The hostage situation at the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue in Colleyville, Texas on Saturday, Jan. 15, has prompted a strong response from Jewish leaders in Alabama, and around the nation, to what many see as a growing wave of anti-Semitism.

A British citizen, Malik Faisal Akram, 44, arrived at the synagogue and had tea with Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker before interrupting Shabbat worship services later that morning, taking Cytron-Walker and three others hostage. Some of the 11-hour standoff was viewed on the live stream of the weekly Shabbat service.

“I think that anti-Semitism is on the rise,” said Danny Cohn, CEO of the Birmingham Jewish Federation. “I know that it has increased ten-fold over the last three years.”

Cohn added that many in the media do not always do a good job covering stories about hate crimes and acts of terror directed at the Jewish community.

“You have some media like the Associated Press that are not looking at this, and even the FBI to a certain extent, who had backtracked their statement saying this isn’t a Jewish issue,” said Cohn. “If this wasn’t a Jewish issue, the terrorist would have gone into a Presbyterian Church or into a local Target or a Nordstrom (department store). This is a Jewish issue.”

Early statements from the FBI claimed the terrorist act was not directly related to the Jewish community.

“(Akram) picked [the synagogue] on purpose. He believed Jews are controlling the world which is why he went into a synagogue to do it,” said Cohn. “I can tell you if Jews were controlling the world, the media and FBI would have reported the story better.”

Akram demanded the release of convicted terrorist Aafia Siddiqui, an American-educated Pakistani woman being held in prison in nearby Fort Worth, Texas, for the attempted killing of American soldiers and federal agents in Afghanistan.

“Someone hated Jews enough to travel across the pond, travel across the ocean, to come here and take Jews hostage in a synagogue,” Cohn said.

Rabbi Cytron-Walker and the three other hostages escaped after the Rabbi threw a chair at Akram and fled to safety. FBI agents stormed the building, killing Akram on the scene.

“Because ... Rabbi had gone through the security training ... we will be offering [it] now in Birmingham to all of our institutions,'' Cohn said. "It ended up [being] a positive miracle of a situation. Usually, in an instance like this, we would be lighting remembrance candles and having vigils, and we aren’t doing that.”

Cohn said the attack has prompted Alabama’s own Jewish community to increase security and training at facilities around the state.

“I participated in a briefing with the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security along with the Secure Community Networks and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) on additional security measures that needed to be taken immediately for all of our local institutions,” he said. “We will be bringing in a full-time community security director within the next 90 days. It’s an expensive endeavor. Imagine what the cost must be to secure an entire community.”

Cohn offered praise for the fast, professional response from law enforcement, but also expressed some concern for how the situation developed.

“There’s a lot of questions," Cohn said. "How did someone who is on the British intelligence list get into the United States? How did this person purchase a gun? In addition to there being a problem with anti-Semitism, there seems to be a problem with national security.

“There have been stabbings in Brooklyn. Here in Huntsville, there have been desecrations of the Chabad houses. There is an attack against Jews probably on a daily basis here in the United States. Americans are not taking this seriously but, thank God, law enforcement is.".

Cohn also praised Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin for bringing awareness to anti-Semitism and his support of the Birmingham Jewish community.

“The mayor of Birmingham has signed a pledge to eradicate anti-Semitism through the AJC (American Jewish Committee) and a lot of mayors across the country have done it,” he said. “We’re very thankful for people standing up and talking about it, but no one’s calling to check on us after we’re done.”

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