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Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker said he did not know the man who held him hostage at his Texas synagogue outside of Fort Worth.
The suspect was a British national who came to the U.S. two weeks prior to the attack and during the hostage situation advocated for the release of a Palestinian woman held in a Fort Worth federal prison on terrorism charges.
Cytron-Walker’s criticism of Israel’s government does not make him anti-Israel or an anti-Zionist, experts said.
Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker was hailed as a hero after news reports described him throwing a chair at an armed hostage-taker on Jan. 15, allowing himself and two others to escape after 11 hours being held captive in a Texas synagogue.
But one conservative radio host raised questions about the rabbi, calling him an "anti-Zionist" who may have known the gunman because he had invited him inside for tea.
A Facebook post by conservative radio host and author Michael Savage reads in all-caps: "TEXAS RABBI NOW POSING AS A HERO. 'THREW A CHAIR' and ran out? WHAT ABOUT THE FBI SWAT TEAM WHO FLASHBANGED & SHOT THE TERRORIST DEAD? (something does not add up? Rabbi was a leftist, anti-zionist. Why did he invite this terrorist in to have tea? Did he know him?)"
This post was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.)
The investigation into what happened that day is ongoing, but police and news reports so far indicate the gunman was a stranger to Cytron-Walker — and we find nothing to suggest the rabbi was "anti-Zionist."
On the morning of the incident, a British national named Malik Faisal Akram took the rabbi and three congregants hostage at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas, northeast of Fort Worth. In a Jan. 17 interview with CBS Mornings, Cytron-Walker said he let the man into the synagogue after he arrived during morning services. The two spoke while the rabbi made them a cup of tea.
"Some of his story didn’t quite add up, so I was a little bit curious, but that’s not necessarily an uncommon thing," Cyrton-Walker said of the conversation he had with the man while preparing tea.
In a separate interview with NPR on Jan. 19, the rabbi recounted the interaction again: "He had come in to get warm. I spoke with him one on one, quietly, that he was welcome to stay for the rest of the service if he had just come in to get warm. And while I was talking with him, he pulled out a gun. It was covered by his coat. And that's how that happened."
Faisal Akram then threatened the hostages over the course of 11 hours, according to police and news reports.
One hostage was released about 5 p.m., but things took a turn hours later, and Cytron-Walker decided he had to act. That’s when he threw the chair at the gunman and told the other hostages to run, according to news reports.
We reached out to Savage for evidence of his claim but did not get a response; his post contained no information to undergird his assertions. Neither the FBI nor the Colleyville Police Department have made any comments to suggest that Faisal Akram was anything but a stranger to the rabbi. A spokesperson for the FBI told us the agency couldn’t comment specifically on this claim "due to the ongoing investigation." We also reached out to Colleyville Police and did not receive a response.
Jennifer Farmer, a spokesperson for the rabbi, told PolitiFact that Cytron-Walker did not know the gunman before they met that day, nor is he anti-Israel.
"The rabbi is not anti-Israel," Farmer told us in an email. "He answered a knock on the window because he thought a human being was in need. He did not know the intentions of this man’s heart."
Since 2006, Cytron-Walker has been the rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel, which practices Reform Judaism. Its website states that "we believe in interfaith inclusion and transforming Jewish isolation through engagement, participation and volunteerism."
Cytron-Walker had resigned from his job at the congregation this fall after its board voted to recommend not renewing his contract, according to a report published Jan. 19 in Forward, a nonprofit newspaper covering issues of interest to American Jews. Cytron-Walker will remain in his job until June, when his contract expires, the report said.
The rabbi confirmed his resignation in an interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, but said the focus should be on his congregation's healing from the hostage ordeal.
Cytron-Walker did sign a letter in 2020 in which 10 progressive Jewish groups urged the Israeli government not to annex the West Bank and expressed "support of the pursuit of a negotiated two-state solution that respects the legitimate national rights and aspirations" of Israelis and Palestinians.
The rabbi has expressed criticism of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in sermons, while also defending Israel. Simply criticizing Israel on human rights, however, does not mean you are an anti-Zionist.
The Anti-Defamation League defines an anti-Zionist as "someone who is opposed to the Jewish right to self-determination in the Jewish homeland of Israel," according to spokesman Jake Hyman.
"Someone who criticizes annexation (which ADL has done) or is critical of Israeli government policies (which ADL has also done), is not an anti-Zionist," Hyman said.
Faisal Akram, the gunman, arrived in New York from Britain two weeks before the attack and made his way to Texas, where he reportedly stayed at a homeless shelter in the days leading up to the incident, according to news reports.
According to the BBC, he was the subject of an investigation by MI5, the British security agency, in 2020, but was no longer deemed a threat. His brother told the New York Times that Faisal Akram suffered from mental health issues.
During the standoff in Colleyville, Faisal Akram demanded the release of Aafia Siddiqui, a Palestinian woman held in federal prison on terrorism charges in Fort Worth, The Associated Press and others reported.
Savage in his Facebook post also falsely cast doubt on Cytron-Walker’s heroics, saying the rabbi is "posing as a hero," and asked "what about the FBI SWAT team who flashbanged & shot the terrorist dead?"
Video from a local ABC station of the end of the standoff clearly shows the three hostages escaping through a side door, followed by the gunman, who quickly ducked back inside. Shortly after, FBI agents raided the building and fatally shot Faisal Akram, the Washington Post reported.
Savage described a Texas rabbi a "leftist, anti-Zionist" who may have known the gunman who took him and his congregants hostage on Jan. 15.
Rabbi Cytron-Walker has made statements both critical and in support of the Israeli government. But there is no evidence that he meets the definition of an anti-Zionist, according to the ADL.
Cytron-Walker indicated in interviews with CBS and NPR that he did not know the gunman — and a spokesperson for the rabbi said he let the man in the building because "he thought a human being was in need." Police and news reports so far also indicate the gunman was a stranger to Cytron-Walker.
Authorities are still investigating the Jan. 15 event.
Based on public information available at this time, we rate this claim False.
PolitiFact researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.
PolitiFact email interview with Jennifer Farmer, a spokesperson for the rabbi, Jan. 18, 2022
PolitiFact email interview with Jake Hyman, ADL associate director of communication, breaking news and rapid response, Jan. 19, 2022
The Associated Press, "Texas rabbi says he, 2 hostages escaped synagogue standoff," Jan. 18, 2022
WFAA-ABC, Ch. 8, "'I'll always remember that': WFAA photojournalist recalls capturing final breathtaking moments of Colleyville hostage situation," Jan. 17, 2022
The Washington Post, "Rabbi details escape from Texas synagogue as terrorism investigation expands to Britain," Jan. 17, 2022
The Washington Post, "Texas synagogue attacker was fatally shot by FBI; authorities are piecing together his movements in the U.S.," Jan. 18, 2022
CBS Mornings, "Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker shares what happened inside Texas synagogue during hostage crisis," Jan. 17, 2022
NPR Morning Edition, "Texas Rabbi who was held hostage says we can't live in fear," Jan. 19, 2022
BBC News, "Texas synagogue hostage-taker was known to MI5," Jan. 18, 2022
Congregation Beth Israel, "Our Rabbi"
Congregation Beth Israel, "Mission statement"
Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, "Sermon: Parshat Vayigash," Dec. 10, 2021
Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, "Sermon: Parshat Behar/Bechukotai," May 7, 2021
The New York Times, "A Tense Texas Standoff Leads to Emotional Phone Call Between Brothers," Jan. 17, 2022
The Wall Street Journal, "Texas Hostage Taker Was Known to U.K. Intelligence," Jan. 18, 2022
The Times of Israel, "Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, the ‘mensch’ liked even by the man who took him hostage," Jan. 16, 2022
Forward, "Texas rabbi details standoff: Gunman ‘literally thought that Jews control the world’," Jan. 17, 2022
Forward, "'His entire persona is listening and dialogue’: Meet the Texas rabbi held hostage for 11 hours," Jan. 15, 2022
Jewish Telegraphic Agency, "Colleyville rabbi who escaped synagogue hostage situation: ‘It’s safe to go to shul’," Jan. 19, 2022
Fort Worth Star-Telegram, "Rabbi held hostage at Colleyville’s Congregation Beth Israel plans to leave job in June," Jan. 19, 2022
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