9-11: A Jewish Retrospective

Ten years later, experts recount how 9/11 and its aftermath affected the Jewish world and Israel.

(Download this story in Microsoft Word format here.)

Click photo to download. Credit: EPA/Cesar De Luca.

The crisis went to waste’

By Jonathan Sarna

“Never let a serious crisis go to waste,”White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel famously declared during the economic crisis of 2008. What he did not say, but must have known, is that seven years earlier a serious crisis had indeed been squandered. In the wake of 9/11, the American people were primed to fight terrorism worldwide and to end our country’s dependence upon foreign oil. Rather than seizing that moment, however, it went to waste.

My family and I were in Jerusalem on 9/11. Watching the devastation on television, reading the local press, and speaking to Israeli friends, we heard repeatedly that 9/11 would be a game-changer. America, Israelis told us, finally “got it.” They felt sure that Washington would assume the lead in the global fight to end terror and would work to dry up its oil-based funding. Key beneficiaries of 9/11, they whispered, would be the Jewish people and the State of Israel.

That didn’t happen. Instead of fighting terror globally, America became mired in Afghanistan and Iraq. Instead of campaigning for energy independence, America became even more energy dependent than before.

As a result, the Jewish world and the State of Israel, like the United States and the free world as a whole, are neither stronger nor safer today than before 9/11. The global terror network lives on, funded in no small part by Middle East oil. The conclusion, from the perspective of 2011, is as inescapable as it is tragic: the crisis went to waste.

Jonathan D. Sarna is the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University and Chair of its Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program. His new book, When General Grant Expelled the Jews, will appear in the spring.

‘Terrorism as a global problem’

By Ilan Berman

It would be fair to say that, until September 11, most Americans had little understanding of terrorism, or adequate appreciation for its destabilizing potential. The attacks on New York and the Pentagon changed all that, transforming an abstract danger into a tangible threat. In doing so, they generated new attention to—and sympathy with—Israel’s ongoing struggle with the same phenomenon.

The U.S. response to 9/11, however, has turned out to be only tangentially beneficial to Israel. That is because, over the past decade, American policy has focused overwhelmingly on al-Qaeda, Afghanistan and Iraq, and not the principal threats confronting the Jewish state.

These include Hezbollah, the Iranian-sponsored, Syrian-supported Lebanese militia that former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage once called the “A-Team” of international terrorism. Today, Hezbollah is stronger than ever, having been rearmed by Iran since its 2006 war with Israel and now in virtual control of the Lebanese cabinet.

Likewise, Hamas remains committed to its goal of eradicating Israel and creating a Palestine that stretches “from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.”

Further afield, the gravest existential threat to Israel’s existence—Iran—continues to pursue a nuclear capability and support regional instability, in spite of Western sanctions. Moreover, in recent months, the “Arab Spring” has injected new dangers into Israel’s security calculus, from the potential demise of longstanding security arrangements to the growing power of unfriendly Islamist movements.

In a tangible sense, therefore, Israel finds itself as insecure as it was on September 10, 2001. Over this past decade, the world has come to view terrorism as a global problem, rather than simply an Israeli one.

Ilan Berman is Vice President of the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, D.C.

Click photo to download. Credit: EPA/Cesar De Luca.

‘Never let our guard down’

By David Harris

September 11, 2001 is a date never to be forgotten. Above all, it is the nearly 3,000 victims, together with their eternally grieving families, whom we remember.

It is the heroism of so many on the scene, and those who rushed to the scene, that evokes inspiration even amidst our tears. And it is the aftermath, when, ever so briefly, we came together as a nation.

But then we also can’t forget that there was an ideology—a radical interpretation of Islam—fueling the attacks. There were those who exulted as America was struck. Some Palestinians on the West Bank, for example, and the cheering chorus could even be found among pseudo-intellectual voices in Europe and the United States, who claimed that “America had it coming.”

There were the conspiracy theorists in the Arab world and elsewhere who asserted that, if the Bush administration wasn’t behind the attacks, then surely Israel was. How else to explain the “absence” of 4,000 Jewish employees from the Twin Towers on 9/11, who must have been told to stay away, when, in reality, they were all among the intended victims

Lessons for Israel and the Jewish people? Never let our guard down. Never suffer from a failure of imagination. Never go wobbly or show fear. Never forget that the enemies of the U.S. and Western values are the same enemies of Israel and the Jewish people—and vice versa. And never descend to the level of our foes. We will confront and defeat them, yes, but while steadfastly defending what they abhor most about us—our free and open societies.

Davis Harris is the executive director of the American Jewish Committee.

‘A shared fate and destiny’

By Jeffrey S. Gurock

In the decades that preceded 9/11, New York Jews were increasingly disenchanted with their place and future in the metropolis.

Long gone was their palpable sense that the city was theirs; that they would be forever securely ensconced in their neighborhoods while contributing to the city’s grandeur.  Racial misunderstandings were seemingly constant. In one notorious case 20 years ago, acute tensions led to a violent outburst against Jews. Perceiving their city in decline, the 1970s-1990 witnessed much of New York’s middle class—with Jews prominent among the disaffected—looking to live well beyond the five boroughs.

In the decade that followed the atrocity, New York Jews did not recapture their sense of suzerainty within the city. However, an even more positive ethos has evolved. Though surely not the terrorists’ intention, their attack brought New Yorkers together. Most Jews now feel a common bond—rare in this city’s history—with other racial and ethnic groups; all of whom were indiscriminate targets on that awful day. Internecine tensions have declined as Jews and their neighbors feel a shared fate and destiny as they seek together to protect the metropolis from external threats, more profound than their local disputes.

As a native of my beloved city and a historian of New York Jewry, it is comforting that our stalwart people have remained in Gotham over the long haul—Jews did not flee en masse after 9/11—and participate, as always, in the advancement of the greatest city in the Jewish Diaspora.

Jeffrey S. Gurock is Libby M. Klaperman professor of Jewish History at Yeshiva University and author of the forthcoming book, A City of Promises: New York’s Jews, 1920-2010 (NYU Press, 2012).

Click photo to download. Caption: Diane Massaroli (R), of Staten Island, New York holds up a picture of her late husband, Michael Massaroli, who worked at Cantor Fitzgerald at the World Trade Center, as his name is read at Ground Zero during a 9/11 memorial ceremony in New York City on Sept. 11, 2009. Credit: EPA/CHRIS HONDROS/POOL.

‘An American Tragedy’

By Jerold S. Auerbach

Ten years ago, on September 11, the Middle East reached the United States. Every Muslim jihadi terrorist’s dream scenario for Israel was fulfilled amid the collapsing towers of the World Trade Center.

To some, predictably, the Jewish state bore responsibility for the carnage. In the obscenely memorable words of poet Amiri Baraka:

Who know why Five Israelis was filming the explosion

And cracking they sides at the notion . . .

Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed

Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers

To stay home that day

Why did Sharon stay away?

Among Israelis, for so long the target of Muslim terrorism, there was sorrowful identification with the Twin Towers victims—including five Israelis and at least 400 Jews. Somehow, the message to “stay home” had never reached them. Riding the waves of hysteria that radiated from lower Manhattan, FBI agents arrested five Israelis (including two intelligence agents) who had been filming the carnage from the New Jersey shore, only to conclude that they lacked any foreknowledge of the attacks.

According to historian Steven P. Cohen, 9/11 “fundamentally transformed our self-perception as American Jews and our partnership with the people and State of Israel.” But that did not happen. American Jews responded, as always, in many voices (some with a Jewish accent), invariably eager to identify as Americans. In the end, after all, 9/11 was—and will always remain—an American tragedy.

Jerold S. Auerbach is Professor Emeritus of History at Wellesley College. His most recent books areHebron Jews: Memory and Conflict in the Land of Israel (2009) and Brothers at War: Israel and the Tragedy of the Altalena (2011).

‘A new anti-Semitism’

By Jack Levin

Hate can remain dormant in a culture, emerging without warning from the darkness in response to some threatening episode. Thus, the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on America inspired a growing disdain for members of any group that was regarded as being outside of the mainstream of society. Americans were angry and scared; and they were looking for outsiders to blame.

Jews were already vulnerable, because of the timing of the second intifada that began a year earlier. As the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians became increasingly more violent and intractable, the character of anti-Semitism in countries around the world began to change. By the time of the 9/11 terrorist attack, Jews everywhere—even those who supported the establishment of a Palestinian state and had never even visited the Middle East—were being held responsible for Israeli military policies.

Some extremists blamed Israelis specifically for the Sept. 11 attack. But unlike old-fashioned right wing anti Jewish bigotry, proponents of progressive politics espoused a new anti-Semitism. Many American and British left-wingers viewed Palestinians as victims and Israel as an oppressor state. By 2003, there were more anti-Jewish attacks in Europe than at any time since World War II.

In the United States, the level of anti-Semitism never escalated to the same degree as in European countries. Still, a number of recent horrific anti-Semitic episodes—for example, a murderous rampage at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. and a mass murder at the EL AL ticket counter in LAX—have helped assure that Jewish Americans would continue to feel insecure and vulnerable into the present.

Jack Levin is the Irving and Betty Brudnick Professor of Sociology and Criminology at Northeastern University. He has authored or co-authored 30 books including The Violence of Hate: Confronting Racism, Anti-Semitism and Other Forms of Bigotry and Serial Killers and Sadistic Murderers: Up Close and Personal.