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27th December

First Published in The New York Sun, December 27, 2002
By Andrew Wolf

Readers of this column — and my columns and editorials in the two Bronx newspapers I publish — know that I rarely venture outside city limits in finding subjects to comment on. While I personally have deep feelings about events in the Middle East and have a passionate commitment to the future of the State of Israel, I generally leave these matters to others.

But two years ago, the conflict came to Riverdale, the community I have lived in for the past quarter century, in the borough I have lived all of my life. The Conservative Synagogue Adath Israel is located on Henry Hudson Parkway, just blocks from my home. Although I am not affiliated with this synagogue, it is a place I have visited frequently, and much a part of the communal life of my neighborhood.
Early in the morning of Sunday, October 8, 2000, the synagogue was attacked. Four men attempted to set fire to the building using crudelymade Molotov cocktails. The date was significant. It was the day before Yom Kippur, the most solemn day of the year to many Jews, and it was also the first day that New York State’s new hate crime law went into effect.

October 2000 was also the month Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman Issued an edict calling on “scholars everywhere in the Muslim world to do their part and issue a unanimous fatwa that urges the Muslim nation to fight the Jews and kill them wherever they are.” This is the “blind sheik” jailed for plotting to blow up a number of New York landmarks, including the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels and the George Washington Bridge. His followers were implicated in the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993.

After the damage was discovered and reported to the police, Mayor Giuliani and Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik met with the synagogue leadership and promised a full investigation. By that time the glass door had been replaced with plywood, but beyond that there was little visible damage. Of course the incident made the evening news, and got some coverage in the press.

In the innocent days before September 11, incidents like this were usually “one-day wonders” that got a few inches in the dailies and a few seconds of tape on the local TV evening news. These events always seem to be quickly forgotten.

Initially, two things kept this incident alive. The first was the fact that actual arrests were made within days. Police had noticed suspicious activity surrounding a red Honda Civic driving around the area, had spoken with the driver, and had run the plate number. At that point the police had no knowledge of the synagogue attack, but the encounter was noted. Once the incident became known, the connection was made and within days four men were taken into custody.

The men (one turned out to be a minor) identified themselves as Palestinians who live in nearby Yonkers, where there is a growing Arab-American community. They went to a local liquor store and purchased two bottles of vodka — which the clerk assured them had the highest alcohol content available and was thus the most flammable. They snapped on latex gloves, wiped the bottles clean, and enhanced the 160 proof alcohol with a highly flammable solvent often used by plumbers. They drove to the synagogue, which is located in an area that typically sees little activity in the early morning hours. One bottle was ignited and thrown, shattering the glass doors of the synagogue. The other was lit and placed in front of the door. It was just good luck that only minimal damage was done to the building.

The second reason for continued interest in this case is that these arrests were the first made under the new hate crimes law. Even so, since one of the four was a minor and his case was heard in family court, and one man never charged, only two of the four faced the new, stiffened penalties.

But it was ultimately the events of September 11 and its aftermath that cast what seemed to be an isolated incident in a more ominous light. It was curious that one of the defendants seemed to have some high-powered legal help. Two well-known radical lawyers took on the defense of Mazin Assi, one of the two men finally charged. Lynne Stewart had represented the aforementioned “blind sheik,” and Stanley Cohen counts representatives of Hamas and Hezbollah among his client roster.

Even this was lost on most of us until Ms. Stewart herself was indicted earlier this year for facilitating messages between the imprisoned blind sheik and his followers, a violation of federal law. Among the missives she is accused of helping to convey may have been the October 2000 fatwa against the Jews. The presence of Ms. Stewart, suggests Jonathan Mark writing in The Jewish Week, puts just two degrees of separation between the synagogue bombers and Osama bin Laden. Rep. Eliot Engel raised this issue in a letter to Attorney General Ashcroft.

At the trial, the defense asserted that the incident was a “political protest” against the Israeli army’s “occupation” of their “homeland,” as if setting fire to a synagogue in New York was some sort of legitimate way to air their grievances. Might the defendants been acting on the blind sheik’s fatwa?

Somehow this case never seemed to capture the public attention. Part of the reason for this is surely that the trial took place in the Bronx, at a courthouse where few reporters ever venture. But more surprisingly, few members of Riverdale’s large and energetic Jewish community bothered to attend the trial, which dragged on for over three months. Initially, only family and supporters of the defendants showed up. When this was pointed out to some of the more activist elements among Riverdale’s Jewish population, a small contingent of volunteers began attending the trial on a more or less regular basis.

There are some in the Jewish community who believe that the men should have been allowed to plead to lesser charges. They believe that somehow peace will come to the Middle East if we just all try to get along. Stanley Cohen tried to broker such a deal, which ultimately was firmly rejected by community leaders. Others believe that the only way to win convictions in cases of hate crimes against Jews in our city is to keep things low key. They fear another Lemerick Nelson-Crown Heights verdict.

This sends the absolute wrong message. Jews, or any other group, cannot expect others to respect the integrity of their institutions if they themselves fail to express the proper indignation when attacked. There are few areas that I am in agreement with the Rev. Al Sharpton. This is one of them. It is regrettable that there wasn’t a show of solidarity in the courtroom every day. Maybe then the New York Times would have seen fit to at least cover the verdicts, as was done by every other New York daily, as well as the Journal News in Westchester.

In the end, Assi, represented by the radical lawyers, was convicted of all counts and faces up to 22 years in prison. The second defendant, Mohammed Alfaqih, the driver of the getaway car, was convicted of just one minor charge and faces less than four years in prison. The minor’s case was heard in family court, and the fourth man, Medre Medre, was never charged. According to Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson, the only evidence against him is the confessions of his accomplices, which alone cannot support conviction.

But according to Jeffrey Glucksman, the senior trial attorney on the case, there may be DNA evidence that can be used against Mr. Medre. This evidence was inconclusive two years ago. But new, more advanced techniques, used to identify body parts of the victims of the September 11 attack, have not yet been employed in this case. Why not?

Was this trial a minor incident of vandalism of no larger consequence, or was it a botched terrorist incident that needs to be taken with the utmost seriousness?

Evidence collected after the 1990 assassination of Rabbi Meir Kahane was ignored until the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, when it became clear, too late, that the two cases were linked. Most of us, myself included, ignored the trials of those implicated in the 1993 bombing.

After September 11, is there any incident of this nature that we can afford to let slip by us?

© 2002 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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