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Milking the Scapegoat

Arabs and Jews batten down for a backlash

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A hole gapes in the Pentagon after a plane crashed into the building Sept. 11, 2001 as part of a suspected terrorist attack in Arlington, Va.
  • A hole gapes in the Pentagon after a plane crashed into the building Sept. 11, 2001 as part of a suspected terrorist attack in Arlington, Va.

Military Humvees speeding down K Street NW. Men armed with machine guns patrolling the Metro. Billowing smoke, bomb blasts, body bags. Emergency evacuations and a state of emergency. Not thousands of miles away in the Middle East, but in Washington.

Worried Jews and nervous Arabs. Also here. Representatives of two communities that may yet bear the brunt of undifferentiated anger from Americans looking for scapegoats to blame.

Arab Americans, sadly accustomed to the ritual, began to feel the heat almost instantly. It happened after the Oklahoma City bombing, and the first bombing of the World Trade Center in New York in 1993, and the bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998, and last year's attack on the USS Cole. And now it was starting anew.

"We received some very hateful messages," said Hussein Ibish, communications director for the Arab American Anti-Discrimination Committee, who started fielding telephone calls soon after Tuesday's terrorist attacks. "People were telling us that we would be held responsible. The immediate response of some individuals was to call us up and threaten us."

The calls came, as well, from Arab Americans living in the District who were concerned about a possible backlash against them. "The whole community is in a great deal of pain," Ibish said. "And it's mixed with a great deal of anxiety.

"We're very concerned," continued Ibish, "because even though it's totally unclear about who might have been responsible, we have this experience of being the first to be blamed, and of being the community as a whole targeted in response. Whether or not any Muslim or Arab has been involved."

One step forward, two steps back

Matters were scarcely helped as the TV networks intercut scenes of the collapse of the World Trade Center towers in New York with incendiary shots of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza joyously celebrating the destruction.

Jews, meanwhile, began pondering what the terrorist attacks might mean for them. All day Tuesday, as official Washington was grinding to a halt, Rabbi Jeffrey Wohlberg of the Adas Israel congregation in Cleveland Park took calls from worried congregants. Some wanted to know if there would be any special prayer services. Some just wanted to talk. And several, he says, gave voice to the same, terrible thought: Maybe America would now understand what it was like to live in Israel.

Few Jewish Americans interviewed in the District believed that there would be much anti-Israel or anti-Semitic fallout from the bombing.

"I would be surprised if that happened," said Glenn Easton, the executive director of the Adas Israel, Washington's oldest synagogue. "These terrorists have been targeting the U.S. for a long time."

Yet comments overheard on Washington's streets in the hours after the bombings revealed an undercurrent of impatience with America's role in the Middle East -- and steadfast support for Israel.

"[The attack] was bound to happen sooner or later. How long can we go on supporting one nation in the Middle East at the expense of the other?" declared one downtown evacuee a block from the cordoned-off White House. "It was bound to happen."

Another man, a Dupont Circle lawyer who asked not to be named, griped that "something has to be done about Israel. ... If you wanted to generate hatred, you couldn't do a better job. Strong pressure ought to be brought on Israel to stop the bullshit."

Those sorts of sentiments were probably pre-existing, said Wohlberg. On Tuesday evening, he led a larger-than-normal daily minyan, which included a reading of "The Star Spangled Banner" and a mourner's kaddish for the bombing victims. (All other activities at the synagogue were canceled for the day. The D.C. Jewish Community Center and many other Jewish organizations shut down Tuesday as well.)

"Most people will say that this is why we have to support Israel," Wohlberg said. "This wasn't an attack on the country alone. It was an attack on our values. ...The sense of vengeance in me calls out for [punishment], but the point is not just to react against this, but to realize that there is a world where these kinds of attacks are tolerated."

If Wohlberg was referring to the Arab world, that would be precisely the kind of comment that makes Ibish cringe.

"We have a great deal of faith in the overwhelming majority of our fellow Americans," Ibish said. "They understand that there is no such thing as guilt by association, or guilt by religion. But right now, most Arab Americans are keeping a very low profile."

That certainly looked to be true at the mosque and Islam Center located on Massachusetts Avenue along Embassy Row, which was nearly deserted throughout the day Tuesday.

"There weren't many people at the service," said Mohammad Jadir, a 37-year-old Muslim, who said he moved to the District from Morocco 10 years ago.

"People want to be with their families right now. Besides, traffic is bad," said Jadir, gesturing at the congested northbound traffic stretching up and down the busy thoroughfare.

A few minutes later, the hushed quiet of the Mosque was broken.

"You are Muslims. You cannot lock Allah's doors!" shouted a bearded, middle-aged man dressed in a denim shirt and khakis, who mistakenly thought the gates to the mosque had been locked.

"This is bullshit! They lock the doors, because they are afraid," the man continued to rant. "The American government got bombed. So what? You Americans have the nicest country. But it was given to you by Allah. And you are not thankful. So now somebody is twisting your arm."

"There will probably be a backlash," said Alexis York, a 20-year-old George Washington University student who converted to Islam last year. "You can't judge all Muslims by the acts of a few people. That's just pure ignorance. Muslims are compassionate people."

By Tuesday night, the worst fears of Arab Americans appeared to be coming true.

A crazed man wielding a knife attacked a Kurdish vigil being staged across from the Turkish Embassy at Sheridan Circle, the group sponsoring the vigil reported. Though nobody was hurt in the attack, the signs accompanying the vigil were shredded to pieces.

"Every time we take a few steps forward," said Andy Shallal, a 47-year-old Muslim Arab American, "something like [Tuesday's bombings] happens and the bridges we have built seem to crumble."

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