The American Jewish response to Sept. 11 interprets—but doesn’t explain—the anti-Semitism, trauma, and mourning that still linger after the attacks
Last week, New York magazine marked Sunday’s anniversary by devoting an entire issue to an alphabetical encyclopedia of Sept. 11. As I scanned the table of contents, I realized that I was apprehensive about what I would find under “J.” Did a full account of Sept. 11 require an entry for Jews? Technically, the answer would have to be no: The hijackings that killed 3,000 people in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania were carried out by Islamic terrorists against American targets, and the hundreds of Jews who died in the attacks were no more or less victims than the Protestants and Catholics and Muslims. America and Islam would have to find a place in such a dictionary, but Jews and Judaism would be an irrelevance: That is a logically unimpeachable answer, and it is the one the editors of New York gave. (Under “J,” the only entry is the terrible “jumpers.”)
Yet the very fact that I felt a certain relief at the omission of Jews from the list, as well as a certain disappointment, forces me to acknowledge that things are not that simple when it comes to Jews and Sept. 11. We insist on separating the two terms so strictly, perhaps, because so many enemies of the Jews have insisted on linking them in false and dangerous ways. For instance, there is the notorious lie that no Jews died in the World Trade Center, because the 4,000 Jews—or, depending on how the rumor is phrased, 4,000 Israelis—who worked there were warned to stay home. (The origin of this rumor, according to a report by the Anti-Defamation League, seems to be a Jerusalem Post article that reported that the Israeli Foreign Ministry had received inquiries from the relatives of 4,000 Israelis believed to be in New York City on Sept. 11.) After the attacks, this idea gained traction on the far right and far left, with everyone from David Duke to Amiri Baraka, and it remains disturbingly current in the Muslim world. Eventually the U.S. State Department had to issue a rebuttal pointing out that, in fact, somewhere between 200 to 400 of the ground zero victims were Jewish, in keeping with the proportion of Jews in the local population.
On the one hand, this anti-Semitic rumor is meant to deny Jews a part in the national mourning over Sept. 11, to suggest that they had not suffered their share. In this sense, it is like the (false) allegations of German anti-Semites that Jews had not served in the army in World War I. On the other hand, of course, the accusation of Jewish absence is really supposed to be a proof of Jewish presence: If Jews stayed home on Sept. 11, it must be because other Jews knew what was coming and warned them.
Thus, anti-Semitic rumors suggest that the Mossad brought down the twin towers, either because the real hijackers could not have possessed the technical ability to do so, or because Israel was the real beneficiary of the War on Terror. (A strange kind of benefit, one might think, looking at the history of Israel over the last 10 years.) The power of the slander lies not in its plausibility but in the diabolical way it confounds rebuttal. If Jews are accused of staying home on Sept. 11, they can point to the State Department for a defense; but then the anti-Semite’s question becomes, why is the American government so solicitous of Jewish honor? Is it not because, in the words of one fringe anti-Semite quoted in the ADL report, “our government has for decades been used to further the interests of Israel at the expense of the interests of the American people”?
Some lowlife rabble-rouser said that, but in the years since Sept. 11, an increasing number of respectable people have been saying things close enough to it. Thanks to Stephen Walt (of Harvard) and John J. Mearsheimer (of the University of Chicago), the phrase “Israel Lobby,” often enough translated into “Jewish Lobby,” has become almost as commonplace in American leftist discourse as the phrase “Jewish syndicate” was among the French right during the Dreyfus Affair. Think of how common it was, five or six years ago, to hear opponents of the Iraq War reel off the names of the so-called neoconservatives whose fault it allegedly was—always Jewish names like Wolfowitz, Perle, and Feith. Remember the bizarre ingenuity that traced the invasion of Iraq to the teachings of a long-dead Jewish mastermind, Leo Strauss.
In this way, the anti-neoconservative rhetoric of the post-Sept. 11 left managed to do for Osama Bin Laden what he could never have achieved on his own. It gave currency and respectability to his belief that events in general, and American policy in particular, can be explained only by reference to Jewish power. This idea is pervasive in Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama bin Laden, a book that is necessary to read in the same way that Mein Kampf was once necessary.
Take, for instance, Bin Laden’s statement of Oct. 6, 2002, titled “To the Americans.” “Why are we fighting and opposing you?” he begins, and the first of dozens of enumerated reasons is “You attacked us in Palestine.” In this “you,” the distinction between America, Israel, and the Jews ceases to exist, a point that becomes explicit later on: “[T]he creation and continuation of Israel is one of the greatest crimes, and you are the leaders of its criminals.” Later, in the course of explaining why America is “the worst civilization witnessed in the history of mankind,” Bin Laden explains that “the Jews have taken control of your economy, through which they have taken control of your media, and now control all aspects of your life making you their servants and achieving their aims at your expense.”
The only proper response to this kind of evil fantasy is to ignore it; yet for American Jews, it was hard to ignore. For the insidious power of this discourse was the way it made American Jews self-conscious about something that should, by rights, have been a source of pride: the identity of American and Jewish interests and values in the post-Sept. 11 age (which is not the same thing as the identity of American and Israeli policies). One reaction, perhaps the first reaction, to hearing Bin Laden’s rhetoric—or its echoes in the words of Walt and Mearsheimer, or Helen Thomas—is to deny its poisonous premise that “the Jews” are running America or America is serving “the Jews.” That denial is true, of course. But it leaves those who insist on it looking, and feeling, scared. It places American Jews in the paradoxical position of denying their own patriotism and belittling their own power.
A better response emerges in one of the defining books of the post-Sept. 11 period, Terror and Liberalism by Paul Berman. What Berman shows, in his analysis of the intellectual genealogy of al-Qaida, is that there’s a good reason why the Jews should occupy a central position in the fight between America and what he called Islamism or Muslim totalitarianism—and not because this is a fight about or against Jewish power. Rather, as in Europe in the 1930s, the fate of the Jews is a bellwether for the fate of liberalism—a social order founded on individual rights, secularism, private property, and the rule of law. Since the first, partial emancipation of European Jews in the French Revolution, Jews have thrived in liberal societies and suffered in illiberal ones. This makes perfect sense when you consider that the Jews, as a tiny and historically persecuted minority in the Christian world, could succeed only to the extent that they were allowed to live as free individuals, in a free society.
Historically, then, the fate of the Jews is tied to the fate of liberalism; and after Sept. 11, Berman showed, the greatest threat to liberal values came from Islamic fundamentalists, who spoke about Jews in terms borrowed from European fascists. Sayyid Qutb, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, blamed Islam’s problems on Marx and Freud: “[T]he atheistic, materialistic doctrine in our world was advocated by a Jew, and the permissive doctrine which is sometimes called ‘the sexual revolution’ was advocated by a Jew. Indeed, most evil theories which try to destroy all values and all that is sacred to mankind are advocated by Jews.” This, as Berman points out, is not theological anti-Judaism (though Qutb voiced that variety as well) but the kind of anti-modern anti-Semitism that identifies the Jew with social dissolution and rootless individualism. But these are the very same things that, when considered as values rather than vices, we think of as essentially American: freedom of the individual, free thought, pluralism.
Israeli singer Shmulik Kraus wrote a classic of psychedelic rock while sitting in a jail cell in the 1970s. His album deserves another listen.