The American Jewish response to Sept. 11 interprets—but doesn’t explain—the anti-Semitism, trauma, and mourning that still linger after the attacks
There is, then, something horribly appropriate about the fact that the first victim of the Sept. 11 attacks, according to The 9/11 Commission Report, was Daniel Lewin. Lewin was a 31-year-old Jew whose life had been spent in America, where he was born and went to college, and Israel, where he served as an officer in the IDF. On Sept. 11, 2001, he was a passenger on American Airlines Flight 11, the plane that flew into the North Tower. He “was seated in the row just behind [Mohammed] Atta,” the report says, and it seems that when Atta invaded the cockpit Lewin “may have made an attempt to stop the hijackers in front of him, not realizing that another was sitting behind him”—Satam al-Suqami, who apparently stabbed Lewin to death before the plane crashed.
The symbolic appropriateness of this murder lies in the fact that Lewin embodied both of the identities that, to al-Qaida and its allies, represent the hated modern order—American and Jew. For the same reason, it did not seem like a mere coincidence that the Sept. 11 attacks were quickly followed by a wave of suicide-bombings in Israel, and by the videotaped beheading of Daniel Pearl, another American Jew. No wonder that, by the spring of 2002, a mood of fear and pessimism had caught hold of American Jews. Passover that year was marked by the murder of 30 people at a Seder in Netanya, Israel, and I’m sure I was one of many who read the words of the Seder that night—“eleh, shebechol dor va’dor omdim aleinu l’chaloteinu”: “behold, in every generation they rise up against us to destroy us”—with an unprecedented feeling of personal, non-historical dread.
This was the mood that gave us Ron Rosenbaum’s musings on the Second Holocaust, and New York magazine’s survey of Jewish despair. But the real memorial of this moment in American Jewish history is Philip Roth’s 2004 novel The Plot Against America. For it was Roth who got to the deepest, least-utterable stratum of American Jewish anxiety after Sept. 11. This was not fear of Arab or Muslim terrorism: That had been a feature of Jewish consciousness since the 1970s, if not earlier, though Sept. 11 made it much more immediate.
It was, rather, a fear that the enemies of the Jews had at last found a way to drive a wedge between Americans and Jews. If Americans came to accept the Bin Laden version of events, if Sept. 11 became the price America paid for openness to the Jews and support of Israel, then the position of American Jews would be terrifyingly vulnerable. More, the century-old principle that made it so easy to live as an American Jew—that there was not only no opposition between those two terms, but a profound sympathy—could be annulled.
That is the emotion Roth dramatized in his novel. With instinctive novelistic tact, he did not try to describe or restage the Sept. 11 attacks, as did other major American writers like John Updike and Don DeLillo. Rather, he turned to his most fertile imaginative ground, his Newark childhood, to create a parable for the post-Sept. 11 world. In The Plot Against America, Franklin Roosevelt loses the 1940 presidential election to Charles Lindbergh, running on an isolationist, pro-German platform—one of his slogans is “Keep America Out of this Jewish War.” Soon after, the government launches a program to send Jews out of the cities to be reeducated in Americanism in the countryside. In a brilliant touch, the name Roth gives this program is “Just Folks”: The name and the idea are a convincingly sentimental, American version of Volkisch fascism, blending the WPA work camp with the concentration camp.
Writing in the first person, situating this fantasy in his familiar childhood Newark, Roth manages to make his counter-history, for a moment, seem horribly authentic. But the horror does not really come from the 1940s. The emotional current of the novel comes from the post-Sept. 11 era, when once again Jews began to wonder what might happen if Americans could be convinced that Jews were not Americans but hostages who could be handed over as the price of peace.
Reading the latest Sept. 11 novel, Amy Waldman’s The Submission (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), shows that this concern has not totally vanished, even now. Waldman, a former foreign correspondent for the New York Times, makes her debut as a novelist with a Tom Wolfe-like tale of New York power-brokers in conflict. The plot centers on an architectural competition to design a memorial for a massive terrorist attack that is Sept. 11 in all but name. The trouble begins when the anonymous competition is won by an American Muslim named Mohammad Khan, for a design that evokes traditional Islamic gardens. This is the cue for a knock-down political brawl involving victims’ families, Muslim-rights’ groups, art critics, socialites, and an ambitious New York governor.
That the governor is named Geraldine Bitman, not George Pataki, is one of many points at which Waldman fudges the history in pursuit of a schematic story. No one who remembers the actual process of selecting a design for the ground zero site, in which celebrity architects auditioned by waxing eloquent about Freedom Towers, could give much credit to Waldman’s fictional scenario. The dissonance here arises from the fact that the issues Waldman addresses—and this is the kind of novel in which issues are addressed, like envelopes—are actually those raised last year by the plans to build a mosque near the World Trade Center site. The emotional atmosphere of the book, too, belongs to 2010, not 2001. These characters are able to engage in a fight about symbols and prestige and the intellectual origins of walled gardens because they have already shifted into a peacetime mode: They are not terrified that another attack is imminent.
This difference helps to explain some of the gulf in emotional urgency between The Submission and The Plot Against America. But the fundamental problem that occupied Roth—the ambiguous position of American Jews in an anti-Semitic world—can also be seen at work in Waldman’s novel. One of her protagonists is Paul Rubin, a retired Wall Street eminence who is the chairman of the competition jury. He is a leading member of the Establishment, but not a charter member—because he is a Jew, he still feels the historical good fortune involved in being an American. When he opens the envelope containing the winner’s name, Waldman writes, Paul gloats over “a small but satisfying token of his stature. What better measure of how high Paul Joseph Rubin, grandson of a Russian Jewish peasant, had climbed?”
This lingering Jewish marginality is crucial to the way Waldman approaches the novel’s central debate. “You couldn’t call yourself an American if you hadn’t, in solidarity, watched your fellow Americans being pulverized,” Paul muses about the attacks. But what if you had watched in solidarity, yet your name is Mohammad Khan: Can you call yourself an American then? Is Mohammad Khan a different kind of name, entailing a different kind of problem, from Paul Rubin? “Maybe it’s just his name,” says one of the jurors hopefully, after the envelope is opened. “He could be a Jew for all we know.” It’s a throw-away joke, but also a revealing moment, for it marks the difference between the religion that has achieved trust in America and the religion that hasn’t, yet.
Should American Jews think of American Muslims as like them, or is Islam different—not a minority religion but a majority one, not a people fleeing persecution but a people seeking power? In Mohammad Khan’s case, the question becomes even harder to answer because Waldman gives him all the markers of an assimilated American Jew: “As a boy he had no religious education. He ate pork, although he hadn’t grown up doing so. He dated Jews, not to mention Catholics and atheists. He was, if not an atheist himself, certainly agnostic, which perhaps made him not a Muslim at all.” Yet Khan also tells Rubin that he is not prepared to change his own name: “Not everyone is prepared to remake themselves to rise in America.” “Was Khan implying something about the Jews, their assimilations and aspirations?” Paul wonders, and the novel does too.
Israeli singer Shmulik Kraus wrote a classic of psychedelic rock while sitting in a jail cell in the 1970s. His album deserves another listen.