Via Souad Mekhennet/Facebook

A crash course in extremism

Of all the dangerous situations a single woman of marriageable age could enter into, interviewing Islamist extremists could easily top the list. 

But for reasons even she cannot explain, journalist Souad Mekhennet has been spared the grim fate of so many others, including many women and journalists who have not survived their encounters with Islamic jihad. 

In the early pages of her best-selling memoir, “I Was Told to Come Alone,” Mekhennet admits that her background makes her an “outlier” among those covering global jihad and claims it has given her “unique access to underground militant leaders.”

Though she was born and raised in Germany, she is a Muslim of Turkish-Moroccan descent who is well versed in the principles of Islam and speaks both Middle Eastern and North African Arabic. She also considers herself Western, liberal and feminist. As a child, she dreamed of becoming an actress.

It was the film “All the President’s Men” that led her to a career in journalism. Today, as national security correspondent for The Washington Post, Mekhennet’s manifold identity has played a role not only in her entrée to the dangerous, unpredictable and clandestine world of jihad but in her motivations for covering it. 

“Sometimes it’s really tiring,” she said when I met her during a recent book tour to Los Angeles. “Sometimes it hurts. Because I try to challenge; I try to somehow build bridges.”

Her work is reportage, but it’s also personal. Mekhennet tries to explain jihad to the West and the West to jihadists, often finding herself in the peculiar position of mediator. Not everyone wants to hear what she has to say: that violent extremists are people too; that they have stories to tell, beliefs that can and should be interrogated but which can be accessed only if we, Westerners, would listen.

For almost two decades, Mekhennet has searched for the answers to why and how individuals become radicalized. She began her work just after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when the widow of a 9/11 firefighter told a group of journalists she blamed them, in part, for why her husband was killed.

“She said, ‘Nobody told us there are people out there who are hating us so much,’” Mekhennet recalled. “And she looked at me, because I was the only person of Arab-Muslim descent there. And she was waiting for an answer, and I couldn’t give her one.”

Mekhennet’s investigation has taken her all over the world, from the insular terrorist cells of Europe to the front lines of wars in Iraq and Syria. Along the way, she has struggled to understand those who use Islam to justify violence and to explain their motivations to a stupefied West. She tries to reconcile a perversion of Islam with the one she inhabits, claiming religion doesn’t radicalize people, people radicalize religion.

Throughout her encounters, Mekhennet finds herself in talmudic-like disputes with extremists, challenging them over their interpretation of the Quran. She told one ISIS commander, “This is not the jihad, what you’re fighting. Jihad would have been if you’d stayed in Europe and made your career. It would have been a lot harder. You have taken the easy way out.”

Her methods may seem audacious, even dangerous for someone who often finds herself in isolated areas beyond the rule of law of any government. And how many Western journalists could argue like that with a terrorist and live to tell the tale? Only someone educated in Islamic teaching could even mount such an argument, and one of the lessons of Mekhennet’s book is that knowledge of one’s subject is essential to ferreting out truth.

The question is: To what end?

No explanation can justify brutality. Plenty of people have suffered injustice and not taken up weapons and killed innocents. If Mekhennet’s version of Islam is compatible with modernity, then why is it also compatible with a murderous caliphate?

“When it comes to violent acts or terrorism, it is unfortunately the reality that [some] people are using Islam or call themselves Muslims and commit acts of violence,” she said. “There is a problem that we have within our Muslim communities where we need to have an honest conversation about who is speaking on behalf of Islam, and what kinds of interpretations and ideologies are out there, and how can we deal with that [as a community]?”

Mekhennet’s book is a cri de cœur to the West to try to understand “the hearts and minds” of extremists to better defeat them. She believes current policies are misguided, and that simplistic generalizations portraying a clash of civilizations are playing into the hands of recruiters who exploit Western antipathy to Islam to indoctrinate young jihadists.

For many radicals, she says, “it’s too late; there is a point of no return.” But others, she believes, can be saved.

“This is not a clash of civilizations or religions,” she said. “This is a clash between people who want to build bridges and look at what we have in common and those who want to preach divides.”

She recounted the time she went to Mecca for the Hajj pilgrimage. Next to the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest site, is another place of honor where it is believed Abraham set foot. Having spent years studying religious divides, “this was a moment, where I said to myself, ‘Why are people not getting it? We’re connected.’”

Cartoon: The third tower

Iran calls $10 billion ruling over 9/11 ‘ridiculous’

Iran said a U.S. court ruling last week ordering it to pay more than $10 billion for its alleged role in the 9/11 attacks is “ridiculous.”

“This judgement is so ridiculous … more than ever before it damages the credibility of the U.S. judicial system,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossein Jaber Ansari said, according to Agence France Press.

U.S. District Judge George Daniels in New York issued a default judgment Wednesday against Iran for $7.5 billion to the estates and families of people who died at the World Trade Center and Pentagon. It includes $2 million to each estate for the victims’ pain and suffering, plus $6.88 million in punitive damages.

Daniels also awarded $3 billion to insurers including Chubb Ltd. that paid property damage, business interruption and other claims.

In his ruling, Daniels said Iran had failed to defend itself against claims that it had aided the 9/11 hijackers.

Iran, which is Shia Muslim, has consistently denied any involvement in the 2001 attacks in New York and Washington, which are widely believed to have been the work not of Iran but of the Sunni Islamic fundamentalist group al-Qaida, which took credit for them.

Mohammad Javad Larijani, secretary general of Iran’s High Council for Human Rights, said, “If they [the United States] want to prosecute anyone over the September 11 incident, it should be their allies in the region who created al-Qaida and funded it,” presumably referring to Iran’s Sunni enemy Saudi Arabia.

Farrakhan praises Trump for not taking Jewish money, repeats claim that Jews behind 9/11

Donald Trump won praise from Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan for not taking Jewish money in his quest for the White House.

Farrakhan, who has made frequent anti-Semitic comments, lauded Trump during a sermon Sunday in Chicago, according to the Anti-Defamation League website the following day.

The praise from Farrakhan comes on the heels of a controversy in which the Republican presidential front-runner failed to immediately disavow the endorsement of David Duke, a former Ku Klux Klan leader.

According to the ADL, Farrakhan said the billionaire Trump is “the only mem­ber who has stood in front of Jew­ish com­mu­nity and said I don’t want your money. Anytime a man can say to those who con­trol the politics of Amer­ica, ‘I don’t want your money,’ that means you can’t con­trol me. And they can­not afford to give up con­trol of the pres­i­dents of the United States.”

Farrakhan, 82, stopped short of a full endorsement, however, stating: “Not that I’m for Mr. Trump, but I like what I’m look­ing at.”

The ADL said Farrakhan’s sermon also blamed Jews, whom he referred to as the “Synagogue of Satan,” for the Iraq War and 9/11 terror attacks.

Referring to former U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, Farrakhan said, “These are people sitting in the Pentagon, planning the destruction of Muslim nations.”

“Wolfowitz had 10 years now, to plan how they’re gonna clean out the Mid­dle East and take over those Mus­lim nations. They needed another Pearl Har­bor,” Farrakhan said, according to the ADL. “They needed some event that was cataclysmic, that would make the Amer­i­can peo­ple rise up, ready for war … they plot­ted a false flag oper­a­tion, and when a gov­ern­ment is so rot­ten that they will kill inno­cent peo­ple to accom­plish a polit­i­cal objec­tive, you are not deal­ing with a human …”

Farrakhan continued, “George Bush, and those devils, Satans around him. They plot­ted 9/11. Ain’t no Mus­lim took con­trol of no plane.”

Blaming the Jews for 9/11 was nothing new for Farrakhan, who said in a 2015 sermon that “it is now becoming apparent that there were many Israelis and Zionist Jews in key roles in the 9/11 attacks.”

Gun control and mass shootings: A conversation with a Second Amendment expert

Since 9/11, for every American killed by terrorism in the United States and worldwide, more than 1,000 died from firearms inside the U.S., according to the United States Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Including the attacks of 9/11, 3,380 died between 2001 and 2013, the most recent data available, while 406,496 died from gun violence.

If facts mean anything in a debate quickly being overtaken by hysteria, the facts show that we have a problem in this country with extremism, and we have a problem with the tools these extremists and other murderers use to kill—guns. Adam Winkler, the nation’s pre-eminent expert on the Second Amendment, is a professor of law at UCLA School of Law and author of “Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America” (W. W. Norton). After the shooting in San Bernardino, Jewish Journal Publisher and Editor-in-Chief Rob Eshman spoke with Winkler by phone. The following is an edited and condensed transcript of their conversation. 

Rob Eshman: We spoke after the shooting in Aurora, Colo., and you predicted that mass shootings would not lead to more gun control. It turns out you were right.

Adam Winkler: Not yet. In thinking back over the last few years, I don’t know that I would use such a strong statement. Newtown [Conn., school shooting] really did change the gun debate in a variety of ways. We’re seeing much more forceful political mobilization on the gun control issue than we had seen in decades. In retrospect, I would say I don’t know that mass shootings will lead toward gun control, but they can invigorate the gun control movement, and that, in the long run, will lead to more gun control.

RE: After the San Bernardino shooting, President Barack Obama’s main proposal is to ban people on the terrorist no-fly list from purchasing handguns.  

AW: It sounds like a common-sense proposal, but it’s somewhat troublesome. Because, generally, we believe in America that you have to have due process of law before you’re stripped of your rights, and the no-fly list is sort of notorious for having the wrong people on it. When the president says, “Well, how can anyone oppose this?” he is not taking seriously his opponents.  

RE: You mean their constitutional arguments or their power?

AW: The no-fly list denies a right to get onto a plane to travel. The court had said that there’s a constitutional right to travel. You can’t just tell someone you can’t exercise a fundamental right and we’re not going to tell you why, and we’re not going to give you an opportunity to challenge that in a court of law, and if we do get to a court of law, we’re basically going to say we don’t have to tell you anything. It’s a profoundly illiberal idea. I know it’s popular to think about it in terms of terrorism. Of course we don’t want terrorists to buy guns. The question is, what about the other 398,000 people on the list?

RE: So you’re saying that the main proposal in the president’s post-San Bernardino speech is a nonstarter?

AW: I’d say the main proposal in the Obama speech needs more work. I think you could devise the system where people who are suspected of terrorism can’t buy a firearm, but you need to think seriously about what kind of procedures or protections they’re going to have. 

RE: So what are some doable, workable solutions for readers who are just sick and tired of gun violence?  What about Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s proposal for mandatory background checks for ammunition purchase? 

AW: I think it makes sense to require background checks for people who are purchasing ammunition in the same way that it makes sense to require people who buy a gun to go through the background checks. Do I think it’s going to make a difference with regard to mass shootings? No. I mean, largely because most of the mass shooters that we know about obtain their guns legally; that means they’ve been able to legally obtain ammunition as well. 

RE: What about requiring that guns be insured? Forcing people who have guns to get liability and personal damage insurance?

AW: You could do that, but, you know, there is always the question, does that create more hazard? Does that lead more gun owners to be less careful with their guns because they can get insurance now? 

RE: But wouldn’t it lead insurance companies to make the gun industry build more safety mechanisms into guns, like they have with automobiles?

AW: It’s possible. That might be a way of getting around what is a stalemate over safety advancements in guns. Right now, gun makers are avoiding putting new features in that would make a gun safer because gun owners don’t want them. 

RE: So, if I’m sickened every time I read the stories of the innocent people who have been killed in mass shootings, and I finally want to do something about it, what do I do?

AW: Become more politically active. I do think that the reason why the NRA’s been so strong in recent years is because they can mobilize voters on Election Day. There’s a lot of money on the gun rights side that goes into election campaigns; there’s a lot of intense passion on their side. Historically we haven’t seen that same passion on the gun control side.

RE: Which organizations are the most effective?

AW: There are three organizations that seem to be the leading gun control organizations right now. Everytown for Gun Safety, the Brady Campaign and the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. 

RE: Every time I interview you, I inevitably get a letter from somebody saying, “If you take away our guns, we’re going to be as defenseless as the Jews were in Nazi Germany.”

AW: My response is, “Who is talking about taking away all the guns? Where is that proposal in universal background check? Where is that proposal in an insurance requirement like the one that you mentioned?”

RE: So you think gun confiscation is not the right way to go?

AW:  No, absolutely not. 

RE: And do you still think that improving criminal background checks and making it more difficult for criminals and the mentally ill to get guns are the two best legislative solutions?

AW: They’re the best legislative solutions to try to bring down the daily death toll from violence. They’re not necessarily the best solutions to stop mass shootings problems, because, like I said, mass shooters tend to get their guns legally and because they generally don’t have a criminal record. 

RE: So what do you think is the gun control answer to mass shootings?

AW: I don’t know if there is a gun control answer to mass shootings. People are lawfully getting their guns. We made the decision that we’re going to have guns in our society, with the Second Amendment. If you’re really determined to shoot a lot of people, you’re probably going to be able to get your hands on a gun. That’s why I’d say we work on the universal background check and other ways to reduce the daily death toll with guns. That’s where our reform efforts should be focused. That’s where we can make some headway, and that’s the real problem.

Hillary, Jeb and 9/11

Of all the places to be when Donald Trump said George W. Bush bore some responsibility for 9/11, I happened to be at the National September 11 Memorial Museum in Manhattan.

It’s pretty hard to stand beside a wall marked by 2,983 tiles — each painted a different shade of blue to symbolize the number of victims lost both in the 2001 attacks and in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing — and understand what Jeb Bush meant when he said his brother “kept us safe.”

The concrete wall serves as a repository for some 8,000 victims’ remains. Spelled out across its face, in letters made from metal recovered from the site, is a line from Virgil’s “Aenaid”: “No Day Shall Erase You From the Memory of Time.”

Jeb wasn’t trying to erase the victims’ names, God forbid, from memory. But he was trying to erase our memory of time itself. His brother had been president for nine months before Sept. 11, 2001. He did not keep us safe.

How much responsibility does George W. Bush bear for what happened that day? We still can’t be sure. But the answer is more than what his brother and defenders think — which is none — and less than what his critics would like to believe — 100 percent. The same is true for Hillary Clinton’s husband, Bill. Both the Clinton and Bush administrations passed up opportunities to take more forceful action against Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda.

Their lapses, failures, screw-ups and neglect have been well documented by intelligence officials, journalists and historians. The 9/11 Commission Report itself includes an implicit criticism of the former presidents. 

“Given the character and pace of their policy efforts,” wrote the authors, “we do not believe they fully understood just how many people al-Qaeda might kill, and how soon it might do it.”

This is what the commission was referring to when it gently termed 9/11 a result of inadequate imagination, policy and planning.

The 9/11 museum organizers had to thread a similar political needle, but they stuck it into the wall. As you go through the exhibition hall, the first displays are of the massive loss and damage: severed columns, a length of I-beam twisted back on itself as if it were a willow twig. If that’s what happens to steel, your mind is forced to ponder the fate of human flesh. 

Just as the carnage pushes you to ask how and why, the exhibition focuses on the perpetrators, al-Qaeda, and the American government. Against one wall, at about shin level, is a reproduction of the Aug. 6, 2001, memo Bush received, titled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in the United States.”

The description of the redacted memo takes pains to indicate that it is just one of dozens of such warnings and memos a president receives, and it contained no specifics as to a time and place. To some people, that earns Bush a pass. To others, it begs the question: Isn’t leadership about setting priorities and knowing where to focus? The No. 1 job of the federal government is the security of the United States. Bush didn’t make the al-Qaeda threat a priority.

We’ll never know what the results would have been if Bush had told the State Department official who carried the Aug. 6 memo to his Texas ranch, “I’m gonna get on this.” Instead, he took the memo, infamously said, “All right, you’ve covered your ass, now,” and carried on with business as usual.

But let’s do a thought experiment: If 9/11 happened nine months into an Obama administration, does anyone really think Jeb Bush would be saying, in that case, “Obama kept us safe?” And does anyone think Obama wouldn’t acknowledge, as George W. Bush never has, his share of responsibility? Our nation’s toxic political discourse poisons the chance for an honest, dispassionate assessment of our failures. 

Why this all matters becomes achingly apparent as you walk through the 9/11 memorial. The individual names inscribed in the reverse fountains that mark the footprint where the Twin Towers stood are haunting. But what stopped me in my tracks was a firefighter’s hatchet on display. Recovered under the rubble, it was scarred by fire, twisted, the metal deeply pitted by debris. It told the whole story of the unfathomable courage of the 411 first responders who died in the collapse. We owe the dead a full accounting.

And this, too, is the lesson of the memorial: If it happened once, it could happen again.

Suicide terrorism is a part of modern life. It happened again in Israel this week, last week in Iraq, before that in Turkey. Whether it is a woman with a knife, a boy with a vest or 19 men on four jumbo jets, the threat is not going away anytime soon. We now live in a world where we can’t afford, not for a second, for our imagination to fail us. 

If Hillary and Jeb can’t discuss how Bill and George could have done a better job keeping us safe, then how can we trust them to do better? And how can Jeb imagine the next attack if he can’t even imagine his brother saying, “I’m sorry”?

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

Jon Stewart lobbies for 9/11 first responder benefits on Capitol Hill

Jon Stewart lobbied members of Congress to extend benefits to workers and first responders who were injured or sickened by the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

The former host of “The Daily Show” spoke to Ground Zero first responders, advocates and other Sept. 11 survivors at a rally outside the Capitol building on Wednesday. Later in the day he joined them in going door to door to talk to individual lawmakers about the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, which allotted federal funds for the care of rescue workers but is set to expire at the end of the month.

“I want to apologize to all the men and women, first responders, that you had to come down here today,” Stewart said at the rally. “I’m embarrassed that you, after serving so selflessly with such heroism, have to come down here and convince people to do what’s right for the illnesses and difficulties that you suffered because of your heroism and because of your selflessness.”

The health care law, which provides medical monitoring and treatment to the first responders, was passed in 2011 but was limited to five years as part of a compromise with Senate Republicans.

Republican leaders are considering an extension of the law but have not been specific as to when they plan to address it.

A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who voted againstpassing the law in 2010, told USA Today that “Congress intends to extend [the law], and the committees of jurisdiction are already at work on that.”

Stewart left “The Daily Show” last month. Comedian Trevor Noah takes over as host on Sept. 28.

Personal grief, national grief and how we remember

It’s that time of year again, when I feel less like a citizen of Los Angeles and more like the New Yorker I was before my Western migration seven years ago. A look at the calendar, a clear blue sky, a helicopter circling overhead all cause an idiopathic pang that transports me back to a Tuesday in New York City, in September 2001. 

Even though I was on the Upper West Side, “safe” from the carnage at ground zero, life throughout the city was torn apart, as if we’d fractured the space-time continuum — “Back to the Future”-style — transported into a post-9/11 reality no one could have imagined. I remember watching buildings collapse on live TV while I was on the phone with my mother. I remember the days that followed in Manhattan, how garbage pickup and transportation took a noticeable hit, and how we cried more, made more eye contact and were more neighborly — all as the faces of the “lost” smiled out at us from posters on buildings and lampposts. 

In the years since the twin towers were felled by planes (and another two planes crashed, one into a field in Pennsylvania and the other into the Pentagon), I have created my own ritual of remembrance. I wake up early every Sept. 11. I listen as the names are recited on CNN. I read reflections from friends and family members who still post about the day, five, 10, now 14 years afterward. I repost my own story for anyone who still hasn’t heard it or who wants to again. If I have new reflections — like I did the year I lost my mother — I write them down and share them on social media.

But since I’ve lived in L.A., I’ve also felt a growing distance. There is now an expanse of time, as well as a massive physical space, between the incident and my here and now. In Los Angeles, I’m far from the geography that is the most affected by memory. And I know that distance from a loss can cause detachment. 

When we grieve a loss that’s close to us, we are part of a small circle of bereavement. Within the circle, life is interrupted, irrevocably altered; outside, the world continues to turn, seemingly un-, or  minimally, affected. At those people, we want to shout, “What is wrong with you? Don’t you understand that everything’s different now?” But we don’t, because we know that though emotionally true, acting out isn’t socially helpful: Railing against personal tragedy helps nothing. As we learn to absorb the grief, to dull its most dangerously sharp edges and begin to coexist with it, we find ways to remember that seem more constructive than painful. But it’s still personal. And it’s still with us, even as we return to what seems — to others — like normal.

There are certainly smaller circles of mourners for whom national grief is also personal. But the vast majority of us are — though concentric to the loss — more remote from the epicenter. Our sadness is more general; our depression feels more external, happening to us instead of emerging from within us. Quickly, we harness that feeling in the service of creating communal memory; being more removed from the loss enables us to be functional and pragmatic. And once we’ve attended a memorial event, erected a museum or instituted an annual day of remembrance, we go back to our lives. 

Unless we’re talking about the Holocaust. As Jewish children, we are exposed to the images, facts, figures and stories from a young age. As a community, we invoke the vigilance of memory, shout that we should “never forget,” and that if we assimilate, we’re “finishing what Hitler started.” Even if our immediate family members aren’t technically Holocaust survivors, and even while 70 years have passed, the Holocaust still feels omnipresent and personal. And we’re told over and over again to resist the complacency of our comfortable American lives, reminded to believe that “it can happen here.”

Recently, when Natalie Portman said she believes American Jews put too much educational emphasis on the Holocaust, headlines trumpeted this as a betrayal. But what her remarks really indicate is that, to her, the Holocaust is not important only as a memory, but also as a cause to action, an impetus to speak up for all of the oppressed. “We need it to serve as something that makes us empathetic to people rather than paranoid,” Portman said in a number of the many articles reporting her comments. She wasn’t saying, “Don’t study the Holocaust,” or “The Holocaust is just like any other instance of genocide, ethnic cleansing or persecution.” She was calling for us to import the lessons of the Holocaust, to take stands on other terrifying world events that are still happening, where we maybe still can make a difference. 

With the 15th anniversary of 9/11 now a year away, I find myself asking questions about time, grief and memory. Personal grief, at least in Jewish life, has a defined halachic duration, although the emotional impact is far more longitudinal. When it comes to the Holocaust, we’ve been charged to “never forget.” But how long are we supposed to dwell in a national tragic memory like 9/11, which involves Jews, but isn’t about Jewish persecution? 

Like Portman, I, too, wish to qualify that I’m not drawing an equal sign between two tragedies — the Holocaust and 9/11 are both immense, but very different events in scope, origin and duration. But I do want to suggest that we examine the way we remember the Holocaust while considering how we choose to remember things, especially if we weren’t there ourselves. 

Can we look to our tradition, our liturgy or our history to find precedents of how to remember? Do we bentsch gomel, thanking God for the distance between us and the tragedy? Is there a special El Male Rachamim prayer for the souls of those who died? Do we create memorials and art installations and official days of remembrance with ceremonies? Do we light yahrzeit candles, say Kaddish and seek out stories so that those personal memories become a shared responsibility? Is it important for Jews specifically to connect to the trauma of 9/11, to use it as another catalyst to pursue global justice, or separate from it and move on with our lives — and if we do, do “the terrorists win”? 

Because 9/11 is not Jewishly specific, some might resist the application of Holocaust-associated mourning rituals to this remembrance. Or people might feel that 9/11 happened to America, and it’s up to America to create the spaces for memorializing it. Or maybe, because 14 years is not 70-plus years, it’s still “too soon” for us — as people who were or weren’t there 14 years ago — to determine how we will remember 9/11. I imagine that back in the late 1950s, the educators of the world were still determining the best way to teach and remember World War II, and that their contemporary equivalents are engaged in a similar process regarding 9/11. 

As a writer, I’m thinking about grief and memory. As, until recently, a longtime Jewish nonprofit professional, I heard and read vows of “never again” on a regular basis: On Holocaust Remembrance days and at Iran rallies, in fundraising letters and op-ed columns and High Holy Days sermons. As someone who was in New York City on 9/11 and remembers how close it was to Rosh Hashanah that year, I hear the names of the murdered people as shofar blasts piercing the long moment of silence. As someone who lost her mother back in 2011, I think more than many about how to remember in a way that’s constructive and doesn’t rip out your heart. 

And as someone who thinks and overthinks things, I wonder how tragedies belonging mostly to the collective become personal; how a historic event can become a cause for action; and how stories, memory and media shape the way we share it all.

Esther D. Kustanowitz, a contributing writer to the Jewish Journal, is a writer, editor and consultant with nearly two decades of experience as a Jewish nonprofit professional. She is currently the editorial director of

CIA used Israel to justify torture

This story originally appeared on

The newly-released report by the US Senate Intelligence Committee on the CIA’s use of torture says that CIA lawyers used Israel as a justification for building a legal case for torture of Al-Qaeda suspects after the 9/11 attacks.

Most of the 6000 page-report remains classified. But according to the 528 pages that were released, in November 2001 CIA officers said they wanted legal justification for the interrogation methods they had begun using. The report cites the “Israeli example” that “torture was necessary to prevent imminent, significant, physical harm to persons, where there is no other available means to prevent the harm.” 

Israeli government spokesmen chose not to comment on the report. But an official at the Public Committee against Torture in Israel explained the “necessity defense” which is used against Palestinian suspects.

In 1987, the Landau Commission recommended that interrogators be allowed to use “moderate physical pressure” in cases where psychological pressure was not effective. That ruling was overturned in 1999 by the Supreme Court.

“The Supreme Court ruled in 1999 that torture is unacceptable in Israel and then went on to detail various things that fall under the purview of torture,” Rachel Stroumsa, project manager at the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel told The Media Line. “The ruling left a loophole in what it called the “ticking bomb” situation.”

A “ticking bomb” means that a suspect knows where a bomb has been planted that is set to explode. In those cases, torture can be used to discover the place of the bomb.

“It means that if an interrogator feels compelled to use torture by necessity, he will be covered legally,” Stroumsa said. “You can’t get approval in advance for these cases.”

She said her organization deals with 100 – 150 cases per year, although she believes there are many more instances. Many Palestinians are afraid to come forward, afraid they or their family members will be arrested and tortured again.

Israeli officials say that intelligence interrogators are given clear instructions not to use torture, and that it is only used in extreme cases. However, Palestinian rights groups have claimed that some elements of what they call torture such as sleep deprivation are routinely used. Much of the evidence against a Palestinian prisoner is sealed and not presented in open court for security reasons.

The report also quotes the CIA attorney who referred to the “ticking bomb” scenario and said that “enhanced techniques could not be pre-approved for such situations, but if worst comes to worst, an officer who engaged in such activities could assert a common-law necessity defense if he were every prosecuted.”

Israel is also mentioned in another context. According to the report, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the al-Qa’ida official who planned the 9/11 attacks reportedly told his interrogators abut plans to carry out attacks on various targets including “an Israeli embassy in the Middle East.” Israel has peace treaties and embassies with two countries – Egypt and Jordan.

The legacy of 9/11 hero Danny Lewin

At the center of the 9/11 attacks against the United States by Islamofascist terror, an unlikely hero played a largely unknown role. He sacrificed his life in an attempt to stop the hijacking of one of the planes that later crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. He was an Israeli-American and his role has remained largely ignored and unacknowledged.

Danny Lewin was an American-Israeli, a world-class Internet entrepreneur, and the very first person to be murdered by the al-Qaeda barbarians on Sept. 11, 2001. He was aboard the American Airlines Flight 11 plane out of Boston headed for Los Angeles when it was hijacked by the terrorists. A veteran of the special forces in the Israeli army, Lewin quickly understood what was going down. He spoke fluent Arabic and knew what the terrorists were saying. He single-handedly attempted to attack and subdue the terrorists. He was stabbed to death on the plane by terrorist Satam al-Suqami, a Saudi law student. Lewin was 31 years old when he was murdered.

A new biography of the hero of 9/11, written by Molly Knight Raskin, is now in book stores; it is titled “No Better Time: The Brief, Remarkable Life of Danny Lewin, the Genius Who Transformed the Internet.” 

Lewin grew up in Denver and immigrated to Israel with his family in 1984, three years after I did the same. His parents were devoted Zionists and passionate about their Jewishness. While exempt from military service in Israel on grounds that he had recently immigrated, Danny insisted on serving anyhow, and in the country’s most challenging military unit at that. He served in the ultra-elite special forces combat unit called Sayeret Matkal. 

Lewin attended the Technion in Haifa, where in 1995 he was named the year’s Outstanding Student in Computer Engineering. He then worked for IBM in developing high-tech products, later doing graduate work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). There he became the protégé of the legendary MIT professor F. Thomson Leighton. According to Raskin, “The more Lewin got to know Leighton, the more professionally enamored he became, routinely telling friends he’d met the ‘smartest man in the world.’ ” The two developed mathematical algorithms for optimizing Internet traffic. These became the basis for Akamai Technologies, which the two founded in 1998. Lewin served as the company’s chief technology officer and a board member. The company went public in 1999 and its stock market valuation rose rapidly to $345 billion. Lewin was posthumously named one of the most influential high-tech figures in the world. Much of Raskin’s book details his career in advanced high technology. He was not only the first victim of the 9/11 terror — he was also its wealthiest and most successful victim. Raskin writes:

“An executive summary mistakenly leaked by the Federal Aviation Administration to the press stated that terrorist Satam al-Suqami shot and killed Lewin with a single bullet around 9:20 a.m. (obviously a typo, as the plane crashed at 8:46 a.m.). But almost as soon as the memo was leaked, FAA officials claimed it was written in error, and that Lewin was more than likely stabbed, not shot. The 9/11 Commission concurred, offering a more detailed summary: based on dozens of interviews with those who spoke with flight attendants Madeline Sweeney and Betty Ong, the commission determined that al-Suqami most likely killed Lewin by slashing him in the throat from behind as he attempted to stop the hijacking. The time of his death was reported to be somewhere between 8:15 and 8:20 a.m., which — if fact — would make Lewin the first victim of the 9/11 attacks.”

After his death, the intersection of Main and Vassar streets in Cambridge, Mass., was renamed Danny Lewin Square in his honor. He left behind a widow and two sons.

Lewin’s life captures everything positive about the American-Israeli collaboration in education, high technology and military strategy. He also epitomizes the world struggle against barbarism.

This column first appeared in FrontPage Magazine and is reprinted with the permission of Steven Plaut.

Steven Plaut is a native Philadelphian who teaches business finance and economics at the University of Haifa in Israel. He holds a doctorate in economics from Princeton. He is author of the David Horowitz Freedom Center booklets about Hamas and “Jewish Enablers of the War Against Israel.”

U.N. official pins blame for Boston Marathon bombing on ‘Tel Aviv’

Richard Falk, an official for the U.N. Human Rights Council, in an online commentary blamed the Boston Marathon bombing on “Tel Aviv.”

“(A)s long as Tel Aviv has the compliant ear of the American political establishment, those who wish for peace and justice in the world should not rest easy,” Falk, the council's special rapporteur on the Palestinian territories, wrote in an Op-Ed posted to the online Foreign Policy Journal on Tuesday.

Falk, who has said the George W. Bush administration was complicit in the 9/11 attacks, also called the Boston attack “retribution” for the actions of the U.S. military in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan.

“The American global domination project is bound to generate all kinds of resistance in the post-colonial world,” Falk wrote. “In some respects, the United States has been fortunate not to experience worse blowbacks, and these may yet happen, especially if there is no disposition to rethink US relations to others in the world, starting with the Middle East.”

In recent months, Falk published an anti-Semitic cartoon on his blog and called for a boycott of Israel.

B'nai B'rith International called for Falk's removal from the Human Rights Council, saying that his ” latest string of inflammatory remarks — whether it be on the Internet or in one of his 'reports' to the council — has no place in the United Nations and his continued presence at the UNHRC further undermines the credibility of the system.”

Hillel Neuer, executive director of UN Watch, sent a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, calling on them to condemn Falk's “odious and preposterous” remarks.

Criticism is not Islamophobia

Criticism is the oxygen of journalism. Here at the Jewish Journal, we will criticize anything that we believe deserves criticism, including religion. We will criticize preachers who use Christianity to express hatred and bigotry toward gays as much as we will criticize religious Jews who use the Torah to humiliate women rabbis wearing prayer shawls at the Western Wall.

Personally, I’ve shown my revulsion at some of the stuff written in the Torah — like the admonition to stone your son to death if he desecrates the Sabbath—and I’ve railed against missionary Christians who twist the Torah in order to convert Jews.

But I have to confess — like most of the mainstream media in America, I’ve been very reluctant to criticize Islam.

When, several years ago, virtually every American paper refused to publish satirical cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, I should have criticized that response. I understood that fear and intimidation probably played a role, given the riots that followed their publication in a Danish paper.

But it’s not as if the media has ever been afraid to publish cartoons that make fun of Jesus or Moses or Buddha — so why should they single out Muhammad for special treatment?

If you ask me, I think it’s time we stop walking on eggshells with Islam.

It’s not healthy. This notion that any critique of Islam equates to Islamophobia is absurd and patronizing. It says to Muslims: “We criticize Judaism and Christianity because we think they can handle it, but we don’t think you can.” That’s insulting to Islam and to Muslims.

Every religion needs a good dose of criticism. That’s how they improve and become more human. That’s how they shed their outdated and immoral layers, like slavery and oppression of women. Where would Judaism be today without the centuries of relentless self-reflection and self-criticism that goes on to this day?

How could it be wrong or Islamophobic to criticize a religious text that might justify the stoning to death of women or the killing of infidels?

After terror attacks that appear to have an Islamic connection, such as last week’s Boston massacre, we often hear defensive talk about how Islam is a “religion of peace.” To back this up, Muslim commentators like to quote a verse in the Koran (Surah 5, verse 32) that mentions the Talmudic idea that if you kill one human being, it is as if you have killed an entire world.

The problem, though, is that commentators usually fail to mention the verse that immediately follows, which is anything but peaceful: “The punishment of those who wage war against Allah and His messenger and strive to make mischief in the land is only this, that they should be murdered or crucified or their hands and their feet should be cut off on opposite sides or they should be imprisoned; this shall be as a disgrace for them in this world, and in the hereafter they shall have a grievous chastisement.”

Verse 32 works for me. Verse 33 turns my stomach.

The way I see it, the future of Islam and its reputation in the world will hinge on which verse will win out—verse 32 or verse 33.

So far, it looks like the wrong verse is winning. Since 9/11, close to 20,000 acts of terrorism have been recorded throughout the world under the name of Islam, many of those against Muslims themselves.

It’s suicidal and counterproductive for the world to pretend that violence-prone religious texts like verse 33 do not exist, especially if those texts are used to instigate violence against “infidels” and other mischief-makers.

Religions shouldn’t get an automatic pass at respect. They have to earn it. If you’re a member of a religion where some members use the religion as an excuse to kill people, your job is not to convince me that you’re a religion of peace, but to convince your co-religionists who are actually doing the killing.

It’s ironic that verse 32 borrows from Jewish texts. Muslims who believe in that peaceful verse might want to borrow something else from the Jews: a big mouth.

These Muslims of verse 32 have been too quiet for too long. If they want the world to show more respect for their cherished religion, they must rise up and make more noise against their violent minority who believe in verse 33.

There’s no dishonor in self-criticism. Jews do it all the time. Maybe that’s why you don’t see much criticism of Islam in Jewish papers—we’re too busy criticizing ourselves.

But criticism is not an end in itself– it must lead to results. The Muslims of verse 32 must win the moral battle against the Muslims of verse 33, even if it takes a century. And they must not recoil at criticism that may come from outsiders who have good intentions. In fact, they must use it to shame their violent cohorts.

Constructive criticism of violent texts is not Islamophobia. It’s the beginning of positive change. Painting all criticism of Islam with the Islamophobic brush is just as wrong as painting all Muslims with a violent brush. It suffocates debate and the very process of evolution.

To borrow from another Jewish mantra, constructive criticism is good for the Jews, good for the Muslims and good for the world.

‘Zero Dark’ writer faces the controversy

The time: 2003. The place: Black Site — Undisclosed Location. A battered man strung up by his wrists is being questioned by an interrogator. When he refuses to answer, he is forced to the ground and held down by three men wearing ski masks. A black towel is wrapped around his face, and the interrogator pours water from a pitcher over the towel while shouting questions at his prisoner: “Who is in the Saudi group? What’s the target? When is the last time you saw bin Laden?”  

This is the act of torture that is known as water boarding. And in an Oscar season filled with controversies, it is this scene — which takes place early in the multiple-nominated film “Zero Dark Thirty,” about the hunt for Osama bin Laden — that has created the most heated debates and angry protests, from the halls of the motion picture academy in Beverly Hills to the chambers of Congress in Washington, D.C. At the center of the controversy stands the film’s director, Kathryn Bigelow, and its screenwriter, Mark Boal, the same creative team who produced the 2009 Academy Award winner for best picture, “The Hurt Locker.”  

Boal, who also won the best original screenplay Oscar for “The Hurt Locker,” is nominated again this year for his “Zero Dark Thirty” script, while Bigelow was snubbed in the best-director category. The omission, many believe, may be at least in part due to the film’s appearance of supporting the efficacy of torture.  

Boal, who worked as a journalist for 20 years, moved into the film business when an article he wrote became the basis of the 2007 Iraq War-related film “In the Valley of Elah.” During his time as an embedded reporter in Iraq, he said, he also gained firsthand insights for his work on “The Hurt Locker.” For “Zero Dark Thirty,” however, Boal relied on information from people closely involved in the bin Laden operation, who supplied him with “firsthand accounts of actual events,” as stated at the opening of the film.

A scene from “Zero Dark Thirty.”  Photo by Jonathan Olley/©2012 Zero Dark Thirty

When he began the project, Boal’s script was about the failed hunt for bin Laden in Tora Bora, Afghanistan, but that version was shelved when the terrorist leader was killed by Navy SEALs on May 2, 2011. As a result of the news, Boal started fresh, telling the story that led up to that day.  

As with all feature films based on fact, Boal struggled with the delicate balancing act of staying true to the story while having to create a workable screenplay. “Storytelling is kind of universal, but screenwriting is its own craft,” he explained. “ ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ was based on some research that I did, but it’s also a written document; it’s not a documentary, it’s a screenplay. I talked to a lot of people who were involved in the mission and double-sourced information, but I approached it as a screenwriter. There’s homework and research to do, but I’m writing parts for actors, and, in this case, a story that follows one main character over 10 years.

“There are over 100 speaking parts in the film,” he added. “But, at the same time, it’s doubly challenging because it has to be honest and faithful to what actually happened. In some ways, this story would probably be easier to tell if it was pure fiction.”

Even so, Boal said, “I found it an exciting story to work on because of the dedication and the complexity and the morality and immorality and the excitement of the hunt. All that makes for good drama.” 

The torture scenes depicted in the film have been aggressively attacked from two sides: Some claim the film endorses the efficacy of torture, while others complain that the scenes are presented as more brutal than what actually occurred. 

But Boal thinks both miss the point. “The political point is that this work was carried out by people without regard to politics one way or another. It was carried out by civil servants, not by Republicans or Democrats,” he said. “But of course that’s the last thing they want to talk about in Washington. And the real point is that the country and Washington have to face that they’re culpable for what they did. Rather than bash the movie for depicting the policies that they implemented, they should have a frank discussion about it. The torture that’s in the film is still relevant. To see that these kinds of harsh punishments are still going on — not in the exact same way, but it’s always convenient to bash Hollywood instead of actually doing the hard policy work of going down the hall and seeing what could be done, for example, to stop doing business with countries that torture people.”

The fact that “Zero Dark Thirty” has been the subject of both public and secret investigations by Congress does not surprise Boal, who also believes the attention has helped bring audiences out to see the film. “That’s what they do in Washington. They use things to create publicity platforms for themselves. They’re politicians,” Boal said. “I think at the end of the day I find it gratifying that people go out and see the movie and have a solid or moving movie experience. I can’t change Washington, and I wouldn’t ever begin to try.” 

So far, Boal’s three films — “In the Valley of Elah,” “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty” — all have focused on events surrounding the war on terror. And though he said he has no definite plans to continue exploring that subject matter, he hopes others will continue down that road. 

“I think all three of these movies are important subjects for Hollywood to explore, and I hope there are other movies about them. But what movies can do that other mediums cannot do, is reach a broad public audience, and Hollywood has a responsibility to make films about tough subjects and not just superheroes.”

Shapiro at 9/11 ceremony: U.S. won’t allow Iran to have nuclear weapon

U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro said that the United States “would not permit Iran to be armed with a nuclear weapon.”

He made his remarks Tuesday during a ceremony near Jerusalem to remember the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks.

The ceremony by the U.S. Embassy in Israel and the KKL-Jewish National Fund was held at the Living Memorial monument in the Arazim Park outside of Jerusalem. The memorial contains all the names of the nearly 3,000 victims of the attack, including the five Israeli victims.

Shapiro called the attacks “a pain that perhaps dulls with time but never truly leaves us.”

“There is no nation that better understands our pain, and there is no nation that better identifies with our experience than Israel,” Shapiro said.

He also said that: “An Iran armed with a nuclear weapon is an unacceptable threat, and we will not permit it to be realized.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, during a joint press conference Tuesday with Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, also marked the Sept. 11 attack.

“Today is Sept. 11th. So we commemorate the greatest terror attack of all time. We know that this malignancy threatens the entire world. And we know that the free countries and the principled countries have to stand together to defeat it. And we know that we have, with you, such a partnership, and I have no doubt that we shall prevail,” he said.

Five Israeli tourists and the tour bus driver were killed on July 18 when a suicide bomber attacked the bus shortly after the group's arrival at the airport in Burgas, Bulgaria.

Kenneth Feinberg: The 9/11 mediator who listens

When massive tragedy strikes in the United States, when half a dozen or a score or thousands of people are killed in a single incident, when disaster hits a region, Kenneth Feinberg often gets a call.

The Washington attorney is perhaps best known for his work as the administrator of the fund that paid restitution to the families of 9/11 victims and the one that compensated individuals and businesses harmed by the BP Oil spill in 2010, but his phone rings on all sorts of unhappy occasions, most recently in the wake of the shooting at a Wisconsin Sikh temple in August.

They call Feinberg because he has made a career in mediation, dealing with particularly complicated situations involving death, environmental disaster and financial upheaval. They call him because he’s been called “Solomonic” on more than a few occasions — a label that Feinberg rejects — and because he has demonstrated an ability to exercise and implement good, fair judgments.

But as Jews around the world, Feinberg included, prepare for another season of holidays centered on the theme of judgment, it’s notable that a major element of Feinberg’s process is something deceptively simple: He listens.

“When you have face-to-face meetings, you give victims an opportunity to vent, and they welcome that opportunity to vent,” Feinberg said, speaking to the Journal by phone from his Washington, D.C., office in August. “I find that these one-on-one meetings are very important in convincing claimants in grief about the bona fides of the program that you’re trying to run.”

Feinberg was referring to the more than 900 meetings he had in the aftermath of 9/11 with families of victims, a process he repeated in administering a much smaller fund compensating the victims injured and families of victims killed in the 2007 shooting on the campus of Virginia Tech. In both cases, Feinberg remembered that most of the people who chose to meet with him did not talk about dollars and cents, but came to tell stories, sometimes with photo albums and mementos in hand, “in order to validate — on the record, in writing, face-to-face — the memory, the good works of a lost loved one.”

In compensating individuals in the wake of tragedy, Feinberg has found the meetings to be essential, because they show that somebody is listening.

“There is an individual — not a bureaucratic device, but there is an actual human being listening to what I have to say about my dead wife or husband or brother or sister, son or daughter,” he said.

Individual meetings aren’t always possible, particularly when dealing with large numbers of claimants who have all suffered different kinds of damages, as Feinberg did when he administered the Gulf Coast Claims Facility, which paid out more than $6.14 billion from BP to more than 500,000 claimants from all 50 states and 38 foreign countries.

But in many instances, direct listening in face-to-face meetings can have a strategic purpose, as well. In his role as the U.S. Treasury Department’s “pay czar,” tasked with setting the compensation of 175 high-ranking executives at the largest of the financial firms bailed out by the American taxpayers in 2009, Feinberg heard petitions from CEOs, CFOs and their lawyers.

That role was a distinct reversal for Feinberg. “There I was fixing the compensation of alleged, not victims, but perpetrators, who had caused the 2009 financial meltdown,” Feinberg said.

Which is why, as he wrote in his book “Who Gets What: Fair Compensation After Tragedy and Financial Upheaval,” published by Public Affairs earlier this year, one of the ground rules Feinberg set for the meetings with the executives of bailed-out companies was that they had to take place in Washington, D.C.

The Tribute in Light is illuminated marking the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, on Sept. 10. Photo by REUTERS/Gary Hershorn

“As an experienced mediator, I knew the importance of conducting meetings in the most effective venue,” Feinberg wrote. The “lavish and imposing” Treasury Building fit his aim perfectly, making immediately clear to the corporate officials “that they were up against a formidable negotiating partner — the federal government.”

In their own ways, the meetings Feinberg had with the companies’ officials didn’t focus on money — or at least not the immediate exchange value of money.

As the “special master” of an office in the Treasury Department overseeing executive compensation, Feinberg and his staff were dictating to these seven companies the exact amount they could pay their top employees. The goal was to balance the interests of the executives and the firms, who wanted to be able to compete on hiring with other corporations, against those of the taxpayers and congress, who had loaned these companies billions of dollars and wanted that money repaid as quickly as possible and in full but who also wouldn’t tolerate excessively lavish compensation.

In the meetings with executives, Feinberg said that the conversations were never about money or material gain — “I need money to buy another summer home, I need money to send my kinds to private school” — but instead were about compensation as a “litmus test of self-worth or integrity or contribution to society.”

“ ‘Look, Mr. Feinberg,’ ” Feinberg said, recalling the executives’ emotional pleas, “ ‘what you’re paying me demeans my value to society, it demeans my value to the community, to my family. You are getting very personal; you are reducing my compensation, thereby diminishing my overall self worth.’ ”

Feinberg’s ultimate decisions were, in his words, “very cold and calculating.”

“I looked at statistics governing compensation — what is a CFO worth, or a CEO worth — studied the competitive pay scale of others similarly situated, looked at what incentives should be incorporated into a compensation package, and calculated the actual awards,” he said.

In administering the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund — which Feinberg said is still the most challenging assignment he’s ever faced — Feinberg’s meetings were very different. They took place all over the country, often in the offices of law firms. And while the meetings were essential to convincing some of the families of victims (particularly those of the wealthier victims) to join the fund and not litigate their claims in court, it’s clear that the emotional tenor made them difficult for Feinberg.

“Unless you have a heart of stone, you can’t remain dispassionate,” he said. “You try and … limit the impact of that emotion, but you cannot help but be affected by the death and tragedy involved.”

And, Feinberg learned, people react differently — unpredictably, even — to tragedy. The group meetings he held for victims’ families in California, Feinberg said, were “very touchy-feely,” particularly in contrast to the meetings he’d held in New York and Virginia.

“Everybody wanted to hold hands and pray collectively and to reinforce each other,” Feinberg recalled.

And if half of the families of 9/11 victims decided that the tragedy had “ended, once and for all, any belief they may have had in God or religion or an afterlife,” the other half, Feinberg said, told him that “the tragedies reinforced their religion and their beliefs.”

“Do not attempt to predict human nature,” Feinberg said.

Feinberg doesn’t keep in touch with the families of victims, nor does he have a particular way of commemorating the anniversary of 9/11. This year, on the 11th anniversary of the attacks, Feinberg was scheduled to speak at a conference organized by an insurance group in Canada.

On Rosh Hashanah, Feinberg said, he would be thinking about the future, not the past.

“I think about the year to come, in hopes that I and my family can enjoy health and happiness,” Feinberg said. “And on Yom Kippur, I sort of muse and reflect on the year gone by and what I could’ve done differently, or better.”

Feinberg described himself as “a believer,” so it seemed fair to ask him whether he feels that there is a listener to his prayers.

“I don’t put it in those terms, is someone listening,” Feinberg replied. “I’m hoping that — by raising the level of thought to a conscious level, so that I’m actually reflecting on the past and the future — I’m listening. And I think that’s what’s important.”

Religious groups urge understanding following Sikh Temple shooting

Religious groups are calling for tolerance after six people were killed in a shooting attack at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin.

The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbis for Human Rights-North America, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and the Rabbinical Assembly of Conservative Judaism have joined with Shoulder to Shoulder, a national religious, faith-based and interfaith organization, to encourage Americans to join special services with their local Sikh communities in the wake of Sunday’s shooting outside of Milwaukee.

“As we wait for further information regarding the motive of the shooter, we reiterate our deep commitment to a United States that is able to tolerate and respect the many religious traditions that live together in this great country,” Christina Warner, campaign director for Shoulder to Shoulder, said in a statement. “The tragedy in Milwaukee shows painfully the need for Americans of all faiths to learn about one another and embrace the diverse religious tapestry of the United States.”

Along with the deaths, at least three people, including a police officer, were injured in the attack.

The Anti-Defamation League condemned the violence and reached out to the Sikh community at a national level to express concern, condolences and solidarity, as well as offer its resources and guidance on institutional security and response in the aftermath of a hate crime.

“Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, ADL and law enforcement officials have documented many apparent ‘backlash crimes’ directed at Muslim, Sikh, and Arab Americans,” said ADL National Director Abraham Foxman. “We have raised concern about a spike in bigotry against Muslims and others perceived to be of Middle Eastern origin. This attack is another gruesome reminder that bigotry and hate against those whose religion makes them ‘different’ or ‘other’ can have deadly consequences.”

The U.S. Department of Justice has investigated more than 800 incidents since 9/11 involving violence, threats, vandalism and arson against Arab Americans, Muslims, Sikhs, South-Asian Americans and other individuals perceived to be of Middle Eastern origin.

Iran, Taliban and al-Qaida owe $6 billion to 9/11 victims’ families, U.S. court says

A U.S. district court recommended that Iran, the Taliban and al-Qaida pay $6 billion in compensation to the families of the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

The symbolic decision came Monday in New York as a recommendation in response to a lawsuit brought by relatives of 47 victims that was decided in the relatives’ favor last year, according to The Associated Press.

“It’s hard being happy, but I am happy about it,” plaintiff Ellen Saracini, wife of one of the captains of a plane that hit the World Trade Center, told the AP. “But it opens up old wounds. We were never in it for a lawsuit. I wanted to know what happened to my husband.”

Iran repeatedly has denied any connection to the attacks but gave several of the terrorists passage through the country, according to AP.

Up close and personal with the TSA

Recent days have been full of continually unfolding reports about a new intercepted underwear bomb intended to be carried aboard a U.S.-bound plane by an al-Qaida agent. That agent, said to be British, turned out to be working simultaneously with Saudi and U.S. intelligence, and the bomb never got near a plane. But as I prepared last week to board a flight to Alaska, where I would be participating in a conference devoted to the ethical work of Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, I couldn’t help but wonder what role this newly acquired knowledge will play in upcoming discussions about airport security and the effectiveness of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

Even though the TSA’s screening program played no part in thwarting this potential terrorist attack, the question of whether the existence of this bomb will help justify continuing the enormous sums of taxpayer money being poured into body-scanning technology has already begun to haunt me.

Over the past decade, something new has come to define the American ethos: fear. It isn’t as if fear had no part of our impulses until this moment, but the heightened fear that the world is a dangerous place has come to characterize the 21st century American mindset. It is a fear upon which we have allowed institutions to prey, so much that, since the events of 9/11, we have stopped asking many questions that still matter.

Jews are taught to question, and I have found that asking the right questions often leads to taking action. I have made a decision not to allow fear to lead my life, and I am committed to questioning any behavior that seems to have its basis in post-9/11 fear mongering. And that is how I came to find myself earlier this year in a face-off with a TSA agent at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). In that moment, I became achingly aware of just how critical — and difficult — it can be not only to ask the right questions, but also to do so even when asking those questions causes inconvenience. Still, simply doing what one is told, for me, is more transgressive and more destructive than inconvenience.

I was traveling from Los Angeles to Boston. My companion and I had made a decision not to submit to the virtual strip-searches routinely conducted by body-scanner machines. We had two reasons: First, the images of nude bodies transmitted by the machines are indecent and immodest. Even the newest auto imaging technology software that claims to obscure the image of the nude body only presents the machine operator with an edited version of the image, while the machine captures the entire image, which can then be stored by governmental and private agencies.

Second, while TSA and creators of the machines tout the safety of body-scanner technology, the truth is that there is no long-term data to confirm these claims. Researchers have challenged these findings, claiming that the amount of radiation is higher than suggested because the doses were calculated as if distributed throughout the entire body, whereas the radiation emitted is focused only on the skin and surrounding tissues. (This also means that if a bomb were carried inside the body, these scanners would not detect it.) The verdict on the safety of body-scanning technology has yet to be delivered. Rather than walk through a machine that may cause harm to my body, I prefer to ask questions. When told to walk through the body scanner, I informed the TSA agent that I could not submit to that form of screening, but that I would walk through a metal detector and have all of my items searched. The next step would be the infamous pat-down. I knew of one man who successfully opted out, and so we decided to see if we, too, could opt out of both.

Image from a full body scanner now used in airports

We could not. As soon as we explained that we could submit to neither the pat down nor the body-scan, the TSA shut down the entire line behind us, effectively decreasing the efficiency of their overall screening procedures and doubling the wait time for other travelers. Members of the LAPD arrived to deal with the “issue”: two people standing shoeless, respectfully asking questions.

The TSA Web site states that travelers are entitled to ask questions about the process, but the more questions we asked, the more we felt we were being penalized. It was an absurd situation in which to find ourselves — I a Jewish Studies professor and my companion a nice Jewish comedy director — and my emotions bordered simultaneously on laughter and tears as I realized with horror that we had created a spectacle. We were being used to create a spectacle of fear in what amounts to little more than the TSA security theater. I shuddered as I realized I was flanked by apathy and fear. People all around us continued to thoughtlessly walk through body-scanners and receive pat-downs. Those who were not altogether apathetic watched us with expressions of fear.

A revelation: It was not security that was being peddled, but rather fear and paranoia, all to create for the public an illusion of security. Do what we say, give us your trust, refrain from questioning us, and you will be safe. But are we safe? Are we safer than we were before the implementation of invasive searches?

In January 2012, the TSA published online a list of the top 10 finds for 2011. Some of these “good catches” include snakes, birds and reptiles; a graduate student’s science experiment that contained a device that looked like it could be an explosive device (it was harmless); inert landmines; a ninja book with two throwing knives (the passenger surrendered the book at the checkpoint because he had forgotten that it was in the carry-on bag); small chunks of inert C4 explosives found in the checked bag of a member of our armed forces who was taking them home as souvenirs; a pistol strapped to the ankle of a 76-year-old man; a flare gun along with seven flares; a stun gun disguised as a smartphone; and a non-metallic martial arts device called a “tactical spike” found in a passenger’s sock.

If it sounds like a list created by The Onion, it was not. This was published by the TSA in support of the strength of its security screening procedures. So let’s break this list down. With the exception of the “tactical spike,” not one of these “top finds” was discovered by a body-scanning device. The pistol would have been easily detected by a metal detector. Further, it is not illegal to travel with firearms, as long as they are declared and not carried on the plane. Typically, passengers carrying undeclared firearms were not arrested, but rather fined. That is, such passengers are suspected not of having terrorist impulses, but of forgetfulness or unintelligent decisions. In the words of the TSA: “Just because we find a prohibited item on an individual does not mean they had bad intentions, that’s for the law enforcement officer to decide. In many cases, people simply forgot they had these items in their bag.”

Now, the landmines: They were, well, inert. They were harmless, as were the small chunks of C4 explosives found in the checked bag of a member of our military. Without a detonator — and it is virtually impossible to carry a functioning detonator through a metal detector — there is nothing that could have been accomplished with the chunks of C4. As for the ninja book with the throwing knives, which the passenger himself surrendered after realizing that it was not in his checked bag, I’m not sure it should be on the list. And while I do not prefer to fly on an airplane with reptilian and avian stowaways, I’m also not sure that doing so would put me in the line of terrorist fire. The intense TSA security screening procedures have been implemented to protect us from the threat of terrorism, not to discover illegal but non-threatening items. I remain unimpressed with the effectiveness of the body-scanning devices and pat-downs. Apparently the experts are equally unimpressed. Rafi Sela, an Israeli airport security expert who helped design security at Ben Gurion International Airport, has said: “I don’t know why everybody is running to buy these expensive and useless machines. I can overcome the body scanners with enough explosives to bring down a Boeing 747. … That’s why we haven’t put them in our airport.”

One brash commenter on the TSA Web site suggests that he would rather the TSA prevent passengers with antibiotic-resistant tuberculosis from flying than confiscate birds, science experiments, unloaded guns, toothpaste and cupcakes. As always, the threat here remains unclear. Given the recent debacles over confiscated toiletries and baked goods, it seems that the greatest fear is that passengers will clean their teeth or develop Type 2 diabetes. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the threat was terrorism. As a result, we allowed many of our rights to be violated in the name of justice and in the hope of preventing another terrorist attack. But what has materialized is the realization that the cost of these procedures to our dignity — not to mention the monetary cost, hundreds of millions of dollars to purchase the machines and maintain them each year — is not worth the mountains of confiscated items.

We all want to fly on safe airplanes. The fallacy is that this must be accomplished by violating our privacy.

In my case, we had to make a decision: insist on ethics and dignity and miss our flight; or accept the pat-down, board our flight, and reclaim our dignity on another day. I opted to fly and found myself standing before a line of 12 to 15 men and one female terminal manager. A female TSA agent began to explain the procedure. I asked her if she would be touching my genitals, and she confirmed that she would be touching my “labia.” I was told to raise my arms, and standing in front of multiple men, my long blouse (which I had worn over black footless tights) was pulled up, exposing my entire bare midriff as well as the bottom portion of my bra. I forced myself to look into the faces of all the men who stood there, bearing witness to my humiliation. I continued to look, as the TSA agent pulled my tights away from my body and ran her fingers around my bare waistline.


The TSA Web site states: “You should neither be asked to nor agree to lift, remove, or raise any article of clothing to reveal a sensitive area of the body,” and, “Bare or exposed skin should not be touched by the security officer.” Both of these regulations were violated in full view of those in charge. Surely, I thought, this must be an anomaly. Driving home to Pico-Robertson from LAX later that week, I experienced a clash of emotions: anger, sadness, shame, humiliation, regret, fear. I was confused. I had a deep sense of having insisted on the “right” thing, but it had gone unrewarded. I felt punished. I asked myself: What, as both a Jew and a human being, is my responsibility? The simple but complex answer is that I am simply responsible. And as I accepted that responsibility, I became a repository for stories more distressing than my own.

A colleague, his wife and their 7-month-old daughter, Hazel, were flying from Charlotte, N.C., to Providence, R.I., for Thanksgiving in 2010. My friend and his wife discussed refusing the scanner, but considering the difficulty of making a 14-hour car ride with a baby, his wife insisted that they “comply.” Out of respect for his wife’s desire to get home for her first Thanksgiving with her new baby, my friend agreed to undergo whatever invasion of privacy the TSA insisted on. He went through the metal detector after disassembling his daughter’s stroller. While he reassembled it on the other side, the agents asked his wife to remove their daughter’s pink cardigan sweater-vest. The mother complied, and the agent felt Hazel’s little torso, presumably for an explosive device.

When asked how he felt about the pat-down of his baby girl, my friend responded: “I don’t know. I’m still telling the story, which probably gives some indication of how I feel. It’s an unnamed feeling, and I have nothing to compare it to — something having to do with violation of what makes me, and all of us, human. I would prefer to put my daughter on a hundred flights that involved no security check at all to even dreaming about a stranger patting her down for explosives again.”

The next time the family flew, they passed through the metal detectors unmolested. But my colleague will never forget watching the family in front of them: “I watched the passive father, who was watching his 14-year-old daughter with her arms extended and her feet shoulders width apart while a TSA agent, a woman, with disposable plastic gloves felt around the young girl’s waistband. Needless to say, I wish I hadn’t seen it, and I’m glad I didn’t make eye contact with that father.”

It occurs to me that it is one thing to allow one’s own dignity to be violated. It is quite another to watch that dignity being stripped from our children. My friend cannot stop saying to himself: It’s not just another policy. He continues: “I disagree with 90 percent of what the American government turns into law, but I always felt myself emotionally tied to my country — that was never a question for me. Until the thing with Hazel. Now I’m indifferent. I’m a husband, a father, a pseudo-Buddhist-Gnostic-Christian — but the America that my grandpas fought for in World War II — that’s a thing of the past, to me. I’m over it. When the revolutionaries come looking for support, they can count me in.”

I recently taught a class on post-9/11 fiction at Loyola Marymount University, and I took the opportunity to initiate a dialogue about terrorism, security, fear, human rights and ethical responsibility. I recounted my own experience as a starting point. One student, an Orthodox Jewish woman from the Pico-Robertson neighborhood, explained that, because of her modest clothing, each time she flies, she and her children must go through the body-scanner as well as receive pat-downs. She was told once that her skirt was not tight enough. As I listened to her story of being penalized for modesty, my distress was reignited. I realized that with regard to the level of indecency of which the TSA is capable, I had only touched the surface.

Ouriel and Gabrielle Hassan (a Canadian citizen with a green card) are Orthodox Jews living in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood. Ouriel’s family is from Egypt. Years ago, Ouriel’s grandfather changed the family’s name from “Hazan” to “Hassan” in an effort to avoid persecution in Egypt. In 2002, Ouriel arrived at LAX on a flight from New York. To his surprise, he was met by two machine-gun-toting soldiers who instructed Ouriel to accompany them. Once in a private room, Ouriel was strip-searched and held for three hours. The items he carried — clothing, Hebrew books, tefillin — were searched meticulously, and he was asked to open his tefillin, which would have destroyed them. When he explained that to the officers, they retracted the order, and, finding no reason to detain him, they released Ouriel with neither apologies nor explanation. He is subjected to scrutiny each time he travels.

Last year before Pesach, he and his wife and their 3-year-old son traveled from Los Angeles to Vancouver. As Ouriel prepared to enter the body-scanner, TSA agents approached Gabrielle and told her that her son, Eliyahu Yosef Hassan, would need to undergo additional screening procedures. She was told to point out Eliyahu’s bags and personal items; being only 3 years old, however, he had no personal items. Eliyahu was then taken from his mother and brought to a special screening area where a large woman roughly “patted” him down, grasping at his genitals and demonstrating indifference to his fearful and hysterical sobs. Gabrielle was prohibited from holding her son’s little hand. Despite TSA regulations that do not permit children to be separated from parents, she was forbidden from standing near him because he might “pass” something to her.

The TSA claimed that “Eliyahu Yosef Hassan” was on a no-fly list. It turns out that the name of the person on the no-fly list is “Yusef Hasan.” Yet little Eliyahu has experienced the traumatizing security screening two additional times. Although the TSA allows people with names similar to those on no-fly lists to apply for special numbers that will alert agents to these similarities and simplify screening processes, Eliyahu is not eligible for this number because he is under 16 years old. Instead, they must be prepared to submit their son to this humiliation. Additionally, TSA agents have withheld from Gabrielle the offer of a private screening room and patted her down in public by putting their hands underneath her skirt and against her legs, as well as lifting her clothing and running their hands underneath the underwire of her bra. Women, particularly those who dress modestly for religious reasons, are being publically humiliated, and their fathers, husbands and brothers must often deal with guilt stemming from their inability to protect their loved ones from degradation.

These are not the experiences of all travelers. But it is difficult to justify even one small child being violated by procedures implemented on the basis of their capacity to protect us from acts of terrorism. Children are being touched in a way that would be illegal anywhere outside of the gray zone of the TSA screening area. In a society that has, given the countless sexual abuse scandals involving priests, coaches and others in positions of authority, we are obsessed with protecting our children from physical and sexual abuse. Yet we give random people in TSA uniforms the authority to touch our children in any way they see fit — all in the name of safer skies. The past years have shown us that people in positions of power often violate children. But our fear of terrorism has become greater than our fear of child abuse, and we have offered up the dignity of our children in exchange for the illusion that we are safer because of it.

Some suggest that if one finds pat-downs to be inappropriate, he or she should not resist the technology that is designed to detect the materials sought through pat-downs. But a number of experts in the field remind us that these machines make mistakes. Agents testing the system have successfully passed through body-scanners with weapons. And they have warned of the possibility of overdose. One glitch could cause a body-scanner to emit an overdose of radiation. But just how common are errors? Apparently the TSA screeners at LAX have grown accustomed to them.

Jaime Eliezer Karas recently declined the body-scan at LAX, chose the pat-down, and watched the agent insert the piece of fabric into the machine that detects traces of explosive material. According to Karas: “We stood there in silence, both knowing everything was almost over. Suddenly, the machine displayed a message: ‘EXPLOSIVES DETECTED.’  The TSA agent did not flinch. As if in a previously choreographed sequence, he glided over to the next machine and was replaced by another agent.” Karas decided to inquire about what was wrong, and the second TSA employee replied that the cloth came up as having detected explosives, and that he was scanning it again at the next machine. The agent — who works for the same organization that terrorizes little Eliyahu Hassan every time he flies — was unconcerned by this information. The second machine did not think that Karas was carrying explosives, and he was given clearance to proceed toward the gates. Indeed, Karas carried no explosives. But the point is the inability of the technology to accurately assess the situation 100 percent of the time.

Many of us have forgotten how to be mindful. Are the deep costs to human dignity worth the ambiguous outcomes — piles of confiscated toothpaste and cupcakes amid optimistic claims that we are now safer? I continue to ask myself what, exactly, is my responsibility? How can I contribute to making a positive and meaningful change?

Much like the inconsistency in how TSA regulations are carried out, the attitudes of TSA members vary. Some TSA agents are snide and aggressive.  One woman, who recently conducted my pat-down in Seattle, was different. As she asked me if I had ever experienced the procedure, the look on my face told her I had. I opened my mouth to speak, but I had no words and I knew somehow that my face was telling the stories I could not speak in that moment. She looked at me intently, lowered her gaze and said, “I know. I’m sorry. It’s awful. You shouldn’t have to …  “ Her voice trailed off and she looked back up at me, as if asking for a pardon for what she was about to do.

Perhaps I was more of a revolutionary in this moment, when I smiled and said, “Thank you. Thank you for saying that.” There was something in her acknowledgment of her complicity in something indecent and undeserved that moved me. Her acknowledgment of how we were both, in that moment, being shamed as women, as citizens, and as human beings was an opening: an unspoken dialogue.

Responsibility begins with awareness and, one day, hopefully, ends with action.

The TSA claims that “since imaging technology has been deployed at airports, more than 99 percent of passengers choose to be screened by this technology over alternative screening procedures.” Perhaps we should think carefully about why people “choose” radiation over public humiliation — or perhaps there’s not much to think about there.

Monica Osborne is a professor of Jewish literature and culture and has written for The New Republic, Tikkun, and other publications.

Iowa Jewish Federation pulls out of 9/11 event over flag

A Jewish organization in Iowa pulled out of a multifaith prayer service commemorating the 9/11 attacks because the event did not display an American flag.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Des Moines withdrew from the Sept. 11 event sponsored by the Interfaith Alliance of Iowa when representatives arrived at the program at Drake University and discovered that there was no Stars and Stripes on the stage, the Des Moines Register reported.

Federation spokesman Mark Finkelstein told the newspaper that he offered a small flag to the Alliance’s executive director, who declined to display it.

Connie Ryan Terrell told the newspaper that she did not accept the offer because the service was a worship service and not a memorial service, and because she was not willing to make last-minute changes to an event that had been in the planning for three months.

Other Jewish leaders participated in the event.

Letters to the Editor: America, George Bush, Israel

How Did We Get Here?

Marty Kaplan’s “How Did This Happen to America?” (Sept. 9) is a searing piece of journalism. Money has clearly infected our democratic system of government. What Kaplan does is articulate when the line was crossed when cynicism became the norm. Somehow we have to find our way back when, once again, civility rules, and negotiation is a recognized requirement for a functioning government.

Harry Wiland
Santa Monica

Criticizing America, Marty Kaplan writes: “[T]he gap between the rich and the rest [is] growing so extreme that the U.S. is now the 42nd most unequal country in the world, below Cameroon and the Ivory Coast, and only just above Uganda and Jamaica.” This is the most misleading and irrelevant statistic to the success of a country and the well-being of its citizens that I can imagine. In America, the “poor” have it better than most people in the world. Furthermore, the reason the gap between the rich and the poor is so high in America is because there are so many rich and successful people! But this is a problem for Mr. Kaplan, who would rather us be more like Cameroon, the Ivory Coast, Kosovo, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Egypt and Kenya — all countries ahead of America in income distribution equality because everyone is poor!

Sammy Levine
via e-mail

Thanks for [Marty Kaplan’s] well-stated and appropriately qualified insights. I am a liberal chaplain at a women’s penitentiary and teach a Building Your Own Theology class as an alternative to fundamentalist doctrine. The basic question our inquiry always returns to is, “What is the nature of human nature?” Some days it’s very hard for me to justify jumping off the fence on the side of love — but on some level, even the most broken and battered women understand the layers and layers of pure BS that our culture piles on. In the end, it boils down to how you choose to respond. Even if you are one of the herd, you are ultimately responsible for the integrity of your own heart and mind and that has to be the bedrock. Period. Only then can you figure out your level of engagement, which in my opinion should be as subversive as possible. P.S. A good read: “Blessed Unrest,” by Paul Hawken.

Leslie Kee
via e-mail


It is the persistence of Bushphobia (or W-phobia) that blinds rational people to be irrational, as evidenced by the three articles in the Sept. 9 issue of The Jewish Journal.

Rob Eshman, in his column, wrote,

“[T]he Iraq war was one of those blunders … [and, quoting Brian Michael Jenkins,] ‘gave al-Qaeda a lift’ in the Arab world.” Professor Rabbi Michael Berenbaum opined, “The war in Iraq was completely unrelated to 9/11, and it was started for reasons now proven to be invalid. There were no weapons of mass destruction.” The Pakistani journalist Aaatekah A. Mir-Khan wrote, “Then we heard that President Bush was ready to invade Iraq. That fueled the theory that 9/11 had been staged, that not only was the invasion of Iraq personal, but also it was driven by America’s wish to secure control over oil.”

Let us state the facts, not politics. The Iraq Resolution War was a joint resolution passed by the U.S. Congress (both Republicans and Democrats voted for its passage) in October 2002 authorizing President George W. Bush to use military action against Iraq, as had been the stated policy of the United States for regime change in Iraq since the Clinton administration. The resolution cited at least 17 factors to justify the use of force against Iraq. Weapons of mass destruction (WMD) was just one factor; connection to al-Qaeda, use of WMD by Saddam on his own people (Kurds and Shia), payment of bounty to families of suicide bombers, aggression by Saddam on his neighbors such as Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Iran were among the others factors.

I was born in Libya, spent my youth there and attended the University of Tripoli until I left in 1974. Because of President George W. Bush’s leadership and courage, the recent Arab uprisings, including the democratic creation of the country of South Sudan, are the rewards for our success on executing the global war on terror and the liberation of Iraq. Tyrants and dictators around the world such as Saddam, Gadhafi, Assad of Syria, Iranian mullahs and others are no longer able to terrorize their citizens and innocent people as well and without severe consequences.

Ed Elhaderi
Los Angeles

A Country Divided

A divided community is not the way forward for Israel today, yesterday or tomorrow. Although he seems to promote a unified Israel for all (“Salon Nation,” Aug. 26), Mr. Suissa’s tone belies his words.

With his statements to the religious Israelis, “It is dishonoring your religion” and “religion you promote,” Mr. Suissa displays contempt for all Jews, and our ideals.

“[Y]our religion” — but not the author’s? Is he no longer a Jew? Is Judaism so fractured that modern-thinking Jewish voices distance themselves from any kinship and connection to religious brethren? 

It’s been 2,000 years since the Temple was destroyed, and somehow we’re still fostering hate and divisiveness among ourselves. Frankly, it’s beneath us, and beneath what I expect from our community’s published voices.

Cheryl Yifrach
via e-mail

ADL supports World Trade Center cross

The Anti-Defamation League said it supports the inclusion of the World Trade Center cross in the permanent memorial to 9/11 victims at Ground Zero.

The American Atheists organization, which advocates an “absolute separation” of government and religion, filed a lawsuit last month against including the cross-shaped steel beams in the permanent memorial to the victims of 9/11 in lower Manhattan.

The lawsuit claims the cross is unconstitutional and is a “mingling of church and state.”

The cross-shaped beams were found in the rubble at the site of the World Trade Center following the 9/11 attacks and were moved last month to a permanent location in the eight-square-acre memorial.

“Allowing this cross to be included in the memorial along with other artifacts found at the site does not constitute government endorsement of a religious message,” the ADL said in a statement. “Rather, it is an acknowledgement that these beams — part of the infrastructure of one of the towers — acquired historical significance by giving comfort to many who lost loved ones in the attacks, as well as those who spent days and weeks sifting through the ash and debris.

How can we be better humans?

I spent the long Sunday of 9/11 at events that had nothing to do with 9/11, but there was no way to avoid that day’s ominous shadow. All three events I attended were connected to Judaism in some way, and they showed me how much Jews can teach the world about how to react to the tragedy of 9/11.

At each place I went, Jews were confronting Jews.

The first event was on a hilly landscape in Santa Barbara, where I was invited to speak — along with local community leader Rabbi Ira Youdovin —  to the reform Congregation B’nai B’rith, the oldest and largest synagogue in Santa Barbara, founded in 1927. As my car wound up the mountain, it occurred to me how different this “neighborhood” was from my Pico-Robertson ’hood of old shuls, kosher markets, butchers and tailors.

And yet, I was about to meet a few hundred Jews who look exactly like the Jews I see every day in my neighborhood.

This group of Jews was ready to tackle one of today’s toughest issues for supporters of Israel: the upcoming Palestinian initiative to get the United Nations to declare a Palestinian state. This was a serious, engaged crowd of people who wanted to better understand the many angles and consequences of this issue.

The morning session was full of lively and spirited moments, but what stood out for me was the mood of self-reflection: What can we do better?

The crowd was appreciative but not overly swayed by my passionate presentation that put most of the blame for the failure of the peace process on Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian leadership. While they recognized the hard realities facing Israel, for most people in this audience, the bigger question was always: What can we do better?

They seemed to have internalized their rabbi Steven Cohen’s call to try to look at things from the perspective of the “other.” There was a deep love for Israel in the room — but it was a love that expressed itself in a desire to push ourselves to find solutions and be better people.

This idea of pushing ourselves resonated later in the day, when I saw a presentation by the Jerusalem artist and activist Andi Arnovitz at the Beverly Hills home of Jean and Jerry Friedman. Arnovitz is a “protest artist.” She sees things in Israel that drive her nuts and then creates stark and haunting artworks about those things, using symbolic materials like discarded Talmuds and remnants of old prayer books.

To protest the vexing issue of agunot — women who are “chained” to ex-husbands who refuse to give them a “get” (religious divorce) — she shredded a ketubah (religious marriage contract) and reassembled the tiny pieces into what she calls “flat and lifeless paper coats with hanging threads” to symbolize the tragic state of limbo inflicted on these women.

To protest a little-known religious Jewish sect outside Jerusalem called Keren Buria — who cover their girls in head-to-toe black burqas — she created a print of Adam and Eve and covered Eve completely with green leaves to symbolize the humiliation of physical nullification.

Arnovitz says that the goal of her art (which is on exhibit at the George Billis Gallery in Culver City until Oct. 8) is to use aesthetic beauty to reveal a message of protest — usually against extremist trends in religious Orthodoxy. As an Orthodox Jew herself, she sees her mission as challenging her own religious group to reaffirm the human and compassionate side of Torah.

The notion of moral challenge came up again at the third event I attended on 9/11 — this one the launch party of Tom Fields-Meyer’s new book, “Following Ezra: What One Father Learned About Gumby, Otters, Autism, and Love From His Extraordinary Son.”

Fields-Meyer had a difficult decision to make: Which section of the book should he pick to read to his family, friends and colleagues at the party?

Instead of going the shmaltzy route, he picked a painful and almost embarrassing chapter in which his autistic son, Ezra, violates (twice) one of the Ten Commandments. The section is a great read on the ideals of moral improvement — I will only tease you with the ending: “For the moment, I forget about the stealing and the punishment, and savor the realization that my son is developing something new: a conscience.”

This was a perfect word to cap a long day: conscience. What I savored personally was that on one of our country’s most emotional days, I had spent my time with Jews pushing their consciences to make things better.

In an odd way, I’m glad I didn’t attend one of those “interfaith” sessions with other religious groups, where we show the world how much we all have in common. I do love that as humans, we have a lot in common — and I do have a soft spot in my heart for those interfaith moments.

But on this day, I must say, I was more moved by my “inner-faith” moments.

There’s something powerful about a people self-reflecting and working on itself. I can only wish that this great Jewish tradition will become a 9/11 tradition; that on this singular day, every religious group in the world — including the one under whose name the 9/11 murderers committed their atrocity — will gather and ask one another this simple question: How can we be better humans?

For Jon Stewart, 9/11 ‘commemoration’ more about 9/13

While perusing my Facebook wall this summer, I got word that a bunch of tickets to a taping of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” was available for the taking. Fingers be nimble, I snapped them up.

It wasn’t just any taping but the one for Sept. 12, the post-apocalyptic “day after yesterday.”

The date, the guest and Stewart’s poignant monologue after 9/11 would make this show one to remember, I figured.

Stewart had opened his first show after the attacks with a monologue that offered a heartfelt lamentation while lauding Americans for their resolve in the face of “unendurable pain.” Stewart never ceased to be an advocate for the 9/11 responders, tirelessly promoting a law to compensate those affected by the acrid smoke at Ground Zero that eventually won approval by Congress in 2010.

The guest was to be Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, the highest ranking officer in the U.S. armed forces and a man uniquely qualified to reflect on the two wars that constituted America’s response to the 9/11 attacks.

So certain was I about the stars being aligned for a memorable show that I sweet-talked our editor in chief into giving three colleagues half a day off to witness the historic program—and to wait in line for an hour-and-a-half.

During the Q&A in the studio before the show, I asked Stewart, “Are you going to give another post-9/11—?”

“Won’t you people ever be satisfied?” he interjected, sparking a round of laughter. “It’s a free show!”

For me, looking for a voice to deliver a closing cathartic moment after a weekend of memorializing 9/11, the occasion bore the suspense of an at-bat in the bottom of the ninth.

But Stewart failed to connect.

Story continues after the jump

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All references to 9/11 were relegated to the second segment, the pre-taped filler between the opening segment (about President Obama’s proposed American Jobs Act) and the segment with Mullen.

Stewart introduced the bit by proposing, tongue in cheek, an alternative anniversary, Sept. 13—the day in 2001 when the late evangelical leader Rev. Jerry Falwell suggested that the American Civil Liberties Union, gays and other secular groups bore some responsibility for the terrorist attacks.

The ensuing montage invited audiences to lament 9/13 as the day that any semblance of national fortitude in the face of fear had been a short-lived dream. Since then, the montage noted, everyone from winemakers touting a “9/11 memorial Merlot” to gold coin producers selling precious metals they claim were salvaged from the vaults beneath the World Trade Center have tried to benefit commercially from our collective narrative tragedy. Perhaps Stewart’s reticence to address 9/11 head-on was an effort to steer clear of capitalizing on 9/11 in any way.

While I watched Stewart’s “9/13 montage,” the implication that 10 years’ worth of TV tributes and 9/11 footage somehow was hackneyed didn’t resonate. Can such a significant event have an expiration date?

Later that night, I learned from a JTA news brief that for the first time since its founding, the Rabin Center in Israel for the first time in 16 years would not commemorate Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination with its annual rally in Tel Aviv.

The moment that my high school’s stand-in for the town crier announced the collapse of the World Trade Center, I was jittering my way through a C+ on an American history and literature exam.

Ten years later I’m still a mediocre student of history, but willing to surmise the following: There always comes a time when a cataclysm becomes a distant memory.

But for those who were caught in the moment, that time always seems to arrive too early.

Adam Soclof writes for the JTA Archive Blog. “Like” the JTA Archive on Facebook and follow @JTAarchive on Twitter.

At a rebuilt AMIA Jewish center, Argentinians remember 9/11 victims

A 9/11 memorial ceremony at the AMIA Jewish center in Buenos Aires called for common cause in halting terrorist attacks.

Among those attending the commemoration ceremony Monday at the rebuilt AMIA headquarters were the U.S. ambassador in Argentina, Vilma Martinez; representatives of Spain, Germany, Ireland, Uruguay, Poland and Israel; and executives from American Airlines and United Airlines, whose planes were used in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Another flight went down in Pennsylvania.

“It is affecting to meet here at the site of the AMIA bombing, a grim reminder of terrorist attacks,” Martinez said. “We value deeply our common reason to fight against terrorism and remember its victims.”

AMIA President Angel Barman referred to this common cause, saying that the world should do more to face terrorism together.

“I think we have not done enough, our diplomats and authorities have not done enough,” he said.

Olga Degtiar, representing Families of Victims and Friends of the AMIA Bombing group, said that the images 10 years later of the 9/11 attacks makes her remember her own images from 17 years ago, when the AMIA building was destroyed in an attack on July 18, 1994 that killed 85 and injured hundreds.

“It’s the same hate and destruction,” said the mother of Cristian Degtian, a teenager killed in the AMIA bombing. “When we saw this building destroyed … [and] knowing that beneath the rubble was my son.”

Adriana Reisfeld, Active Memory president, noted a major difference between the tributes held in New York and in Buenos Aires for the AMIA bombing.

“In the United States both presidents (George Bush and Barack Obama) participated and representatives of different religions; they can be together because they know exactly who is responsible for the attacks,” she said. “After 17 years in Argentina we don’t have assurance of who are the responsible parties.”

Though Argentina has accused the Iranian government of directing the bombing and the Lebanon-based terror group Hezbollah of carrying it out, no arrests have been made in the case. Six Iranians have been on the Interpol international police agency’s most wanted list since 2007 in connection with the bombing, including the current Iranian defense minister, Gen. Ahmed Vahidi.

Australian rabbi blows shofar at 9/11 ceremony

A Sydney rabbi sounded the shofar in a major cathedral in the Australian city to mark the 10th anniversary of 9/11.

Rabbi Jeremy Lawrence, senior rabbi of the Great Synagogue, blew the shofar in St. Mary’s Cathedral Sunday as part of the anniversary commemorations for the victims of 9/11, including the 10 Australians who were killed on the fateful day.

Lawrence was preceded by an Aboriginal elder who opened the emotional ceremony, in the presence of the New South Wales governor and premier, with the drone of the didgeridoo.

The rabbi said in his address that one of the shofar notes, teruah, had three parts.

“At its heart is a cry,” he said. “But the wailing is sandwiched between two solid blasts of hope. Hope, sadness, hope—that is how we respond to the destruction of an iconic landmark.”

D.C. temple hosts 9/11 commemoration

More than 1,000 people gathered at the Washington Hebrew Congregation for a religious event to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

The event was hosted by the Washington National Cathedral, but could not be held there due to damage from last month’s earthquake.

Six religions participated in the commemoration, which included a Unity Walk in which participants visited 13 houses of worship along Embassy Row.

The event began with a symbolic Muslim call to prayer from the Washington Hebrew Congregation’s podium, according to the Washington Post.

Jewish clergy join anti-Islamaphobia event

Top Jewish clergy joined a religious gathering to combat Islamaphobia as the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks nears.

“Ten years after 9/11, it has somehow become respectable to verbally attack Muslims and Islam in America,” Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the president of the Union of Reform Judaism, said Thursday at the Washington event organized by Shoulder to Shoulder, a group founded a year ago during a period of intensified anti-Muslim rhetoric.

“There are very real consequences when entire populations are represented in the public imagination by their worst elements, when the sins of the few are applied to the group as a whole. I have watched in astonishment as prominent politicians, including candidates for president of the United States, have found it politically opportune to peddle divisive anti-Muslim bigotry.”

Also addressing the event at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church was Steve Gutow, a Reconstructionist rabbi and the president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the public policy umbrella group.

“A great people and a great nation do not let their brothers and sisters suffer from bigotry and persecution,” Gutow said. “Our Muslim brothers and sisters suffer exactly that in all corners of this great country of ours. Today is a day to stand up and say we have had enough.”

Rabbi Burton Visotzky of the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary said Muslims “have always been part of the fabric of America.”

Also attending were Rabbi Marc Schneier, a co-founder of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding; Rabbi Jack Moline, representing the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly; Rabbi Sidney Schwarz, representing the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association and the Faith and the Common Good project, and Rabbi Dr. Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer, representing the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.

9/11, 10 years later

When I was in New York last week, I prowled Ground Zero. I couldn’t actually touch it — the entire site is now a massive construction zone, a concatenation of Shanghais, encircled in chain link, surrounded by uniformed officers of the New York City Police Department.

I crossed Church Street from the subway station to get a better view of the memorial pools, and an officer quickly barked at me to move along. 

A self-styled tour guide, an elderly black man with no indoor voice, had appointed himself the unofficial one-man welcome wagon for the throngs of visitors. He waved souvenirs and shouted at us.

“How many buildings were at Ground Zero?!” he called out. No one answered. “It was two! You need to know how many buildings were at the site of Ground Zero on the day of the attack!”

Perhaps he had been a little unbalanced before, or maybe he was like Scarlett O’Hara’s father, turned batty by the shock of loss.

One of the cops posed with a couple of English tourists.  A friend took their picture, then they switched places for the next set.  The officer handled it all with matter-of-fact hospitality.  “Yes, ma’am.  Yes, sir.”

The “tour guide” and the cop were reminders that 9/11 had turned America both crazy and sober.  We indulged in folly and fantasy, and we have faced hard truths that have required all of our intelligence and resolve.  We both overreacted, and we reacted judiciously.  We were impetuous and impatient, and deliberate and relentless.  Tragedy, they say, doesn’t change you as much as it brings out your essence.  For a country of multitudes, 9/11 unleashed all our best and worst attributes, and reflected our complexity.

One of our worst attributes is our desire for simple answers. Do you remember, starting about 10 a.m. on Sept. 11, how the media started asking: “Why?”

And instead of taking time to investigate the facts and come up with the answer,  the left — generally speaking — presented a ready-made one: “They hate us because of what we’ve done.”  And the right, generally speaking, countered with, “They hate us because of who they are.”

The European and Arab press especially promoted the former view, pointing to all the things America had done to “deserve” the attacks — especially our support for Israel and our various interventions in the Middle East, whether for oil or democracy. The implication was that if we would just knock these things off, the terrorists would lay down their arms, send us a Teleflora bouquet and go home.

From the opposite extreme came the idea that hate and violence are built into Islam.   It seems like every day for the past decade, I’ve been forwarded e-mails “proving” how the Quran demands every Muslim destroy the West. That anti-Islam hysteria reached a fever pitch during the controversy over whether to build an Islamic center several blocks from Ground Zero, when activists and politicians managed to equate religious tolerance with weakness.

Ten years later, it’s worthwhile to look at how those dominant “answers” fared: not well. The pundits of the left and right, with their simple certainties and gullible constituencies, were wrong.

Story continues after the jump

Late last week, I called Brian Michael Jenkins, the Rand Corp. terrorism expert, whose new book, “The Long Shadow of 9/11,” is a collection of heavily researched, thoughtful essays on the attack’s aftermath.  I had heard Jenkins speak just after 9/11, and back then he was one of the unflappable, sober-minded voices cautioning against hysteria and rash action — a voice crying in the wilderness.  How, I wondered, did he think the go-to explanations held up?

“If the U.S. were to suddenly withdraw forces from the Middle East and suspend support for Israel,” Jenkins told me, “al-Qaeda would not put up a banner saying ‘Mission Accomplished’ and quit. They see themselves in endless conflict, until Judgment Day.”

As for the second line of reasoning, Jenkins said al-Qaeda represents not Islam, but, “an interpretation of the religion by a small group of people.”

The real cause of the ongoing terrorism threat — which Jenkins takes pains to point out does not threaten us as individuals in any statistically significant way — is a small tribal warrior subculture with access to modern weapons and technology.

“Al-Qaeda has become an organization for individuals to prove their manhood, do ‘good’ for God and reap the rewards of the hereafter,” Jenkins said. “Discontents and anyone whose soul is running on empty can join al-Qaeda and find resonance.”

That’s right, we are fighting testosterone, nihilism, boredom, opportunism, archaic notions of tribalism — the stuff that gangs around the world are made of.

Why, 10 years later, does it still matter that we all understand the “why” of 9/11?

The “why” matters because we don’t have the luxury of either withstanding numerous attacks, or the ability to engage in many more wrong-headed reactions to attacks.

The consensus of the intelligence community, Jenkins said, is that the Iraq War was one of those blunders, a tragic “huge diversion” of resources that actually “gave al-Qaeda a lift” in the Arab world.

“9/11 cost us $3.8 trillion,” Jenkins said.  “We can’t spend $3.8 trillion in the next decade, so we’re going to have to get smarter about how we do this.”

If 9/11 taught us anything, it’s that we can and should get angry, but we should never let ourselves go mad.

Lee Baca: Talk to people — Then arrest the right ones

For many, the world changed on Sept. 11, 2001. For Lee Baca, who had been elected Los Angeles County Sheriff three years earlier, his job changed, too.

“It had to change radically,” Baca said.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, it was Baca’s job to tamp down tensions between Jews and Muslims locally. What he gained from that experience led him to establish an Interfaith Advisory Council of clerical leaders to foster better communication between faith communities and his department.

Baca also has focused particular attention on engaging with Los Angeles’ Muslim community. In response to the London bombings in 2005, he established the Muslim American Homeland Security Congress in an effort to uncover “homegrown violent extremism.” His department also has a Muslim Community Affairs Unit, staffed by Arabic-speaking Muslim deputies, in support of this effort.

Baca also established a Sheriff’s Department office of Homeland Security — and as the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, the department is increasing its presence across the Los Angeles public transit system.

“Transit systems are the highest targets,” Baca told The Jewish Journal, “even more than airports.”

But Baca’s job is hardly limited to counterterrorism. The sheriff’s department staffs the county’s jails and has 24 sheriff’s stations across the sprawling county. In July, to the surprise of many, Baca made an unsuccessful bid for his department to take charge of the county’s parolees, which would have added a new area of responsibility for the department.

But it is Baca’s counterterrorism strategy — particularly in establishing meaningful ties with local Muslim leaders and communities — that has brought Los Angeles County’s top cop both national and international renown.

Baca plans to mark the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks with a speech to the World Summit on Counter-Terrorism in Herzliya. In an interview at sheriff’s headquarters last month, he offered a preview of what he plans to say in Israel.

“You have to engage Muslim support as best as possible,” the 69-year-old sheriff said. The goal, Baca said, is “to have common-sense relations that are based on mutual interests of national security.”

Baca has spoken at the Herzliya conference once before and has been to Israel on multiple occasions. He was in Sderot during the Gaza war in January 2009, where he had to take cover in a bunker during a Qassam rocket attack. The sheriff acknowledged that Israeli law enforcement officials probably understand as well as anyone the importance of engaging local Muslims.

“I knew the prior police chief in Tel Aviv,” Baca said. “All the police chiefs in Tel Aviv have a great rapport with the [mostly Muslim] citizens of Jaffa.” Baca travels widely, and he receives at least as many international visitors as he visits. Among the items in his fourth-floor office at the department’s headquarters in Monterey Park are law enforcement officers’ hats from around the world. One came from a Beijing police chief who visited Los Angeles in 2007 to see how the city handled the Olympics in 1984.

The hats fill up about half of the sheriff’s bookshelf. The other half is filled with the books given to Baca over the years. Baca, who calls himself “a weak Catholic” and “a God-fearing man,” has collected a handful of scriptural books, including two copies of the Torah and four different translations of the Quran.

“The Quran — and this is a big part that needs to be said constantly — the Quran refers to Moses and the Bible and Judaism, and refers to Mary the mother of Jesus,” Baca said. “And to be a true, practicing Muslim, you must honor Judaism and Christianity as well as the prophet Muhammad. All three are part of the teachings of the prophet. Not many people know that.”

In just the last few years, Baca has become a vocal defender of Islam against attacks on the religion and its practitioners — and for this, he has drawn intense criticism from a cadre of anti-Islamic activists and writers.

Baca doesn’t use a computer — “a public official that is a computer junkie is determined to get toppled,” he said — so he presumably hasn’t read the posts by blogger Pamela Geller referring to him as “Hamas-Linked CAIR ‘International’ Sheriff Lee Baca.”

But Baca has heard the criticisms of his engagement with the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) directly. Twice in the last two years, Baca has vociferously defended his attendance at CAIR fundraisers on Capitol Hill.

“CAIR is not a terrorist-supporting organization,” Baca said to Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.) in his feisty testimony before the House Committee on Homeland Security in March 2010. “That is my experience. That is my interaction. And if you want to promote that, you’re on your own.”

When Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) announced his hearings into “The Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and That Community’s Response,” the ranking Democrat on the committee, Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, was entitled to call one witness for every three called by King. He invited Baca to the first hearing in March, which was widely covered.

At that hearing, Baca was again asked about his connections with CAIR. “We don’t play around with criminals in my world,” the sheriff said. “If CAIR is an organization that is a criminal organization, bring them to court, charge them.”

The sheriff knows who the anti-Islamic writers are — there are two copies of Robert Spencer’s “Stealth Jihad” on the sheriff’s bookshelf alongside copies of “They Must Be Stopped” by ACT! for America founder Brigitte Gabriel and “Infidel” by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The books were gifts, Baca said, and he hasn’t read them.

“They perpetrate fear by what their messages are,” Baca said. “They’re on the shelf because you should know what people are doing.”

And Baca said he pretty much knows what’s in those books.

Baca paraphrased: “You cannot trust Muslims, no matter who they are. That you must stamp them out because they are determined to take over the world, and they have extreme views.

“And so,” Baca continued, “a vulnerable person will believe those things as though they’re truth — and then they’ll go over the edge, over the top, and they’ll plan a violent, extreme act.”

The sheriff was referring specifically to Anders Behring Breivik, the self-described “anti-jihadist” who admitted to killing 77 people in Norway in July. In his lengthy manifesto, Breivik quoted Geller, Spencer and others who see Islam as an irredeemably malevolent force that must be defeated.

Those writers, Baca said, are offering interpretations of Islam — while simultaneously walling themselves off from Muslims. What Baca does, instead, is to talk to people — all people.

“You have to be with people to know who they are,” Baca said. “You can’t be distancing yourself and using interpreters. And I see those books as interpretation books, as opposed to books based on relational knowledge.”

In his pursuit of that kind of knowledge, Baca has traveled to mosques around the county as well as to Muslim countries around the world.

“I know what the Muslim society is essentially challenged by — and it’s not by their religion,” Baca said. “It’s by the common political realities that all governments are challenged by: feeding their people, jobs, health, education — that’s what most of the focus is in all societies.”

Which isn’t to say that Baca has all the answers when it comes to the challenging law enforcement situation facing those societies — especially now that the events of the Arab spring have upended a number of longstanding, powerful leaders.

In October 2010, just a few months before Egyptian protesters filled Tahrir Square, Baca visited the country’s chief of police,who is now being tried for ordering attacks on anti-government protesters, but before the 2011 protests, he was, Baca said, “very instrumental in calming the violence of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Sinai region in the early 1990s.”

Baca said he understood the need for “accountability for police activities that are violent,” but at the same time he believes that the methods employed in fighting the Muslim Brotherhood in the Sinai might be worth emulating.

“They did not do random sweeps of suspects,” Baca said. “They took the patient approach and were building the trust of the public in order to acquire a rapport that would be valuable for the future.”

“The people got fed up with the murderous ways of the Muslim Brotherhood,” Baca said — which is when the police acted.

“The police were arresting suspects that were precisely the right suspects,” Baca said. “And that’s what you have to do. If you arrest the wrong people and charge them with crimes they didn’t commit, it’s not a good counterterrorism strategy. You have to get the right suspects.”

Afghanistan’s turning point

It was a decade ago that a number of terrorists conducted the most horrifying attack on the United States. They hit two big planes into the World Trade Center, targeted the Pentagon with a third, and, in a failed attempt, crashed a fourth in Pennsylvania, all together killing thousands of innocent people.

Although the tragedy shocked Americans in the United States in the extreme, it also proved to be a historical turning point thousands of miles away for another nation — the people of Afghanistan — in the heart of Asia.

Afghans who had long ago been taken hostage, choked like a rabbit fed to a snake, crippled, frozen and unable to react, needed a miracle.

And the miracle had happened.

The news of attacks on America spread all over our country through a few international radio stations, such as the BBC, and Voice of America, the morning after Sept. 11, 2001.

I remember how reactions to the terrifying attacks in New York were mixed among Afghans, ranging from congratulations and happiness to pity for the U.S. people and fear of retaliation.

The fear of reprisal heightened when the news came out that America would bomb Afghanistan into the stone age. People were horrified.

And when the bombing started, the people, already worn to shreds by wars and miseries, were shocked.

“Not again, not another invasion, not another war that will bring more deaths and destruction,” almost every man said to another on the streets of Kabul.

The ruling Taliban regime repeatedly called on people through their only radio station, telling them to be ready for a holy war. People were ordered to turn off all their lights at night. 

It seemed that the U.S. military knew very little about the kind of enemy they were facing on the ground, when they started with B-52 bombers and would drop bombs on some Taliban targets on the outskirt of Kabul from an altitude of thousands of miles.

Even most Afghans knew very little about the inner circle of the Taliban leadership, which rose out of religious schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan in 1994,  seized the capital of Kabul two years later, and then ruled the country until they were ousted by a U.S. invasion in 2001.

No one had seen the Taliban supreme leader Mullah Omar, or his guest Osama bin Laden. 

As the bombing continued for days, many people watched anxiously from their rooftops as the U.S. planes attacked Taliban targets on the outskirts of Kabul. They knew the Taliban were tough, too.

Anti-aircraft gunshots would light the dark skies of Kabul at night and looked like fireworks. People had no idea what would happen next; were those who were bombing their towns and villages doing so to free Afghans from Taliban? Or were they invaders who needed to be fought off again?

One nice, sunny morning, I woke up early as usual and went outside, wanting to see the columns of smoke around Kabul airport as a result of overnight U.S. bombing. On this day, though, the city looked strange; it looked unusually quiet to me.

I was ready to head off to work when I saw a friend riding on a bicycle. He was in a hurry. I stopped him and asked where he was going. He said the Taliban were gone, and he was going to Shahre-Naw Park,  in the center of Kabul, to see the last few Arabs and Pakistanis who were still resisting.

“Really? Are you sure?”  I was shocked. I told him it could be dangerous for us if the news was not true and they were still there. After he insisted, I hopped onto his bike, and we together rode to the center of Kabul.

I was amazed:  My friend was right — the Taliban were gone. Along our way, the Taliban checkpoints were abandoned; the Taliban had disappeared overnight. Only a couple of them remained, surrounded by people in the central park. After a while, one was killed by a guard, and the other blew himself up before anybody could reach him. That was the first time I’d seen a suicide bomber; later, I got to see hundreds.

On the streets of Kabul people were both happy and cautious.  For almost a week, people could not believe the news that the Taliban were gone and that they were free. Many didn’t really remember what the word “freedom” means.

It was a new beginning. Life after the Taliban was moving fast; millions of refugees returned home. People would call the international community’s involvement a “golden opportunity” for Afghanistan.

The U.N. peacekeeping mission, elections for president and parliament, a new currency, a sudden boom in the economy, cell phones and Internet. Everything seemed to be moving on the right track.

Girls started going to school; it looked like flowers slowly blooming in spring.

Every good thing must come to an end.

It was unfortunate that Afghanistan was introduced to the world through 9/11, but now, after almost 10 years, during which the country has dominated the news headlines,  whenever media mentions this country, it is either about Taliban and terrorism or burqas and beards. To the world, Afghanistan looks like an “untamable” nation.

On the other hand, Afghans don’t know a lot about America and the world beyond the news headlines and the foreign military they see on the streets every day, either. 

It’s been a decade now, and yet the two nations never tried to truly understand each other better. And this ignorance gave the Taliban a chance to come back.

Despite the presence of more than 100,000 foreign troops, Afghanistan is still besieged by terrorism in the form of suicide attacks, roadside bombs, drive-by shootings, home invasions, kidnappings and outright attacks on public establishments. This is causing a lot of jittery nerves and sleepless nights for our people.

While successful measures have been put in place against terrorists within the United States and other countries, thus preventing another 9/11, the fire is still kept burning in Afghanistan.

And why still in Afghanistan? It is a question that every Afghan asks. Al-Qaeda lost its base in Afghanistan when the Taliban regime that gave them sanctuary was ousted from power. Al-Qaeda’s leader was found and killed in Pakistan. Many other smaller terrorist attacks in the world have been linked to terrorist groups that emerge from the ruins of older ones in other countries.

What we need in Afghanistan is not constant military campaigns that result in tremendous mayhem and loss of life. We need campaigns to win the hearts and the minds of the people. The campaign that talks to the would-be suicide bomber and tries to dissuade him.

Instead of bombing the towns and villages, the real war must aim at capturing the hearts and the minds of people and the combatants’ supply and support network. When properly delivered, words can be more lethal than bullets.

No one has successfully addressed the would-be suicide bomber or the terrorist. No one has told him that though he might have good intentions, this isn’t the way to salvation. No one has even mentioned to him suicide isn’t sacrifice, it is haram (forbidden) and that the killing of innocent people takes the murderer to places he doesn’t want to be in. We haven’t pointed out to him that those who love God show their love by serving his creation, mankind, not by killing.

Mass media and advertisement can be the most powerful tools of persuasion invented by man, to reach out the people.  Money is the other one.

Unfortunately, much of the billions of dollars that gets poured into Afghanistan simply ends up in the wrong hands. It doesn’t reach the people. And that is why people who make up the Taliban army are those who never get an education, they have no job, no house,  nothing to lose.

A decade after 9/11, as many countries continue to find ways to make themselves less vulnerable to terrorism, it only makes them more vulnerable if the grievances are not addressed properly.

The Afghan writer of this essay is using a pseudonym for security reasons.