US rabbis call for more funding to tackle security threats

Homeland Security Department says country faces rise in extremism after recent attacks and bomb threats

Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker addresses reporters at a news conference after a 10-hour standoff with a gunman at a Texas synagogue. AP
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US rabbis on Tuesday stressed the need for more funding for security training amid heightened threats from extremists, underscored by last month's hostage crisis at a Texas synagogue and recent bomb threats at dozens of historically black colleges and universities.

The warning comes after some schools across the US cancelled classes and issued shelter-in-place orders last week. Investigators ultimately failed to turn up any explosives.

“Threats directed at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and other colleges and universities, Jewish facilities and churches cause concern and may inspire extremist threat actors to mobilise to violence,” the Homeland Security Department said in a bulletin.

Last month, British-born gunman Malik Faisal Akram took four people hostage at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas, including its rabbi, Charlie Cytron-Walker. He brandished a gun and held them hostage for 10 hours.

The standoff ended in gunfire, with all four hostages released unharmed and the suspect dead.

Texas synagogue hostages freed after police kill gunman

Shortly after 5 p. m. , local time, authorities escort a hostage out of the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, Saturday, Jan.  15, 2022.  Police said the man was not hurt and would be reunited with his family.  (Elias Valverde / The Dallas Morning News via AP)

Speaking to two US House committees on Tuesday, Mr Cytron-Walker detailed how the Texas gunman held anti-Semitic views, including the beliefs that Jewish people control the media and the government.

“That was reality for him,” Mr Cytron-Walker said.

Mr Cytron-Walker said he is “grateful to be anywhere”, alluding to his own security training that he employed in dealing with the gunman at Congregation Beth Israel last month.

During the attack, Mr Cytron-Walker hurled a chair at the attacker that allowed the hostages to escape.

Citing the experience, the rabbi underscored the need for additional funding so additional religious communities can receive similar training.

Describing recent attacks on Jewish places of worship in recent years as “a moment of crisis”, the rabbi said: “I'm truly horrified that in our society today, religious leaders must devote themselves to security training.”

The Anti-Defamation League most recently documented more than 2,100 instances of assault, harassment and vandalism in the US, an increase of 12 per cent over the past year. It was the highest level the documented since the organisation began tracking it in 1979, it said.

“Since the attacks on the Tree of Life synagogue building in 2018, September, we have experienced the most intense period of violent attacks on Jews in the history of this country,” Mr Cytron-Walker said.

The US intelligence community warned months ago of a threat that racially motivated violent extremists, such as white supremacists, would seek to carry out mass-casualty attacks on civilians.

The country remains in a heightened threat environment, the Homeland Security Department said on Monday.

Reuters contributed to this report

Updated: June 20, 2023, 11:34 AM