Texas Synagogue Hostage Situation and a Conversation about Antisemitism


David Caine

This past weekend was a saddening day for the Jewish community, and a day to be remembered for years to come. There was a hostage situation as a gunman took control of a synagogue during Saturday morning services on January 15th. Hostages were kept for eleven hours in the Beth Israel synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, scared for their lives that they would be the next victims of an Antisemitic hate crime, with their names plastered on headlines nation-wide. 

The suspect, later identified as Malik Faisal Akram, a 44-year-old British man, knocked on the glass front door of the synagogue just before services started. Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, the synagogue rabbi, promptly let him in, as he thought that he was just a man who needed shelter. He then made the man a cup of tea and stayed with him as he drank it. 

When recalling the situation, Rabbi Cytron-Walker stated, “When I took him in, I stayed with him. Making tea was an opportunity for me to talk with him. In that moment, I didn’t hear anything suspicious.”  

During services, while the rabbi’s back was turned, Akram pulled out his gun, and took the rabbi, along with the three other people worshipping in the synagogue, hostage. In the Facebook live stream that took place, you could hear Akram announcing that he was armed with a gun and explosives, that he was willing to die by the police, and that he wasn’t working for a foreign terrorist organization. Facebook ended the livestream, but the FBI was able to get in, and soon, they surrounded the building. 

Just after noon, around when services would normally end, Akram forced Rabbi Cytron-Walker to call Rabbi Angela Buchdahl, a rabbi of the Central Synagogue in Manhattan. After several phone calls, Akram threatened to kill the four hostages if Aafia Siddiqui, convicted terrorist and al-Qaida supporter was not released from the Carswell Air Force Base prison. He believed that a rabbi had high enough power to release a terrorist from prison. 

For the next few hours, the hostages were all held at gunpoint, until around 5:30 p.m., when Akram released one of the hostages unharmed. Around four hours later, Rabbi Cytron-Walker made the hard decision to take matters into his own hands and make sure that everyone got out safe. After Akram asked for a drink, the rabbi went to get him some juice. While he was drinking it, the rabbi noticed that this was the first time in hours that Akram wasn’t holding his gun, and knew that he had to use the opportunity. After making sure that everyone was safe and ready to sprint towards the door, Rabbi Cytron-Walker grabbed a chair that was right in front of him, and using all his strength, threw it at Akram, knocking him over. While he was on the ground and comprehending what was happening, the congregates ran out the door, followed by Rabbi Cytron-Walker being the last one out. 

When asked about going back to the synagogue with the congregation, Rabbi Cytron-Walker stated, “Unfortunately, we’ve experienced great difficulty and challenges with people and…we’ve experienced great resilience. It won’t necessarily be an easy thing, but it’s a really important thing. The synagogue is a place…it’s a house of assembly, it’s where we gather…as a community, it’s a place where we pray together.” 

Thankfully, everyone got out safe and unharmed, but the thought still lingers in everyone’s minds. What if someone did get hurt? What if something like this happens again, and the outcome is worse? As a Jewish person who has grown up in America, and has seen and heard about every Antisemitic act happing on the news and from my community, that thought is always in the back of my mind. Going to synagogue Saturday mornings to pray used to be a time for me to connect with God, but now, because of the surge in Antisemitism in America, our synagogue has to have extra security, and I have to think about the fact that my synagogue could be held hostage at any point. 

I have had many friends who have told me stories of people being antisemitic towards them. Many have been called offensive names by others and have been ostracized from being included in groups. I’ve personally experienced people, directly to my face, making jokes about the Holocaust and my religion. 

And I’m not just making up the fact that Antisemitism is becoming an increasingly growing problem. There have been countless studies done by dozens of organizations that have said the same thing: Antisemitism in America is rising at massive rates, and a majority of religious hate crimes stems from Antisemitic beliefs. 

In a study done by the American Jewish Committee, in 2021 alone, one out of every four Jews in America have stated that they have been a victim of Antisemitism. 17% stated that they were victims of it in person, 12% said that it happened to them online, and sadly, 3% responded that they were targets of physical attacks. This should not be a problem people have to deal with in 2022. 

Most people’s Antisemitism comes from many places, but the two main areas are deep-seated false beliefs ingrained in society, and the country of Israel. 

There are many false beliefs about Jewish people spanning all the way back to Jesus, with the belief that Jewish people killed Jesus, which is false. Another false belief spanning all the way back to the Middle Ages is something called the “Blood Libel.” This was a false belief created by Christian radicals that stated that Jewish people kill baby Christians and drink their blood. Even though this has been disproven many times over, some believe it to this day. Another big belief that many people believe is that Jewish people control the worlds media, government, and banks.  

This was clearly shown at the recent hostage situation. Akram asked Rabbi Cytron-Walker to call Rabbi Angela Buchdahl because he believed that she was the head of the Jews and could get him on the phone with President Biden. This false belief that Jews control the world led to a man taking an entire synagogue hostage, just because he thought Jewish people were powerful enough to be able to make a direct call with the government. It is time to put an end to all these beliefs, as they are flat-out wrong, and endangering the lives of many innocent people. 

The next form of Antisemitism is with Israel. Israel is a country in the Middle East formed after World War ll as a home for the Jewish people. The country’s right to exist has always been a topical issue, ever since the formation of the country in 1948. Some people don’t agree with decisions the country of the Israel makes, and because of that, they take out their anger on the Jewish people. 

This can be clearly shown with the Israel and Hamas fighting that occurred in the Spring of last year. The issue suddenly resurfaced again, with thousands of people flocking to social media, pleading to save Palestine, and condemning Jewish people. Because of actions taken by the Israeli government, Antisemitic crimes across the world started to spike once again. In the first week of the violence, the Anti-Defamation League stated that they received 193 reports of Antisemitic activity, a nearly 50% increase since the week prior. Because of the fighting across the world, innocent Jewish people started being attacked at an alarming rate, simply because of their religion. 

There are also many ways of indirect Antisemitism, with the lack of coverage of antisemitic related crimes. The only reason I knew about this was because I was scrolling through news articles to write something about. I have not seen it once on my Instagram page. I have not seen it anywhere on television news. I have not heard any of my friends talk about it, and I’m sure that none of them know that it happened. I shouldn’t have to deliberately go digging through news articles on Google to find out about a hostage situation at a synagogue. It should be covered more, just like any other breaking news story.  

Antisemitism is a huge problem that needs to be stopped, and these incidents are prime examples of why. The fact that rabbis and other synagogue leaders need to take courses in self-defense and how to protect themselves and other congregations if there is an attack says a lot about the world around us. Instead of tackling the issue straight-forward, and cracking down on Antisemitic violence, many people are forced to be trained in self-defense and have extra security while at synagogue. One The New York Times article is titled, “The Hostages Escaped. But Synagogues Ask, How Can They Be More Secure?” We shouldn’t have to ask how the synagogues can be more secure. We should be asking how we can lower the Antisemitic incidents occurring around us to help make the world a better and safer place. 

Antisemitism is a problem that is centuries old, and won’t be going away for a long time, but we can take a step in the right direction by acknowledging the problem head on, and making the issue more serious, because it is. What if the next time this happens, someone is actually hurt? What if another innocent life is taken away from us in the name of false beliefs or taking out frustration on the wrong people? Although it is bound to happen again, we can all work together to stop the magnitude of reports and severity of them today by taking a stand against Antisemitism.