NEW YORK (JTA) — The flurry of commentary about an outbreak of hostilities between Iran and the United States or Israel has overlooked a critical issue — the security implications for the American Jewish community. Any military conflict could not only transform the geopolitical situation in the Middle East but also directly affect our own institutions and community here in the United States.
Hezbollah’s threats of a regional war if the Americans or Israelis use force against Iran has been widely reported. What may not be understood clearly is that the Iranians, together with Hezbollah and their other allies, consider Jewish communities around the world legitimate targets as well.
This is evident from the 1994 terrorist attack on the Jewish community’s AMIA building in Buenos Aires. It is widely believed that Hezbollah, under Iranian orders, conducted the bombing, which claimed 85 lives and devastated the Argentinian Jewish community.
Moreover, in the event of a Middle Eastern war, the American Jewish community also is likely to face threats from a host of other groups and unaffiliated individuals, as was tragically demonstrated by the Seattle Jewish Federation shooting during the 2006 war in Lebanon.
While members of the American Jewish community might not be aware of this danger, our nation’s law enforcement and government agencies clearly recognize the risk. For example, the Department of Homeland Security’s Nonprofit Security Grant Program is overwhelmingly directed toward assisting vulnerable Jewish institutions, accounting for 80 percent of 2011’s total funds alone.
Similarly, it is no coincidence that DHS’s first faith-based security partnership was with two key Jewish organizations — the Jewish Federations of North America and the Secure Community Network. This, for instance, resulted in a version of DHS’s “If You See Something, Say Something” public awareness campaign specifically designed and developed for the American Jewish community.
However, a central element in building a holistic community response to security is what is referred to as “operational security.” This concerns the security personnel at a location during high-risk times who serve as the “eyes” and “ears” for law enforcement, as well as first responders in emergency situations. In this aspect, the community is woefully underprepared, with many synagogues and institutions having minimally trained security guards or, as is too often the case, nothing. Typically, communities hastily hire protection when a terrorist incident occurs somewhere before scaling back when nothing happens in their particular location in the succeeding months. Considering the severe consequences of an attack, this approach is shortsighted and dangerously complacent.
What we fail to realize is that operational security is as much our responsibility as our education, welfare and religious programming. The nonprofit Community Security Service, or CSS, provides a uniquely sustainable means to meet this challenge by training — at no charge — members from the community in professional operational security techniques. Using properly trained community volunteers also provides security that is qualitatively superior to hired security because members of the community are both more committed to the safety of their friends and family and have the cultural familiarity to better identify suspicious behavior and out-of-place objects.
To thwart future attacks, we must build a culture of security awareness that extends to the entire community. We will have succeeded when the elderly congregant walking to synagogue notices suspicious behavior and notifies the operational security team, which then reacts appropriately and in coordination with the police and other authorities. To achieve this ability, we cannot wait until the next incident or rely on temporary measures. We must recognize that security preparation is everyone’s duty and requires our immediate and continual commitment.