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

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.

About Ira Glunts

Ira Glunts is a retired college librarian who lives in Madison, NY. His twitter handle is @abushalom

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15 Responses

  1. Tristan
    December 9, 2011, 10:59 am

    Thanks for the article, Ira. You have a very readable, mellow writing style, and I found this window into Syracuse Jewish life fascinating.

  2. homingpigeon
    December 9, 2011, 11:36 am

    I often throw around words like “high on tribalism and pro-Israel fanaticism,” but “overdosed on prune juice” – that is special and original.

    • dumvitaestspesest
      December 9, 2011, 12:16 pm

      :)) Prune juice is taken often by older members of society ,due to instestinal problems, (known also as constipation). It may relieve temporarly the “inner preassures”, yet it does have some side effects that maybe be smelled and heard by those, who happen to be around an” overdosed prune juice” fan.
      It does work though.

  3. split
    December 9, 2011, 12:16 pm

    ‘It was heartening to hear that the security was not paid for by local taxpayers’ ,…

    Not so fast, if wasn’t paid for by local taxpayer than it was paid by money obtained from tax deductible donations that must replaced by additional taxes imposed on six-pack-Joe. In addition in my neck of the woods every synagogue, civic center, Jewish school etc. is equipped with an electronic surveilance system connected to local police station, weapon detectors at the entrance and a police car with 2 cops in it 24/7/365 in front of the building paid for by US taxpayer.

  4. Nevada Ned
    December 9, 2011, 1:34 pm

    Do Bar Mitzvah events have a police presence?

    About 2005 I was invited to a Bot Mitzvah of my niece. I attended a religious service at a synagogue, followed by a gigantic dinner party at an expensive restaurant. I don’t remember any police presence, certainly no uniformed police officers. This all occurred in midtown Manhattan. What did surprise me was that the religious service had hardly any Jews. The pews were nearly empty. About half of the sparse attendance were Gentiles like myself, relatives of the Bot Mitzvah girl.

    The dinner party was accurately portrayed in the 1969 movie Goodbye Columbus (with Richard Benjamin, Ali McGraw, and Jack Klugman), based on the Philip Roth book. The main danger? Some relative might get really hammered (a likely event if it’s an open bar) and embarrass himself.

    • Mooser
      December 9, 2011, 6:47 pm

      “I attended a religious service at a synagogue, followed by a gigantic dinner party at an expensive restaurant.”

      Oy, at my Bar Mitzvah the reception was at our home, and the entertainment was provided by me, on the Baldwin organ! On the other hand, who else has had their Bar Mitzvah reception photographed by Arthur Swoger? Let’s just say that the photos, which I thought were evocative and telling, were not what Mom expected, and they were in B+W! I’ve still got ’em.

  5. American
    December 9, 2011, 2:18 pm

    “Could it be teaching them to develop unnecessary fears of non-Jews?”

    In a word …Yes…but then they are already encouraged to believe that.

    But at the same time having police there is wiser than than self policing by attendees or staff because without the appearence of some authority disputes could turn into a ruckus and get out of hand.

  6. Scott
    December 9, 2011, 3:12 pm

    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,

    Can someone get her to write a memoir?

  7. seafoid
    December 9, 2011, 4:43 pm

    Why no thread about the daily descent of Israel deeper into fascism?

    Israel’s eroding democracy: A shadow is cast
    By Tobias Buck

    Nationalism is isolating Israel

    Even long-time and consistent supporters of Israel have despaired and are distancing themselves from what they view as Israel’s abandonment of their “shared values.”
    Haaretz Editorial

    In Israel, ‘fascist’ is not a rude word

    The silence of Yad Vashem and other Holocaust memorial institutes to the recent rash of anti-democratic legislation is deafening.
    By Amira Hass

  8. DICKERSON3870
    December 9, 2011, 6:29 pm

    RE: “Why the tight security at J Street president’s Syracuse talk?”

    SEE: “THE POGROMISTS AT STAND WITH US”, by Richard Silverstein, Tikun Olam, 11/19/10

    The bullies who stand with Stand With Us are developing ever more belligerent, assaultive behavior in their jihad against the pro-peace movement. Last week at one of its regular meetings, members of Jewish Voice for Peace were confronted with a number of hecklers who were also attempting to videotape the meeting against the express wishes of JVP. I’m going to let JVP explain what happened:

    …Up to a dozen members of San Francisco Voice for Israel/StandWithUs, a right-wing Israeli advocacy group with a documented track record of aggressively taunting and intimidating grassroots peace activists, attended a Bay Area Jewish Voice for Peace community meeting at a South Berkeley Senior Center.
    …Wrapped in an Israeli flag, San Francisco Voice for Israel/StandWithUs (SFVI/SWU) member Robin Dubner, an Oakland based attorney, pepper-sprayed two JVP members in the eyes and face after they attempted to nonviolently block her ability to aggressively videotape the faces of JVP meeting attendees against their will. The members, Alexei Folger and Glen Hauer, were careful to make no physical contact with her or her camera prior to the attack.
    Folger said, “I did not see it coming and all of a sudden there was gooey stuff all over my head and hand. I have never been pepper-sprayed before, my whole head felt like it was on fire.”…

    ENTIRE ARTICLE – http://www.richardsilverstein.com/tikun_olam/2010/11/19/the-pogromists-at-stand-with-us/

    ALSO SEE: “‘STAND WITH US’ ASSAULT ON THE JEWISH PEACE MOVEMENT” – http://www.richardsilverstein.com/tikun_olam/2011/02/08/stand-with-us-assault-on-the-jewish-peace-movement-2/

    AND SEE Video: Pro-Israel Activist Knocks Camera Out of Hands of Alison Weirhttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BV6BXrzUa00

  9. patm
    December 9, 2011, 7:41 pm

    Thanks, Ira Glunts.

    I’ve just read your friend Pat’s Carmeli’s telling article and left a comment.

  10. yourstruly
    December 10, 2011, 1:49 am

    there’s a track record from 50+ years ago of zionist thugs blowing up jewish facilities in arab countries, the better to panic jewish citizens in those nations into fleeing to israel. would zionists commit such crimes here in america? are they not desperate to increase the number of jews is israel? something about a demographic challenge there? they did it before & no reason to think they wouldn’t do it again.

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