Why the tight security at J Street president’s Syracuse talk?

Israel/Palestine
on 15 Comments
Jeremy Ben Ami
Jeremy Ben Ami

I recently heard Jeremy Ben-Ami, president and founder of J Street, tell a group of Jewish Syracuse New Yorkers that it is in the interest of Israel, the United States and American Jews to have a “two-state solution” to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Ben-Ami was in town to help launch a local chapter of his self-proclaimed “pro-Israel, pro-peace organization.”  He described his peace vision as one held by the Israeli opposition leader Tzipi Livni, and the U.S. installed Palestinian “Prime Minister” Salam Fayyad.  Based on the audience questions and comments, JStreet Jeremy had at least as many opponents as sympathizers at the Jewish Community Center (JCC) that evening.

Strangely, my main impressions of the evening were not based on Ben-Ami’s remarks, about which I plan to write in the near future, but rather on the unexpected presence of two burly city policemen who were stationed in the lobby near the entrance to the JCC building when I arrived.

It seems relevant to inform you that I am Jewish, live an hour’s drive from Syracuse and know close to nothing about its Jewish community.  As a matter of fact, I know very little about any Jewish community except the one that existed around Pelham Parkway in the Bronx a half century ago.   Most of the information I have learned recently about American Jews comes from websites, newspapers, magazines, television, even blogs.  (Full disclosure: my main source of my knowledge is this website!)

When I saw that the Jewish Community Center was tightly secured by Syracuse’s finest, I first surmised that the police were present to protect Jeremy from some irate meshugenah alter cocker (wild old fart, in Yiddish) who had overdosed on prune juice and was high on tribalism and pro-Israel fanaticism.  Although I initially dismissed this assumption as unlikely, I later learned that it actually contained an element of truth.

After rejecting my own conclusion that the security was about protecting Ben-Ami, I conjectured, more implausibly, that the officers were present to protect members of the Jewish community from insanely overzealous basketball fans, for which Syracuse is well-known.  These fanatics may, I reasoned, blame the disgraced and recently dismissed long-time assistant Syracuse University basketball coach Bernie Fine, who is Jewish, for the unfolding lurid sex scandal surrounding the university’s basketball program. 

All ethnic and religious minorities are very sensitive to scandals which involve local celebrities from their own community, American Jews are particularly so.  Fine was not so good for Syracuse Jews.  However, the police were not, of course, a defense against offensive Syracuse Orange basketball supporters.

Ironically, it was my friend and ride Pat Carmeli, once a Catholic girl from Long Island, who had married an Israeli, raised a family in Israel, and is now a devoted and tireless local Syracuse area advocate for Palestinian rights, who informed me that other Jewish events she has attended in the Syracuse area were also “protected” by a very visible police presence.  This includes synagogues during morning Sabbath services.

Ben-Ami began his presentation with a startling comparison between the Jews who moved out of crowded New York City in the 50s to build a better life in the then rural communities on Long Island with those who fought in the Irgun**, like his father, who relocated from Jaffe to the city of Tel Aviv.  However, I was diverted from contemplating Jeremy’s bizarre revisionist cultural history by the new security deployment in the hall. 

The police were now stationed at opposite corners of the lecture room where they projected a heightened vigilance.  It occurred to me that the men in blue were protecting me and some 100 mostly elderly upper-middle class Jews from an attack – but from whom?  Who are these people afraid of: poor African Americans who live in the surrounding area, a group of Jihadists from among the small besieged local Muslim population or some reincarnated Nazi brown shirts whose ghostly presence would re-enact Kristallnacht on Thompson Road in Upstate New York?  Is this heavy security really typical of the Jewish community in Syracuse, or for that matter, in the United States? I wondered.

After Jeremy finished answering questions and retired to an adjoining room to sell and sign his recent book, I learned from an attendee that in addition to anti-Semites, the JCC has to protect itself from possible attacks from ultra-Orthodox Jews.  Whether this potential J Street supporter actually believed what he said is anyone’s guess.  He had proudly indicated that he was a liberal and long-time supporter of the two-state solution.  Maybe this elderly gentleman thought he was demonstrating open-mindedness and ecumenicalism by including members of his own religious group as a possible threat.

The most enlightening portion of the evening came when I joined my friend Pat who was speaking to one of the Syracuse police officers who I will refer to as “John*.”  By this time, most but not all of the attendees had left.   John apparently felt it was not necessary to continue being vigilant and gave us his complete attention.  He is a very charming and loquacious Irish-American who like Pat has a Jewish spouse. We learned that John was “off the clock” and being remunerated solely by the JCC.  It was heartening to hear that the security was not paid for by local taxpayers.  Still, I wondered about the propriety of working as private security wearing official police uniforms.

In response to our questions, John said he did not believe police protection was really necessary at this or at other Jewish events.  He volunteered that he had never had to deal with one incident during his Jewish moonlighting.   I was surprised to learn from John that there is a police presence “at every Jewish event in Syracuse, including weddings and Bar/Bat Mitvahs.”  John told us that when he first provided security for weddings and bar/bat-mitzvahs he was taken aback when out of town Jewish cops who were invited to these festivities expressed bewilderment at the security arrangements.  The off-duty guests said that in their hometowns Jewish weddings and other celebrations do not have any type of security, never mind armed-off duty uniformed police officers.

Marci Erlebacher is the Executive Director of the Syracuse JCC.  She is a bright, friendly, popular woman and a highly competent administrator, according to two knowledgeable local people I spoke with.  My 20-minute telephone interview with her corroborated this description.  Ms. Erlebacher contradicted the contention that police were hired as security at all local Jewish events.   She said that whether the police are present depends on the congregation and the type of event.  At the JCC, all events at which the general public is invited have police security, but “a movie about Israel” which only a small number of JCC members would be expected to attend would not require the police.

Ironically, given my initial reaction to the police, one of the J Street’s advance people asked the Director if there could be someone from the JCC present at Jeremy’s talk who would discourage and deal with any member of the audience who objected to Jeremy’s presentation in an inappropriate manner.  Since Ms. Erlebacher had a number of passionate requests that she not allow J Street a venue at the JCC, she had also become worried about audience behavior.  Thus the JCC Director was happy to have the police in the hall to perform crowd control duties.  She instructed them before the event that maintaining audience control would be their responsibility.  Those gathered treated Ben-Ami with the utmost courtesy and respect, without exception.  I doubt if their behavior would have been different if the police were absent.

Ms. Erlebacher told me that the use of security became prevalent in Syracuse after 9/11.  She feels that she is obligated to employ the police, “just in case.”  It is difficult to imagine her doing otherwise, since police are now something that many in the Jewish community have come to expect.  Still there are a number of questions, some that are troubling, about the police presence.

To what extent is the perceived need for police at events an appropriate reaction to real dangers to the community?  Could the high level of security be just the result of the upward economic mobility?  To what degree is the close identification of the Jewish community with the State of Israel, which is a very security-conscious society be driving the use of police at communal events?  Does the presence of Syracuse police at so many events affect how Syracuse Jews are viewed by the rest of the residents of the city?  To what extent is this police presence typical of Jewish communities in the United States?

My friend Pat said she was very disturbed by the police presence which she has seen at many Jewish events.  She asks, what is this teaching the children about the world in which they live?  Could it be teaching them to develop unnecessary fears of non-Jews?

Jeremy Ben-Ami told those gathered at the Jewish Community Center of Syracuse that Israel must take security risks in order to achieve peace.  Looking around at the police presence and the security-conscious audience, I wondered if many of these people would agree with him.

 

*    John was not the  actual name of the officer.
**  The Irgun was considered, at the time, by the Jewish establishment in both Palestine and the United States to be terrorist organization.

    Leave a Reply