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No Escape

The American Jewish response to Sept. 11 interprets—but doesn’t explain—the anti-Semitism, trauma, and mourning that still linger after the attacks

Adam Kirsch
September 06, 2011
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Ground Zero, New York, 2010.Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Ground Zero, New York, 2010.Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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.

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.

Paul Rubin is forced to sympathize with the unsympathetic architect, and so he can’t take a clear position on Khan and his design. Gov. Bitman, on the other hand, has no such scruples. Waldman never says that Bitman is supposed to be Jewish, but the name implies as much, and within the novel Bitman functions as Rubin’s opposite. They are friends, and both members of New York’s power elite; but where Rubin is dependent on cultural validation, Bitman needs votes, and the majority of votes are anti-Khan and anti-Islam. (In reality I’m not sure this is a platform that would win many elections, especially in New York.) In particular, Bitman needs people like Sean Gallagher, the no-account brother of a “first responder” killed in the attacks, who has become the thuggish leader of a victims’ group.

It is obvious that Waldman writes about Sean Gallagher with much less sympathy than Mohammad Khan. Khan is a highly educated secular professional, the kind of person with whom a Times correspondent might be classmates or friends. Gallagher, on the other hand, is built from stereotypes: working-class, Irish, chip on his shoulder. Unmistakably, he is the kind of person who, in 1940s Newark, would have been an anti-Semite, beating up the Jewish kids at school. If he now turns his aggression on Muslims instead, is that progress for Jews? Bitman says yes, and she is happy to make common cause with this lumpen-American; Rubin unable to deny his cultural and personal affinity with Khan. In this way, The Submission can be read as another exercise, or exorcism, of post-Sept. 11 anxiety about the Jews’ place in America—its reliability and its price.


After so many books exploring that familiar anxiety, a book called Contending with Catastrophe: Jewish Perspectives on September 11th (Beth Din of America Press and K’hal Publishing) might seem superfluous. But in fact, there is something radically and usefully unfamiliar about the “perspectives” this anthology has to offer. That is because its contributors are not novelists or intellectuals, but rabbis—and not rabbis on the pulpit, offering moral and theological reflections, but halakhic authorities attending to fine points of legal argument.

In particular, the book documents the work of the Beth Din of America, the leading legal forum for Orthodox Jews, in resolving a halakhic problem raised by Sept. 11. (It is edited by Rabbi Michael Broyde, a member of the Beth Din and a professor of law at Emory.) This is the agunah, or abandoned woman problem, which is more familiar when it takes the form of Orthodox women whose husbands refuse to grant them a legal divorce, thus preventing them from remarrying. For 10 women whose husbands died in the World Trade Center, the problem was differently agonizing. Because the husbands’ bodies were not recovered from the collapsing towers, these wives had to petition the Beth Din to ascertain that they were legally dead before they could assume the legal status of widows. Contending with Catastrophe shows, through responsa and original documents, how the Beth Din dealt with these requests.

At first sight, a secular reader might feel impatient or righteously angry at this whole premise. Having lost their husbands, why should these women have to go through a legal rigmarole to prove what was obvious, that the men were killed? Such anger, stoked by all the old stories about women left in legal limbo as agunot, would not necessarily be allayed by reading a passage like this one:

The Talmud distinguishes between two types of cases of missing husbands: the case of a husband who is seen sinking into mayim she’ein lahem sof (a boundless area of water), where there is a slight possibility that the man may have emerged from the water elsewhere and the wife is therefore not permitted to remarry … and the case of a man who is seen sinking into mayim she’yesh lahem sof (water with clearly visible boundaries), when it is assumed that the man has drowned if the observed does not see him emerge within a reasonable time frame.

No one who is not already committed to obeying rabbinical authority would feel it necessary to abide by such distinctions. But as one reads the papers by authorities like Broyde, Gedalia Dov Schwartz, and Ovadiah Yosef, it becomes very clear that their goal is not to inflict evidentiary burdens on grieving widows. In each case—including the case of “G.H.,” who despite the pseudonym is clearly identifiable as Daniel Lewin—the rabbis made the process as easy as possible and quickly granted the widows legal status.

The real purpose of the legal process seems to be deeper and more abstract: to inscribe the Sept. 11 attacks into the context of Jewish law and history going back to the Talmud and before. When the rabbis consider whether the falling towers should be considered a “fiery furnace,” from which no escape is possible, or a collapsing building, from which escape is possible, they are translating contemporary events into a legal language that, like all law, is both historical and timeless.

This process does not offer any simple consolation, any answers about why these 10 innocent men—among thousands of other innocents—died a horrible death. Rather, in the words of Rav Joseph Soloveitchik—quoted by David Shatz in a remarkable essay—the halakhic response to suffering believes that “Response, not explanation, is focal.” To respond to Sept. 11 in the language of Talmudic jurisprudence is to place American experience in a Jewish context—in contrast to the way secular writers strive to place Jewish experience in an American context. These approaches are not fully reconcilable, but they can be complementary. Both are expressions of the permanent human need to redeem trauma with interpretation, with language—a need that Sept. 11 continues to evoke in all of us.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.