just as there was nothing significant in place at Tree of Life. For High Holy Day services, when City of Ottawa police officers are present, it may be somewhat reassuring to see them, but the reality is those few, significantly under-armed officers would be hard pressed to defend against a well-organized and executed machine gun assault.
It is a classic catch-22. Unless and until there are systematic and devastating attacks on Jews praying in a Canadian synagogue, why would anyone think it prudent or necessary to ring the perimeters of our places of worship with armed soldiers and military vehicles as they do in some countries?
While a security assessment would point to not taking the big guns out 24/7, the fact remains that in this sick world, anything can happen at any time, and in any place, perpetrated by any number of people for any number of causes. It was just under two years ago when young man stormed into a mosque in Quebec City with a semi-automatic rifle killing six and wounding 19. As a hateful act, it was not much different than the massacre in Pittsburgh and it serves to prove how Canada is not immune.
Like the attack in Quebec City, in relatively short order, the attack in Pittsburgh will be considered a one-off. People will say it was one deranged individual, this time an anti-Semite with no backing, no network and no terrorist footprint. The fear is equating 11 dead Jews and the injured to a bus accident, like some bad thing that happened to innocent people.
The dilemma is that a lone wolf anti-Semite with a machine gun can do as much damage as a terrorist cell. And it is likely even harder to defend against the individual hatemonger who believes “all the Jews must die.”
Since 9/11, security has become an enormous expense and a way of life that impacts us all. While it is hard to imagine where we would be without that new security regime, we know it isn’t a perfect science, and that it never can be. Go into the subway system in Montreal, Toronto, New York, or anywhere else, and see how many people have backpacks that are not systematically searched. It only takes one to be carrying a bomb.
How many lone wolf attacks on North American synagogues will it take before authorities deem it necessary to augment security around Jewish sites in a systematic way to duplicate what’s being done in some other countries. It is a question that is painful to contemplate and the hope, of course, is that we never have to.
At a minimum, though, what happened in Pittsburgh needs to be a stark wake-up call that North American Jews are not immune to deadly horror and hate.