The View From Here | Listening to the Terrorist on the Other End

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Ten years ago, I was on one end of a telephone line, listening to a terrorist make demands in a language I did not understand.

All that I knew at the time — a fact that would later be tragically confirmed in the form of an official report, as well as in the numerous attacks on Jews near and far in the years since — was that regardless of the words he used, all they meant were hate.

As the founding editor of Chabad.org News, the news website of the worldwide Chabad-Lubavitch movement, I had grown accustomed to keeping tabs on the activities of the thousands of Chabad emissaries around the globe from the small office in our apartment in Israel.

When I received a brief text message on the way home from the airport after attending the annual emissaries’ conference in New York — saying simply that something was happening in India — I didn’t think much of it. My first call was to check in with the head rabbi in Bangkok, whose territory includes operations in India, and he told me that the only thing interesting as far as he could tell was that an airport strike had stranded dozens of bearded rabbis who were returning to their homes throughout Southeast Asia and Australia.

Moments later, CNN interrupted its programming to report on a developing story: Terrorists had taken hostages at a hotel in Mumbai and had attacked several other tourist sites in the Indian financial hub.

Instinctively, my wife and I dialed the numbers we had for Rabbi Gabi and Rivky Holtzberg, directors of the city’s Chabad House. Someone answered at the institution’s main number, but then quickly hung up. Next came calls to the Israeli consul general in Mumbai and the city’s hospitals.

In time that night, we discovered through our conversations and monitoring of social media that in addition to attacking a restaurant and two hotels in Mumbai, terrorists had taken over the Chabad House.

The next day found me as part of a crisis team of Chabad rabbis in the United States and Israel on the phone with one of the terrorists. He spoke in Urdu, his demands translated by an Indian Chabad Chasid living in Brooklyn. An official from the U.S. government was also on the call. Throughout the call, the man reiterated that he had hostages, that they were alive. We demanded proof. He hung up.

I entered that Shabbat as Indian commandos were storming the Chabad House, not knowing the fate of the Holtzbergs or of whomever were inside. A report would later conclude that the rabbi and his wife, who was pregnant, along with their four Jewish guests, had been killed in either the first moments of the terrorist attack or soon thereafter.

The day after that eerie Shabbat I spent witnessing the return of the caskets to Israel, the funeral in Kfar Chabad and their burial on Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives.

I have a son named Gavriel Noach in memory of Rabbi Holtzberg.

This week marked the 10th anniversary of that gut-wrenching attack, but as we all know, our people have suffered similar fates in anti-Semitic attacks the world over in the years since (as they did in so many years prior). There was the synagogue in Jerusalem’s Har Nof neighborhood, the Hyper Cacher supermarket in Paris, the school in Toulouse and just one month ago, the synagogue building in Pittsburgh.

What unites them all — what unites all attacks against Jews — is the pure and simple hatred of anti-Semitism, a phenomenon unbounded by political orientation, religious philosophy or socioeconomic status. There are violent anti-Semites on the far-left, as well as the far-right; Christians as well as Muslims can be found in their ranks.

To the attackers at the Mumbai Chabad House, the life of one Jew was worth 50 times the life of a non-Jew. They killed 165 people, and wounded hundreds more, but they made a special effort to get the six inside the Jewish center.

As the editor-in-chief of the Jewish Exponent, I see a community whose members’ diversity makes a beautiful tapestry of Jewish life in 21st-century America.

In the stories we cover, the differences add meaning, with the varieties of practices and beliefs expressing the shared humanity of each person. In a positive sense, to each other, the differences matter.

But to the terrorist on the other end of that phone line, the differences between one Jew and the next were immaterial. To him, it didn’t matter whether his victim was a Chabad, Volover or Bobov Chasid, or a secular Israeli. So too, the Pittsburgh shooter didn’t care if his 11 victims came from Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha, Congregation Dor Hadash or New Light Congregation, the three synagogues that shared the building he targeted.

If the terrorist is blind to the differences between us, then certainly we should be as well, if the alternative is to use those differences to denigrate each other. And yet, I see articles online that, in the push to drive a political or other cheap argument, attack other Jews as not sufficiently Orthodox, or not truly Reform, or lacking in their love of Israel.

If our people’s collective experience of thousands of years has taught us anything, it’s that for all of our differences, the rest of the world doesn’t really give a care.

Maybe it’s time we care as much as about the trait that unites us — our Jewish identity — as those that seek to destroy us.

Joshua Runyan is the editor- in-chief of the Jewish Exponent. He can be reached at [email protected] jewishexponent.com.

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