Amid analysis of the Iranian nuclear threat and how America should respond on a national level, recent attacks on Israeli embassies in India and Georgia has Jewish institutions asking a question that is much closer to home: Does Iran pose a local terror threat?
“Homeland security really starts as security in the neighborhood,” Paul Goldenberg, national director of the Jewish Federations of North America-affiliated Secure Community Network (SCN), told JointMedia News Service.
The national Jewish security perspective
SCN, which partners with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and 56 major Jewish organizations, is asking Jewish organizations “to remain vigilant, to ensure that they have tested their [emergency management and response] plans,” and if they do not have plans, to develop them, Goldenberg said.
“It’s a matter of record that Jewish institutions in the Diaspora have been attacked by both proxies of Iran as well as other extremist and terrorist organizations,” he said.
While there is “no specific or imminent threat against the American-Jewish community” at this juncture, according to Goldenberg, he said does not mean “some lone wolf, some cell out there, is still plotting and planning, and law enforcement doesn’t know about it.”
Though he said an attack by Iran isn’t necessarily “likely,” the October 2011 assassination attempt on the Saudi Arabian ambassador in Washington suggests Iran is “not beyond setting its sights on targets within the U.S. homeland,” said Ilan Berman, vice president of the Washington, DC-based American Foreign Policy Council.
Berman said “you’ve seen Iran strike Jewish targets in the Western hemisphere before,” citing bombings in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in both 1992 and 1994. More recently, he said there has been “a significant shift in Iranian strategy in terms of its willingness to target the U.S. homeland.”
“I wouldn’t necessarily say that Jewish targets are the most likely targets, but they certainly should be part of the calculation as you think about an increasingly emboldened Iran that’s willing to strike out against targets in the U.S. homeland,” Berman told JointMedia News Service. “They’re certainly in the mix.”
The local Jewish perspective
According to a Washington Post survey, California ranks first among the 50 states in “domestically focused counter-terrorism and homeland security organizations.” Sixty-four urban metropolitan areas are designated as “high-threat, high-density,” while the state has identified 623 sites as “potential targets.” One, the El Al ticket counter at Los Angeles International Airport, was hit in 2002 in an attack that killed two people and wounded four.
California instituted a massive counterterrorist program well before 9/11. Measures first taken to protect the 1984 Summer Olympic Games led to the development of the Los Angeles Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) in 1986. A Terrorism Early Warning Group (TEWG) was established in 1996. By 9/11, federal and state counter-terrorism authorities already had a loose-knit network of TEWGs and JTTFs. The California Emergency Management Agency (CAL-EMA), established in 2009, coordinates homeland security and emergency management functions.
Sinai Temple, the largest Conservative synagogue in Los Angeles, is a facility that also includes a day school, afternoon Hebrew school, and, according to Executive Director Howard Lesner, “has activities going on seven days a week.” The temple implemented enhanced security measures immediately after 9/11.
“The greatest change is getting in and out of the building,” said Lesner. Sinai employs a fulltime head of security—a retired law enforcement professional who remains fully armed. He works closely with an outside security agency that provides trained guards, some armed, some not.
“We are in constant contact with the local police department, the FBI and Homeland Security,” Lesner said. Entry and exit are limited to a single door, controlled by a fulltime, trained guard stationed outside the building. Everyone entering the building is checked: employees must present identification, and their appearances are always prescheduled.
“If someone just shows up,” said Lesner, “that person is not allowed in.”
Temple Sinai members receive numbered identification tags for their cars, checked at a manned kiosk prior to pulling in to the parking area. To enter the synagogue building, a picture ID must be presented. The synagogue security system is tied in to both the local police and federal law enforcement authorities, enabling security personnel to check the records of every person seeking to enter. “The system is very successful,” Lesner noted, “and has prevented access to several persons identified as inappropriate.”
With funds provided by a grant from Homeland Security, a 24-hour, fully manned visual surveillance system further enhances security at Sinai Temple. Working in close cooperation with local law enforcement, the synagogue established a “red zone” prohibiting parking on all four sides of the full-block structure. The Los Angeles Police Department responds quickly to any perceived threat. “When an unattended package was discovered, the bomb squad responded immediately,” recalled Lesner (the package ending up being benign).
“If al-Qaeda should decide to target [us], there is little that can be done. But 99 percent of the crackpots—when they see security—move on to the next target. Presence makes the difference,” said Lesner. “We are very proactive. A community can’t spend enough money to protect its greatest assets—its children.”
What steps can Jewish institutions take?
The SCN’s Goldenberg said Jewish institutions should be training their staff and volunteers in security awareness, while being be very cognizant of suspicious activities and reporting them to local police. To that end, the SCN website (www.scnus.org) has an “Enter” section on its homepage providing free 24/7 online security training.
SCN’s online training is the “only one of its kind in the country,” Goldenberg said, and includes information on how to respond to an active shooter, security awareness, how to handle a suspicious package, and how to answer a bomb call.
The Jewish community “should not be panicked,” he said, but instead needs to “remain open for business.”
“We’re not stores,” Goldenberg said. “We’re places where people come to pray, people come to socialize, people come for social services from our community.”
“As long as the situation in the Mideast remains the way it does at this point,” he added, “we are asking our communities to remain very vigilant in how they are conducting business.”