Three weeks after an attack at a holiday party in San Bernardino, Calif., in which 14 people were killed, and nearly six weeks after coordinated attacks in Paris left 130 dead, Americans are more afraid of another terrorist attack than any time since Sept. 11, 2001.
But outside a Washington-area kosher market last week, shoppers said they don’t fear for their safety. “I feel very, very, very bad for the poor people out there,” one said. “We’re probably safer here.”
Like those shoppers, many area Jews feel secure, even as a perceived loss of safety has fueled the rise of Donald Trump and others in the Republican presidential sweepstakes.
A Dec. 10 New York Times/CBS News poll found that 44 percent of those questioned said a terrorist attack “is very likely to happen” in the next few months. “Roughly three in five Americans said they were very worried about terrorists coming from abroad or domestic attackers inspired by foreign extremists,” according to the Times.
And according to a Public Religion Research Institute/Religion News Service poll, “mass shootings also are a critical or important issue for 94 percent of Americans.”
“The fear level seems terribly high given the actual likelihood of this happening to an individual,” RNS quoted PRRI research director Dan Cox as saying. “That speaks to the deep-seated feelings of anxiety that people have and their response to some of the current, heated political rhetoric.”
Concern tends to rise and fall, said Rabbi Mitchel Malkus, head of Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville.
“Every time there’s a terrorist incident, I hear from parents about our security,” he said. “There’s a heightened concern now, but I wouldn’t say that it’s any more than usual.”
He views with skepticism the belief that San Bernardino will change the way the United States handles guns and mass killings.
“We saw the same thing at Sandy Hook,” the Connecticut elementary school where in December 2012 an armed man killed 20 children and six adults. “People said, ‘Something’s going to change now,’” Malkus said. “Nothing really did change.”
Rabbi David Kalender of Congregation Olam Tikvah in Fairfax believes “everyone is a little off-balance right now. We seem to be entering a new experience, certainly in the American context.”
Those who have lived or spent time in Israel “have a bit more familiarity with being surrounded by a very real threat. In America, we’re getting used to that being part of our everyday life,” he said. “They continue to live life and people continue to move there and people continue to smile and sing there. And that’s what I think we need to learn here.”
Amid the rise in feelings of insecurity since 9/11 there’s been a corresponding rise in security, said Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, which coordinates security efforts.
After the San Bernardino attacks, local Jewish institutions met with a representative of the Department of Homeland Security.
Some, but not all Jewish institutions, heard from their membership expressing concern for their safety, Halber said.
“There has been no increase in the threat to the Jewish community,” he said. “Some may not feel that way because they’re having an emotional reaction.”
Hate crimes in the United States were down 10 percent in 2014 from the previous year, part of a decade-long trend, according to the FBI. There was one exception. “Incidents targeting Muslims increased each of the last several years after fluctuating for a decade following a strong spike in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks,” according to U.S. News.
“These attacks obviously impact all of us and bring out certain fears and anxieties which are normal,” said Rabbi Uri Topolosky of Beth Joshua Congregation in Rockville. Still, compared with elsewhere, “we live often in a protected bubble. I thank God every day for the protection of my community and my family, but … we should have just a pause.”
Topolosky said it is his job as a rabbi to pause his congregation and create space for reflection. On Shabbat, he said, he reads the names of victims of attacks to remind congregants that “these are not numbers, these are not names, these are people. Our lives should be disturbed for a moment.”
“The very first act of creation was not light, it was the creation of space. God created space for the world to be born,” said Topolosky. “And, I think in moments like these, our goal is to try to create a bit of space. How we fill that space is going to depend, [but] the act of simply creating space is an act of love.”
Back at the kosher supermarket, a shopper from Rockville said the recent violence was “awful” and “a little scary.” But she was more afraid when John Allen Muhammed and Lee Boyd Malvo were carrying out their sniper attacks in the Washington area over three weeks in 2002.
The pair killed 10 people and wounded three others.
“There’s always the possibility for awful things to happen,” she said. “There are irrational people all over.”