Sept. 11, 2001 was a Tuesday, deadline day for The Jewish Week.
As the horrific events began to unfold that morning, I found myself consumed, at times, by the unfolding coverage on television, then forcing myself away from it, trying to focus on getting the issue out on time. In revising the paper’s contents and helping to assign fresh staff coverage, I was very much aware that we were experiencing a moment when one could feel our nation’s history veering off into an unknown, dangerous path. One from which we haven’t really recovered, and perhaps never will.
I realize now that my concentration on the task at hand that day was in part an attempt to protect myself from the emotional response that would come later, particularly when I was alone that night in a Midtown hotel, unable to get home and learning the extent of the casualties suffered.
I had just returned home two days before from the wedding of a close friend’s son in Israel, witnessing firsthand how Israelis somehow were able to celebrate a simcha with great joy in the midst of almost daily suicide bombings.
The intifada at the time was almost a year old and in full deadly force, having already claimed hundreds of victims. I had walked through the mostly empty streets of the Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall where, only a few weeks before, 15 civilians had been killed and 130 wounded in the suicide attack on the Sbarro pizza shop.
In addition, Israel was being pummeled rhetorically on a daily basis at the Durban conference in South Africa, an international symposium supposedly against racism but, in fact, nasty proof of it — the United Nations’ version of modern-day anti-Semitism where a resolution branded Israel as an “apartheid, racist” state and accused Jerusalem of “genocide and ethnic cleansing.”
To say that this was a low point for Israel — under fierce attack physically and diplomatically with little international support or understanding of its plight — is an understatement.
It was in this context that one of the immediate responses to the 9/11 attacks among pro-Israel supporters, while the Twin Towers were still burning, was the sober assessment that the U.S. and Israel were now in the same boat, that along with the growing sense of horror, outrage and fear, there was a sense that maybe Washington and the rest of America will now better understand and appreciate Israel’s struggle with terror and take action against the perpetrators, whether they strike from Afghanistan — Osama bin Laden was already a suspect — or the Palestinian territories.
The banner headline that ran across the front page of our edition the next day read: “America: The New Israel.” Underneath it was the subhead, “As fear and vulnerability grip the U.S., will empathy with Jerusalem increase?”
Several readers, in subsequent letters to the editor, registered outrage at that headline, asserting that our perspective was too narrow and Israel-focused when the full emphasis should have been on this American tragedy. One writer said her complaint was not with the reporting but with the Page 1 headline — “horror and outrage should have been your lead,” she maintained.
The issue she referred to included last-minute reports on volunteer efforts at Ground Zero, communal responses to concerns about security for Jewish institutions, reactions from the leaders of a UJA-Federation of New York mission stranded in Israel during the crisis and an essay from Nobel Peace laureate Elie Wiesel reinforcing our point that “one thing becomes increasingly clear: the enemies of Israel are also the enemies of Western powers.”
Our page 1 editorial, “Terror Hits Home,” began: “America experienced another ‘Day of Infamy’ on Tuesday. Like Pearl Harbor, this deadly surprise attack was intended as an assault on our country and its way of life: democracy. Whether or not we will respond as the U.S. did 60 years ago, by actively engaging in a worldwide struggle against the enemies of freedom, remains to be seen.
“Surely though, we have lost our innocence, rudely welcomed to the world of terror.”
We went on to call for prayer for the victims and their families, and asked how the U.S. would resolve the issues that Israel is forced to struggle with — “between individual civil liberties and the greater, common good. Racial profiling of members of suspected religious or ethnic groups. Surveillance that may violate First Amendment rights. Body searches at all public buildings.
“How much freedom are we willing to give up for security?” we asked.
Those questions are still being debated a decade later, long after Guantanamo became a rallying cry for critics of Washington’s war policy. (Detainees from the war in Afghanistan, and later Iraq, have been held at the detention camp there without the protections of the Geneva Convention, some since 2002, despite President Barack Obama’s 2009 pledge to shut the facility down.)
It’s difficult to say now if our perspective that awful day was overly connected to Israel’s plight. At the time it certainly felt like an appropriate angle for The Jewish Week, particularly in terms of our niche, and of world events. But I can better understand today the view of critics who thought we were too parochial. And I wonder if the visceral communal ties to an embattled Israel experienced during those horrific times of the deadly intifada have frayed more than a bit in the last decade.
Israel today may well be more diplomatically demonized, with delegitimization efforts growing, and its very existence threatened, by Iran’s closer-to-fruition nuclear efforts. But the very real prospect of Jewish blood being shed — with women and children prime targets — is no longer a daily reality, thank God and the Israel Defense Forces.
Much has changed for the better in the last decade besides the decrease in terrorist attacks against Israelis. Osama bin Laden lies at the bottom of the ocean, al Qaeda is on the run and there are stirrings for democracy among millions in the Arab world. But our country is caught up in two difficult wars overseas, and among the Arab states it is unclear whether one group of despots will be replaced by others, or if the war on terror, now acknowledged to be a decades-long struggle, will confront Islamic militants in greater positions of power.
Sadly, though, much of the world, including Washington, continues to separate Israeli and American efforts to defeat terror. And until there is a realization that, as Elie Wiesel noted 10 years ago, our common enemies are the same — those who would defeat us and our freedoms in the name of Allah — our chances of victory are diminished.
May the memory of our fellow citizens who perished on 9/11, including so many true heroes, inspire us to strengthen our resolve to recognize and defeat those who would deny us our human rights, values and very lives.