Twenty years ago, church bells rang, automobile horns honked, and religious communities throughout the D.C. area prayed in thanksgiving as terrorists released the 124 prisoners they had taken hostage at three locations in Washington.
Greenbelters were among those who had reason to be relieved, for Mishkan Torah Synagogue's cantor, Donald Weisman, was one of those released. Mr. Weisman was assistant national campaign director for B'nai B'rith Youth Services and was at work on March 9, 1977, when Hanafi Muslim gunmen took control of the B'nai B'rith building.
Gunmen also took hostages at the D.C. City Council Chambers and – ironically – the Islamic Center. The Hanafi Muslims were led by Hamaas Abdul Khaalis, who had broken away from the Nation of Islam. Khaalis was angry because he did not believe justice had been served after members of the Nation of Islam murdered seven members of his community, including his wife and four children.
The hostages' release was aided by the ambassadors of three Muslim countries – Egypt, Iran, and Pakistan – who read Khaalis passages from the Koran emphasizing compassion and mercy. The ambassadors' actions prompted the American Jewish Congress to release a statement saying, "We earnestly hope that this joining together in common compassion for life will become a paradigm for future relations between all people."
At the B'nai B'rith building, increased threats by their anti-Semitic captors caused the Jewish hostages to wonder whether they should recite the Sh'ma Yisrael, a prayer said by Jews in anticipation of death. Instead, the hostages gathered together a short time later to give thanks for their release, reciting the Shehecheyanui, a prayer to God "who has kept us in this life, sustained us, and brought us to this moment."
Meanwhile, the Islamic Center director, Mohammad Abdul Rauf, was accepting the good wishes of Washington Jews after his release. "Now we are one," he told them.
Washington Brief: B'nai B'rith Building Evacuated After Threat (June 1, 1997)
©1997 Heather Elizabeth Peterson