The Yemen Bomb Plot: Thoughts From a Chicago-Area Rabbi

More than a few people have asked me for my reaction on last week’s failed al-Qaeda bomb plot out of Yemen that reportedly targeted Chicago synagogues.

So here are a few disconnected thoughts:

First and foremost, I’ll say it was incredibly heartening to receive so many calls of concern from friends and colleagues of all faiths. The very first such calls came from two friends from the Islamic community, who expressed their shock, outrage and solidarity in no uncertain terms.

An excerpt from the statement released by the The Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago:

The Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago stands with our faith partners and the Jewish community in condemning the recent terrorist act to send explosives through cargo airlines to Jewish organizations in Chicago…

“We are thankful to our law enforcement agencies to uncover this plot before it could cause any harm,” said Dr. Zaher Sahloul, chairperson of the Council. “Illinois Muslims stand united with our Jewish partners and organizations in condemning this terrorist and heinous act. There is no place in Islam for terrorizing innocent people or spreading mayhem.”

Those who chronically ask why Muslim leaders are loath to condemn terrorism would do well to read the numerous such statements that were released last week by Islamic communities and organizations around the world.

Another thought:

Like many, I was surprised to learn that authorities eventually came to believe that the bombs were not actually meant to target synagogues, but were rather intended to explode in planes midair. Though the synagogue addresses on the packages understandably alarmed the Jewish community, it’s now becoming clear that this incident occurred within a much larger political context.

Harvard political scientist Stephen Walt rightly noted this point in a blog post:

Whatever the target may have been, the more obvious point is that these groups are still hoping to make Americans pay a price for our policies in the Middle East and elsewhere. They are angry about our close ties with Saudi Arabia, by the drone attacks the United States is conducting in Yemen and Pakistan, and by our unstinting support for Israel. And even though AQAP’s main target appears to be the Saudi regime, America’s unpopularity throughout the region makes attacking the United States a useful recruiting tool.

Salon’s Glenn Greenwald made a similar point in his inimitable style:

I’m sure that escalated military activity in Yemen along with roving bands of CIA hit squads will go a long way toward solving the problem of anti-American hatred in that country and the Muslim world generally. If only we kill more of them and bring more violence to their country, they’ll stop wanting to mail bombs to ours.

The bottom line for me: though we are justifiably concerned about anti-Semitism, we’d might at least be equally concerned over US policies and actions in the Middle East – and the ways they create a fertile breeding ground for these kinds of extremist ideas.

Still another thought:

Ironically enough, immediately before the news of this event broke, my wife and I had just watched the recent documentary “Defamation,” a film which vividly explores the ways anti-Semitism is experienced – and too often exploited – by Israel and the American Jewish community.

So yes, I’ll confess that following the incident among the many thoughts racing through my mind was the somewhat jaundiced conclusion: “Boy, will our community will make political hay out of this one…”

Sure enough, not long after we learned of the bomb plot, it was reported that several Jewish communal leaders in NYC lobbied elected officials to dramatically increase Homeland Security funding for Jewish institutions – and urged their constituents to do likewise.

I can’t help but agree with Mondoweiss’ take on the affair:

While these people may have been sincerely reacting to an immediate dramatic threat, there seems to be a bit of opportunism at play here. Naomi Klein’s book, The Shock Doctrine, details instances like this where individuals, governments, and organizations take advantage of human-made or natural crisis to promote actions that will significantly advance their political, economic, and/or ideological plans.

A final semi-related thought:

The Jewish community would be foolish not to be vigilant about anti-Semitism – as well as the safety of our communal institutions. At the same time, however, I do believe our community must resist the temptation to view anti-Semitism as somehow unique or separate from other forms of prejudice.

When these kinds of troubling events occur, our community is too often tempted to circle the wagons and view the issue somehow as “us against the world.” Too often, we fail to see how anti-Jewish prejudice is inseparable from all forms of bigotry.

At the end of the day intolerance is intolerance. Whether we’re happy to admit it or not, we’re all in this together.

10 thoughts on “The Yemen Bomb Plot: Thoughts From a Chicago-Area Rabbi

  1. Mark Braverman

    When I heard the news report, my first thought was — Brant will blog on this, and I know that he will speak my mind. You have not disappointed. You draw from this exactly the right point. I wrote the following in my book:

    “I am a Jew born at the midpoint of the twentieth century.
    I don’t need to be lectured about anti-Semitism. Psychically, as
    a Jew, I have a packed suitcase under my bed and an eye ever
    watchful for the anti-Semitism present in Western civilization
    that, under the right conditions, can turn from latent to virulent.
    But I am unwilling, on the chance that I might someday need a
    refuge from discrimination or outright physical danger, to support
    the continued building of a militarized, expansionist state
    that is doing more today to fuel anti-Semitism than to construct
    a solution to it.”

    I followed this with a quote from the much-mourned Tony Judt:

    I see the hysteria surrounding the “Israel issue” in American
    life—and the shameful silence about what actually happens in
    the territories Israel occupies—as one more symptom of the provincial
    ignorance and isolation of the U.S. in world affairs. We
    can continue assuring ourselves that the whole of the rest of the
    world is awash in inexplicable, atavistic, exterminationist anti-
    Semitism. Or—in this as in other matters—we can re-enter an
    international conversation and ask ourselves why (together with
    an Israeli political class recklessly embarked on the road to selfdestruction)
    we alone see the world this way and whether we
    might be mistaken.”

    Brant, I’m so proud to be your friend.


  2. Chrissy Steele

    Dearest Brant,
    Your devotional quest for justice, focused clarity of thought, and beautifully chosen words are a soothing balm for my heart. I can’t begin to tell you how thankful I am that you have the courage to speak up as you do. May God bless you and protect you and give you peace always.

  3. Caryn Weiner

    “….At the end of the day, intolerance is intolerance. Whether we’re happy to admit it or not, we’re all in this together.” – AMEN.

  4. Y. Ben-David

    I see, there is no end to it. “WE” must be guilty in some way. It is at least partially “UNDERSTANDABLE” that progressive Jews in Chicago are targetted because Yemini Al-Qaida people don’t like American support for the Saudi regime. Let’s turn it around…..would progressive Jews says it is at least partially understandable if other Jews were to send parcel bombs to some church in Germany because of the Holocaust? Was Baruch Goldsteins killing of Arabs in Hevron be at least partially understandable because, he saw a good friend of his murdered in a previous Arab terrorist attack? Of course not. So why are Muslims/Arabs given at least a partial pass for their violence by the progressives?

  5. Lisa Kosowski

    Ditto Mark Braverman’s comment 100%!

    As for Y. Ben-David, I did not read any implication of guilt on the targetted victims in this blog at all, even after reading it a second time after reading your comment. Examining the nuances of cause and effect of human behavior is simply an intelligent and nuanced way to problem-solve acts of seemingly increased targetted violence. For example, it is not “understandable” that Baruch Goldstein murdered some 30 Arabs praying in a mosque because his friend was murdered by an Arab. But if you study and analyze the context of it, perhaps we can find a pattern to curb future acts like that from both sides. In Goldstein’s case, he probably had PTSD from the trauma of witnessing his friend’s violent end, coupled with the strong anti-Arab hysteria in his settlement community, and voila – you have the Hevron mosque tragedy. Thus, in my mind, the only light at the end of the tunnel is to fight against de-humanizing the “other,” recognize that violence only begets more violence, and find a solution that provides a just peace that everyone can live with. This necessarily entails critical self-examination – something which can be painful and difficult, but which Brant does not shy away from, and which none of us should shy away from if we are truly committed to a just peace and ending the bloodshed.

  6. Matt Planchak


    As always, I knew I could count on you for sanity and perspective.

    Now say something to make me feel better about the elections, dammit!

  7. Brayton Gray

    I applaud the reasonable approach you have portrayed to this issue. But I am very puzzled by your statement that Stephen Walt’s point was similar to that of Glenn Greenwald, who seems to advocate killing “more of them”. More killing only feeds the fire, and “them” – I don’t know what to say.

  8. Crimea River

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts (and links) on this latest terrorist bomb plot, Rabbi Rosen. You are reliably engaged and thoughtful, and it’s a pleasure reading your blog.

    The AP story on this event is captivating for its details and chronology. One fact I noted in the story is this: “The addresses on the packages were outdated locations for two Chicago synagogues. The recipients were figures from the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition — historic episodes in which Christians persecuted Muslims.”

    This somewhat childish conceit provides a squint of insight into the collective mind of an organization whose scattershot approach to terrorism reveals that destruction is the endgame, regardless of the target.

    And you are right to point out that there are political opportunists and professional cynics who will use this latest episode to fuel their own agenda, and that the U.S. seems intractably tone-deaf to its own culpability both in terms of public policy and covert ops.

    Still, you rightly conclude regarding this seemingly endless war that we’re all in this together. I’m reminded, too, of this quote: “If you’re not free, I’m not free.”

    Blessings and peace to you —
    Kate Tarasenko


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