The entire handling of the explosion at the on Thursday is what we would call in Israel a fashla. A fashla is best translated as a screwup, and we have received more contradictory statements from the authorities on this case every day.
In the immediate wake of the explosion, authorities called it a deliberate attack. When I heard about it, I felt the large, clammy hand of fear reach its insidious fingers around my throat. I spent 11 years in Israel working at The Jerusalem Post from 1993-2004 covering bombings, culminating in the continuous wave of suicide bombings at the height of the intifada (Palestinian uprising) from 2000 to 2004. And I spent a year in post-traumatic stress disorder counseling after surviving an al-Qaida suicide bombing at the Paradise Hotel in Mombasa, Kenya, in 2002, while on assignment for a travel story, of all things, for The Jerusalem Post.
To hear of a deliberate attack on a Jewish institution in the heart of the Westside of Los Angeles a week and a half before Passover, sent my mind hurtling straight back to that Nov. 28 day in Kenya. I found myself delving into the far reaches of my mind to sift through and pull out the appropriate techniques taught to me by my trauma counselor to deal with this news. But before I had time to even filter the information, local authorities told us the Santa Monica explosion wasn’t an attack after all. Rather, it was an industrial accident involving cement and other materials.
An accident? How does a 300-pound pipe made of cement and construction materials accidentally explode? And how does it accidentally explode right near a Jewish institution? Trust me, I know what deliberate attacks look, sound and yes, even smell like. And this had all the hallmarks of a deliberate attack. It may not have been a terrorist attack, but it was an attack nonetheless. Just because (thankfully) no one was injured, that doesn’t make the incident any less grave. There’s also the small matter of the fact that a Chabad center in Mumbai was targeted in a November 2008 terror attack.
Once again, just as I was scratching my head wondering how this could be deemed an accident, authorities changed their tune and said and they believed the perpetrator was a transient by the name of Ron Hirsch, aka Israel Fisher.
Hirsch apparently visited the Chabad center in Santa Monica and other Jewish organizations on several occasions looking for handouts. If anyone knows anything about Chabad, then they know that the group opens its doors to all. It would be perfectly natural for Chabad to offer a man like Hirsch an open hand and a hot meal from time to time. Would Hirsch then try to bite the hand that fed him, and if he’s a transient as authorities say, could he have the skills, let alone the materials, to put together a 300-pound explosive device?
Next we heard that Hirsch had been apprehended after being found sleeping in a car in West L.A., only to be told a short time later that authorities had picked up the wrong person. Then we were told Hirsch had given authorities the slip and hopped a Greyhound bus to Denver and that the FBI was considering the possibility that Hirsch may not have been the only person involved in the attack.
The latest news is that , not in Colorado as suspected, but in Ohio. Authorities are at a loss to determine how Hirsch made it from Denver to Cleveland Heights where he was finally picked up. Every day it’s something new. Every day it sounds more and more like a fashla. Now that Hirsch is in custody, I hope and pray that the authorities figure out what really happened.
I’m not naive. I know that there is danger everywhere. But danger comes in many different forms. In fact, when I left Israel a year after surviving the Kenya bombing, my editor said to me, “Why Los Angeles? People get killed in drive-by shootings there all the time.” I replied, “At least if I get killed in a drive-by shooting, it won’t be personal. I will have just been in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Thursday’s attack was personal. Very personal. It was an attack on a specific organization representing a specific group of people. It’s shocking and terrifying, and although I agree with that it’s highly unlikely to have been a terrorist attack, it was still an attack.
I’m one of the first people who wants this case resolved, and I know it’s tough on authorities when we journalists push them for any tidbit to help us write our stories. However, the contradictory information that we’ve been receiving only confuses people and does nothing to help the case. It just leads to more fashlas.
As we head into the Passover holiday Monday night, and local law enforcement officials continue to keep an eye on Jewish institutions, I hope we all heed the lessons of tolerance and compassion that are embodied in the Passover story. Just as we were strangers in a strange land, so we must find a way to reach out and accept those whom we consider strangers, who don’t have our same beliefs or viewpoints.
Call me naive, but if we can find a way to do that, then maybe, just maybe, attacks like the one Thursday won’t ever happen again.