Here’s a partial summary of what it was like to be Jewish in America this past month.
In Los Angeles, an elderly Jewish man was struck on the head by a pro-Hamas protester and later died of his wounds. In New Orleans, a Jewish student who tried to stop a classmate from burning an Israeli flag was attacked and had his nose broken. In Manhattan, a Jewish woman was assaulted and sustained injuries to her face and neck after she confronted two passersby tearing down posters of kidnapped Israeli citizens. The list goes on.
How should we think about these attacks?
We could see them as further proof of our political culture’s descent into incivility and rage. We could note that they’ve been made possible, at least in part, by a movement to defang our police and turn our largest cities into ungovernable danger zones. We could say that the $4.7 billion in Qatari cash that poured into American universities between 2001 and 2021 might have helped transform our formerly fine institutions of higher learning into breeding grounds for feverish, bigoted ideology.
Each of the above is true as far as it goes. Ultimately, anti-Semitism animated these attacks. And anti-Semitism is not only a threat to Jews but also to America’s national security.
Look only at spreadsheets, and the statement seems absurd. The number of American Jews murdered in domestic terror attacks is blissfully low, and the perpetrators, for the most part, are white supremacists, not ISIS enthusiasts. But take a deeper dive, and a more troubling picture emerges. Because if the past ten years—to say nothing of the past 2,000—taught us anything, it’s that what begins with the Jews soon metastasizes, and that agitation about events unfurling thousands of miles away has a nasty way of bubbling over and spilling into American backyards.
Consider Tashfeen Malik, who, together with her husband, killed 14 people at a holiday party in San Bernardino, California in 2015. Or Mohamed Barry, who, a year later, slashed four diners at an Ohio restaurant with a machete. Or Omar Mateen, who in 2016 killed 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. Or Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, whose explosive devices claimed three lives and wounded 281 people at the 2013 Boston Marathon. Or Sayfullo Habibullaevic Saipov, who, on Halloween 2017, rented a truck in New Jersey, drove it to lower Manhattan, and used it to mow down pedestrians in Hudson River Park, killing eight.
Each of those incidents had at least one thing in common: the assailants were in the United States legally. Malik, for example, was born in Pakistan and entered the country on a K-1 visa, designed to accommodate foreign nationals who wish to marry American citizens. Before she even set foot on American soil, Homeland Security had run her name through every available database to determine if she was a terror risk. Her fingerprints had been submitted to the State Department, which ran its own series of checks. Finally, Malik aced two in-person interviews, and received a green card.
She’s hardly an outlier. According to the University of Maryland’s Profiles of Individual Radicalization in the United States database, only 19 of 3,203 known extremists, or about 0.6 percent, are illegal residents. This means that America’s homegrown terrorists are much more likely to have been born here or come here legally, sailing through every barrier we’ve erected to weed out potential attackers, and settling down for a comfortable life stateside before deciding to take up arms and slaughter their fellow Americans.
These numbers correspond with recent findings by the Hague’s International Centre for Counter-Terrorism, which analyzed 116 terror attacks in the U.S. and Europe between 2004 and 2019 and declared that the era of big-ticket attacks is over. (Not in Israel, of course.) Terrorism, they argued, is now “democratized.” It’s much easier to locate a handful of American or French or German citizens and radicalize them to the point of localized violence than to orchestrate something like the mass-casualties-inducing, military-style attacks of September 11, 2001. A disgruntled teen with a pipe bomb, a desperate housewife with an AR-15—pump enough vitriol through the right channels and you can recruit more and more low-rent assassins to strike where and when we least expect it.
What, then, should we do to keep this trickle of terror from growing into a torrent? This much is clear: our current protective measures are ineffective and have repeatedly failed to identify and turn away would-be perpetrators. One obvious and necessary step is to reconsider immigration altogether, making our borders less porous than they’ve been and applying far tougher standards for the privilege of American citizenship.
How should we amend our immigration policies to account for national security? The question was revitalized, with incendiary energy, in the aftermath of former president Trump’s Executive Order 13769, titled Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States but dubbed by the media the Muslim ban. And it was raised again more recently in the aftermath of the United States’s disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan, with the Biden administration urging Congress to allow tens of thousands of Afghan refugees—only a tiny portion of whom, by the White House’s own admission, have actively assisted the American military as interpreters or otherwise—to receive their green cards in a dramatically expedited, one-year process. These two actions, both jarring, bookend our debate over immigration and national security and serve as an urgent reminder that it’s high time to re-engage in a detailed conversation about America’s priorities, needs, and challenges when it comes to absorbing more immigrants, and set the necessary measures in place to reduce risks of future attacks.
But even the most stringent restrictions tomorrow will have little or no impact on those who entered yesterday. Which brings us back to anti-Semitism.
Many terrorists from the past decade, including the Boston marathon bomber and San Bernardino shooter, were radicalized by developments in the Middle East. They were variously obsessed by the Syrian civil war, the battle with the Islamic State, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They were plugged into online incitement streams that today have only grown stronger. The incendiary content today targets not only Israelis and Jews but also America, and it’s available not only on clandestine websites but in college and high school classrooms, on the airwaves, and in the streets, thanks to the prevalence of critical race theory and DEI.
American public life these days is a tinderbox; Jew haters are stuffing it with more and more dry rage. It hardly takes a national security expert to speculate that the smallest spark could provoke those who, for now, amuse themselves merely with trying to break down the doors and storm New York’s Grand Central Terminal.
Even if we had the means to crack down on every self-styled American Arafat, anyone who lived through the years following the passing of the Patriot Act knows that giving the government more tools to surveil and spy on citizens is never the right prescription for a free and robust society. Nor do we have any other perfect blades in our arsenal. Florida governor and presidential candidate Ron DeSantis’s promise, echoed by other prominent Republican lawmakers, to rescind the visa of any foreign student who supports Hamas is a solid first step. But even if executed robustly, such a measure would do nothing to stop another citizen from committing another attack.
Which leads us to expatriation, or stripping Americans of their citizenship, a measure with a surprisingly long history. In one early case, Mackenzie v. Hare, the Supreme Court in 1915 found that the plaintiff, a California woman married to a Scottish man, had voluntarily renounced her citizenship as per the Expatriation Act of 1907. “The identity of husband and wife,” the court found, “is an ancient principle of our jurisdiction, and is still retained notwithstanding much relaxation thereof; and while it has purpose, if not necessity, in domestic policy, it has greater purpose, and possibly greater necessity, in international policy.” In other words, expatriation was recognized as a perfectly legitimate tool with which to further policy goals.
But what merits expatriation? Resolving that question was the purpose of Section 1481 of Title 8 of the U.S. Code, originally passed in 1952 and repeatedly revised since. While the revisions are complicated, the spirit of the law is simpler: it embraces expatriation as a form of punishment, and it posits treason as the foremost reason to expatriate an American citizen.
Just what the law means by “treason” is hard to pin down, since circumstances change and warfare assumes different guises. It was easy enough to understand in the case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, say, who passed atomic secrets to the Soviets. But what does it mean in the context of terrorist groups, which aren’t state entities but rather porous organizations with fluctuating leadership structures and strategic goals? Someone like Farooque Ahmed, the naturalized U.S. citizen arrested in 2010 for planning an attack on the Washington, D.C. metro, certainly meets the criteria for “bearing arms against the United States,” which is why Senator Ted Cruz proposed legislation in 2017 that would revoke the citizenship of any American citizen who joins or provides material support to a terrorist group.
The legislation was ultimately shot down. It and proposals like it, however, only raise the more complicated question of what constitutes “material support.” The U.S. Code provides a litany of examples—including “property tangible or intangible,” as well as “safehouses, false documentation or identification, communications equipment,” etc.—to illustrate the extent to which one’s support for terrorism can be deemed “material,” and thus punishable. It’s easy enough to argue, now that we’ve seen American citizens call Hamas’s beheaders of babies as “our martyrs” while some physically attack other American citizens for being Jewish, that it’s time to rethink the boundaries of the definition. When a terrorist group holds American citizens hostage, is marching in support of the captors a form of material support? Does it constitute material support to attack physically or intimidate the same people—Jews—whom the terrorist group targets elsewhere in the world while waving the same flag and chanting the same slogans?
Answering those questions requires more than just a careful reading of the law or even a reconsideration of policies. It would require a radical shift in perspective, an understanding that the mobs storming the campus or the public square aren’t merely brazen or misguided but a real and rising risk. It would require, in other words, rethinking anti-Semitism—considering it not merely as an amorphous nuisance or a moral wrong but as a national security concern, a catalyst for terrible and preventable attacks to come.
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