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.

One woman’s political awakening


Sept. 11 is partly responsible for my choice of career. In 2001, I was an architecture student, even if a disillusioned one, completely uninterested in politics and affairs of the world.

9/11 changed that.

Sept. 11, 2001, was just another lazy evening for me in Lahore. I had my cup of tea and was chatting about something totally mundane with a family friend. That is when my aunt — who got a call from her daughter in New York — told us, “Turn on CNN. A plane has crashed into the World Trade Center.”

That “crash” turned out to be much more than an accidental collision. I think I realized that along with the rest of the world — when the second plane hit the South Tower.

I did not move from in front of the TV all night.

Back then, Pakistan did not have the voracious private media that it does now. I was among the lucky ones who had satellite TV at home, and so we relied on CNN, with the occasional flip to the BBC, for information.

I refused to believe CNN when they said the towers would collapse. But they did. For some bizarre reason, I remember the shade of lipstick worn by a woman who had just run to safety. Maybe it is not that strange: In all the ugliness, that lipstick shade was the only beautiful thing.

From what I remember, the first reaction among my circle of friends and family was very similar to that of the rest of the world. I remember we were stunned by what happened. We cried when we heard the phone calls people had placed to their families when they knew they were about to die. We gasped with horror when we saw people choosing to jump to their deaths.

Why would they choose to do that? Maybe it was a less painful death. Perhaps it was that in those minutes of absolute chaos and helplessness, making that decision gave them a sense of still being in control of their life. Or maybe for some it was a way of defying the terrorists:  “You don’t decide how we go. We do.” Someone might have jumped believing, or hoping, for a miracle.

I think the whole world stood together in experiencing the initial shock and disbelief. Wanting to make sense of what had happened, how and why was also a shared experience. It was when we got to the actual “making sense” that the narratives became different. And from that moment on, it was, “Either you are with us or against us.”

I don’t remember anyone in Pakistan celebrating the attacks. There was the occasional, “It was bound to happen sometime because of the U.S. policies.” There were conspiracy theories, like, “The United States carried out the attacks itself,” or, “All the Jews who worked in the towers had taken the day off,” but that came a few days later. 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.

When Gen. Pervez Musharraf decided to take a U-turn on our years-old policy toward the Taliban, we became involved in America’s war. But 10 years later, with the highest number of civilian and military casualties and daily terrorist attacks, it has become our war. To me, anyone who doesn’t see that lives in denial.

During the time that I have been in the United States, I have been asked who’s wrong and who’s right. I wish there were a simple answer, but there isn’t. Neither country bears the entire blame. Both of us have been guilty of playing hide-and-seek.

“Do you think we are so naïve as to believe that you did not know where Osama bin Laden was?” I didn’t say that. My government did. I don’t expect you to believe that, because I don’t either. Someone had to know. I’ve also been asked, “What can we do to improve the perception of Americans?” Better P.R. Own up to the good that you do. And avoid any more episodes like that of CIA contractor Raymond Davis, I suppose.

But the Pakistani government also needs to share that burden. It needs to be upfront with its people and stop denying that the United States does not have its blessings for carrying out drone strikes. We also need to give the U.S. credit where it’s due for various civilian projects.

Any solution that is reached for the region — whether it’s a deal with the Taliban or something else — needs to take into consideration both Afghanistan and Pakistan, too, and not just America’s self-interest. Pakistan, for its part, needs to realize that if and when America leaves the region, it needs to work together with Afghanistan.

Ignoring the intricacies and reducing the complexities to a black-and-white approach is the worst mistake that either of us can make, and yet it is the most common one that both of us do make.

I was in the United States when Osama bin Laden was killed. I saw the people celebrating outside the White House and in Times Square, but I also met and spoke with people who thought that there was nothing to “celebrate.” I know that many who were celebrating were not rejoicing in his death, but in the sense of justice and closure. There were others who believed that he should have been captured and tried, not killed. Which images and opinion do you think made it into the Pakistani media?

But then again, after bin Laden was killed, people in Pakistan weren’t exactly heartbroken. Yes, they were upset about the violation of their airspace and, hence, sovereignty. But what did the U.S. media decide to focus on? One crazy group, the leader of which broke down while offering bin Laden’s funeral prayers in absentia. I have heard as many Americans as Pakistanis question whether bin Laden was really killed this summer, and as many Pakistanis as Americans wanting to see photos as proof.

Regardless of what we might have been led to believe, we aren’t that different, you and I. Because of what happened 10 years ago, your country will never be the same. Neither will mine. Your life changed. So did mine.

We have a choice now: We can take the easy way out. Believe that we are right and the other is wrong. “We” being defined by ourselves as good, and the other personifying evil. Or we can refuse to believe that and challenge it, through dialogue and trying to reach out. If you do not know any other Pakistanis, reach out to me. E-mail me and I will try to answer your questions.

One of my favorite quotes is from Michelle Obama, who said that all of us have a responsibility to strive for a world the way it should be. I think I owe it to myself, my country, you and the memory of Daniel Pearl — the man because of whom I was given this opportunity. Do you?

Aatekah A. Mir-Khan is a Daniel Pearl Fellow from Pakistan who worked with The Wall Street Journal in New York for five months. Back home she works for an English-language newspaper and can be contacted at {encode=”aatekahm@gmail.com” title=”aatekahm@gmail.com”}.

10 years after 9/11, what has changed?


Even before the 110-story cloud of smoke cleared 10 years ago, America, and American Jews, grappled with a new desire to seek out the enemy — on the one hand to thwart him, and on the other to find out who he is, why he hates us so much and what we can do about it.

That desire has shaped a dichotomous response over the last decade — one of war, pumped-up security and more limited freedoms on the one hand, and of dialogue and a desire to open oneself up to help repair the world on the other.

Both the American government and watchdog institutions, particularly Jewish ones, increased their vigilance of Muslim extremism, and at the same time Jews challenged themselves to reach out to Muslims and to build personal and political relationships.

Often, the divergent goals of vigilance and building bridges played out within the same organization.

“Engaging people with hearts wide open, but also with eyes and ears wide open, was one of the main lessons for us and a key component for moving forward from 9/11,” said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

After 9/11, the Wiesenthal Center continued its vigilance of

anti-Semitism both among white supremacist and Muslim radicals, but it also created a new position, director of interfaith affairs, and founded a Web site called “Ask Musa,” which teaches basic Judaism to Muslims. The center forged relationships with Pakistani diplomats, and after the al-Qaeda bombing in Bali in 2002, it hosted a multifaith conference against terrorism there, with the Indonesian president as a featured speaker. It also held a multifaith solidarity remembrance in Mumbai to commemorate the 2008 attacks there.

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has a similar two-pronged approach.

After 9/11, ADL created a center on extremism that monitors Muslim radicals. At the same time, it puts out curricula and runs programs on tolerance, including a special curriculum in honor of the 10th anniversary of 9/11. ADL has also worked closely with Muslim leadership to combat anti-Muslim bigotry and to monitor instances where local communities object to mosques being built.

Amanda Susskind, director of the Pacific Southwest Region, said this dual approach is what attracted her to the ADL, after 9/11 prompted her to leave practicing law and enter public service. She believes monitoring hatred while building bridges and tolerance is not contradictory.

“The Muslim community groups and leaders that we work with and that we support in their fight against bigotry also speak out against Muslim extremism. These are not overlapping groups,” Susskind said.

The ADL also works closely with law enforcement, offering training and serving as a resource for information on hate crime trends. Locally, the ADL created a regular meeting between national, state and local law enforcement so they can share information with each other and get information from ADL on hate crimes.

While ADL held occasional security briefings for Jewish organizations before 9/11, in the last decade the annual pre-High Holy Days security briefing has become a must-attend event among synagogue leadership.

Certainly, security is one of the most visible changes 9/11 brought to the Jewish community.

Jewish institutions had some security before 9/11 — and most reassessed after the North Valley JCC shooting in 1999 — but the new, very real threat of al-Qaeda pushed all institutions to new levels.

After 9/11, Sinai Temple in Westwood revamped its security on the 377,000-square-foot facility that serves 1,950 member families and nearly 1,000 kids in its day school, religious school and preschool.

The temple has armed guards and 90 security cameras, and only one entrance to the building, according to executive director Howard Lesner. People entering the facility during the week have to have an appointment or someone to vouch for them. On Shabbat, everyone is wanded, and all bags are examined.

Security accounts for 5 percent of the budget, and each member and student is assessed to help cover it.

Often, security concerns run counter to the Jewish impulse of creating a welcoming atmosphere. Lesner said security has been woven into the general operations — most of the guards have been in the building for years and are familiar faces, who wish guests Shabbat Shalom or Shanah Tovah.

Anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about 9/11 persist


Osama bin Laden is dead. A new skyscraper is rising at the site of the old World Trade Center. U.S. troops are withdrawing from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Ten years later, the physical legacies of 9/11 attacks are fading into history. Yet the conspiracy theories about who “really” was behind the attacks seem to be growing.

Like a drug-resistant virus, these fantasies have persisted — despite efforts to combat them — by mutating over time, taking new forms and finding new modes of transmission. Jews and Israel often are their targets, and they evoke centuries-old myths about Jewish power, allegiances and manipulation of social institutions.

The conspiracy theories began almost as soon as the towers fell. Four days after the attack, the Syrian newspaper Al-Thawra reported that 4,000 Jews failed to show up for work at the World Trade Center on 9/11 after being warned by Israeli intelligence, according to a 2007 U.S. State Department document debunking the myth. Another held that five Israeli students were secret Mossad agents who knew about the attacks and allowed them to happen. That myth eventually morphed into the conspiracy theory that the Israelis directed the attacks remotely.

Other myths have followed, spreading around the world and taking root even in the United States. Of 36,000 conspiracy videos recently found on the Internet, 16,000 implicated Jews or Israelis, according to a new report by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) titled “Decade of Deceit: Anti-Semitic 9/11 Conspiracy Theories 10 Years Later.”

“What we’ve seen in the last 10 years is the proliferation of a real propaganda industry surrounding Sept. 11,” said Deborah Lauter, director of the ADL’s civil rights division. “Prominent among those theories are those making anti-Semitism front and center.”

The theories have amounted to more than just pernicious talk.

On June 10, 2009, one alleged 9/11 conspiracy theorist opened fire at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, killing a security guard. The perpetrator, James von Brunn, then 88, died before the case could come to trial.

Experts say 9/11 myths that blame the Jews are spreading freely from neo-Nazis and other white supremacists into new areas whose acolytes are not necessarily anti-Semitic but are unknowingly adopting the tropes of classical anti-Semitic conspiracy theories: anti-government radicals, young anti-war activists, New Age ideologues, and propagandists and journalists in the Arab and Muslim worlds.

“What’s changed is the proliferation of coded rhetoric to refer to Jews internationally and in the U.S,” said Chip Berlet, a senior analyst at Political Research Associates, a liberal think tank based in Somerville, Mass. “They’re unprepared to recognize it even when they see it.”

Michael Barkun, a professor of political science at Syracuse University who has studied extremists and their ideologies, said, “They aren’t people who are terribly different from the population at large,” except that “they are more likely to be attracted to conspiracy theories.”

Alan Sabrosky, a columnist for Veterans Today, an anti-Semitic Web site, is one of the most widely cited sources for anti-Semitic 9/11 myths, according to the ADL. Sabrosky has declared his mission to “contain” Israel’s ambition by exposing Israel’s alleged role in 9/11 and maintains that Washington and New York are the centers of “Zionist power.”

Citations of Sabrosky’s work pop up not just on extreme-right Web sites but also on pro-Palestinian Web sites such as Mondoweiss, Arab media sites and the Internet newsletter Dissent Voice, which describes itself as “a radical newsletter in the struggle for peace and social justice.”

“This is a strange world where the right and the left mix, with anti-Semitism shot through,” said Mark Potok, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report. “On the left, it is shot through with anti-Zionism; on the right, the fear of the international Jew.”

A 2008 poll of 17 representative nations by the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland found that only nine of the countries surveyed had majorities who believed al-Qaeda orchestrated the attacks. Most of those who believed otherwise did not implicate Israel, however. Instead, they said they did not know who was behind the attacks or blamed the United States. In Russia, Israel-related conspiracy theories were at 2 percent of those polled. In

Kenya, 3 percent believed in Israel-related myths. In Indonesia, the number was 5 percent.

In the Middle East, however, the numbers were much different. In Egypt, 43 percent of respondents blamed Israel for 9/11. In Jordan, 31 percent blamed Israel. In the West Bank and Gaza, the numbers were slightly lower. In Turkey, however, only 3 percent believed Israel was behind the attacks.

Conservative columnist Daniel Pipes, who has written two books on conspiracy theories, says such theories about Jews are a fringe element in the West, but are par for the course in the Middle East, where he said “they are spread by the mainstream media, leading intellectuals and politicians.” Pipes considers 9/11 conspiracy theories a relatively benign false belief akin to theories about the Kennedy assassination — widespread, but not leading to damaging consequences.

The impact of the many 9/11 conspiracy theories is still not entirely clear.

“We’re in a period where the boundaries between the mainstream and the fringe have become quite blurred,” Barkun said. “Once they were more distinct. Once most people were not exposed to them, or if they were, it was to have them debunked. Now they move quite readily into the mainstream.”

Barkun added, “This shift in which these ideas have entered the mainstream is so recent that I don’t think we are in a position to know what the social effects are.”

Berlet said he worries that 9/11 conspiracy theories are fueling the rise of anti-Semitic rhetoric in major public forums.

“It is horrifying. It creates a hunt for an enemy and undermines the very concept of democratic society,” he said. “You would think that decent people would stand up and say enough. It’s spreading, and our leaders lack the backbone to confront it.”

Dept. of Remembrance: Watching over the 9/11 dead with shmira


It was an ominous hum.

A dozen refrigerated trucks loaded with the body parts of victims of the 9/11 attacks filled a cavernous tent across the street from the Office of the City Medical Examiner, their low-pitched buzz an eerie soundtrack to the solemn work being carried out at the morgue about 3 miles north of Ground Zero.

While rescue workers downtown searched through the wreckage of the World Trade Center for human remains, forensic experts at the medical examiner’s office carefully analyzed and catalogued their finds, preserving every piece of flesh and bone in an effort to identify them and eventually return them to victims’ families.

Occasionally an ambulance would pull up to the cordoned-off street and the bustle would come to a halt while rescue workers unloaded a flag-draped box filled with newly discovered remains.

For more than seven months after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, this somber place in downtown New York filled with firefighters, police officers, construction workers and clergymen had another fixture: Jewish volunteers who came one by one to take part in a round-the-clock prayer vigil at the morgue, where they spent four-hour shifts reciting Psalms.

The vigil was part of the Jewish ritual of shmira, escorting the dead from the time of passing until burial—a period that normally lasts no longer than 24 to 48 hours. In the case of the victims of the Trade Center attacks, a quick burial clearly was not possible, so the prolonged shmira watch was born. It ran without pause 24 hours a day, seven days a week, from Sept. 20, 2001 until April 30, 2002.

The body parts in the trucks weren’t exclusively those of Jews, but because Jewish remains were assumed to be among them, shmira was necessary.

Volunteers mostly spent their time sitting in a trailer filled with a few stray prayerbooks, lukewarm coffee and folding chairs for relief workers who cycled in and out during brief breaks from 12- and 16-hour shifts at Ground Zero. Some recited Psalms for the dead inside the tent with the refrigerated remains, taking the admonition to escort the dead to the grave as literally as possible.

The tent was filled with the smell of antiseptic and death. Each of the plain white trucks was draped with an American flag. Bouquets of plastic red, white and blue flowers would be added later to the foot of each truck, alongside photographs of some of the victims and a few votive candles. A huge American flag hung from the tent’s roof.

Outside, two expansive plywood walls had been turned into a makeshift memorial. They were covered with appreciative messages and weather-stained photographs of victims and their families sent in from all over America.

One rain-soaked night in the relief trailer where the Psalters were kept, a man wearing scrubs struggled to choke back tears.

“Look at what they’ve done to our people,” he said, his voice shaking. “I know you’re men of faith, but I want vengeance.”

Even in the pouring rain at 4 in the morning, the site where the dead where kept bustled with activity. Police officers and state troopers stood guard while police, firefighters, FBI agents and other officials made their way in and out of the cordoned-off area. Volunteers coming for the shmira watch would pick up clergy tags from the previous volunteer before entering.

Armin Osgood, a soft-spoken, portly, bearded man from an Orthodox synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Ohab Zedek, coordinated the shmira watch, and many of the volunteers came from his congregation.

But on Shabbat, when the volunteers—who came from as far as New Jersey and Pennsylvania—couldn’t take trains or taxis to reach the site, students from Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women, which was within walking distance of the morgue at 30th Street and First Avenue, managed the vigil. Their effort was written up in The New York Times.

The Rev. Betsee Parker, an Episcopalian chaplain who was a constant presence at the morgue site, later wrote about the shmira watch in a chapter in the book “Holy Tears: Weeping in the Religious Imagination.” The chapter was titled “‘Send Thou Me’: God’s Weeping and the Sanctification of Ground Zero.”

A year to the day after the Hebrew anniversary of the attacks—on the victims’ first yahrzeit—many of the people who had participated in the shmira gathered again at the morgue. This time they came together for the first night of recitation of Selichot, the annual Jewish ritual of reciting special late-night penitential prayers in the days leading up to the High Holidays. The night had happened to fall on 9/11’s first Hebrew anniversary.

“It was one of the most meaningful Selichot services I’ve ever attended,” Osgood said after the service. “I was never so moved by just being there. I had been in that tented area before, where the trucks were parked. Even with the refrigeration and whatever attempts they’ve made to preserve the bodies, there’s an aroma there. I felt the presence of the neshamas there”—the departed souls. “I felt everything.”

After the service, the participants lingered to recite the entire Book of Psalms, divvying up the chapters so the entire book could be read in just a few minutes.

Parker, who is known as Rev. Betsee, had come for the Orthodox service, and she too read some of the Tehillim, or Psalms.

“If God could accept the recitations in poor Hebrew of a goy, we managed to get through the whole book of Tehillim with one rusty goy,” she said. “It was a very elegant mitzvah for God. I knew that Adonai was delighted with what we had done there. I could feel that in my soul.”

Another shmira veteran who had come for the Selichot service, Ely Razin, spoke in a hushed tone after the service was over.

“It’s funny,” Razin said. “People forget about what happened, and then you come down here and it’s like a different world. It’s like it just happened yesterday.”

Solving a grim Jewish quandary after the attacks: Avoiding agunah problems for 9/11 widows


When unthinkable disaster struck a decade ago and close to 3,000 people were murdered at the World Trade Center, the scale of destruction created a unique challenge for victims’ families: identification of the dead.

With only fragmented human remains and degraded DNA left in the wake of 9/11, that task became, in the words of the National Institute of Justice, “the greatest forensic challenge ever undertaken in this country.”

For the families of Jewish victims, this problem was particularly thorny. According to Jewish law, a woman cannot remarry unless she has definitive proof of her husband’s death, lest she inadvertently enter into an adulterous relationship. Jewish law dictates that death can be proven in three ways: physical evidence, eyewitness testimony of the death and certain confirmation that the person had been in a situation in which survival was essentially impossible.

Absent such proof, this would leave Jewish wives of those killed at the World Trade Center in the position of classic agunot – “chained” women, left in a legal marriage with one who most likely was dead.

For decades, such cases had been few and far between.  In centuries past, however, this Jewish law was a reference point for the wives of sailors who had disappeared, soldiers who had failed to return home from battle and traveling merchants who had vanished along the way.

The consequences of being unable to identify the dead do not represent a uniquely Jewish problem.  Declaring individuals dead simply because they are likely to be dead can cause terrible complications.  For example, during World War II, President Jimmy Carter’s uncle, Tom Gordy, was declared dead by U.S. officials after being taken as a prisoner of war by the Japanese, and his wife remarried during the war. But when the war ended, Gordy returned home as a liberated POW to discover, tragically, that his wife was married to another. Under Jewish law, Gordy would most likely not have been declared dead, and his wife would not have remarried.  The disappearance of a person and the passage of time alone are not generally deemed enough, under Jewish law, to declare the person dead.

However, the circumstances of someone’s disappearance, in some situations, can support a presumption of death. Two illustrations commonly discussed in Jewish literature are the man who falls into a deep furnace and the man who drowns in a body of water that has visible boundaries, such as a lake or a pond. Of the first scenario, Jewish sages wrote that a man who is seen falling into a deep furnace may be presumed dead because he had no means of escape and is sure to have perished. Of the second, they wrote that a man who is seen drowning in a body of water with visible boundaries may be presumed to be dead because he surely would have been seen or found on shore had he survived.

It was this line of reasoning that allowed the Beth Din of America, a rabbinical court involved in many aspects of commercial and family law in the United States, to pronounce many 9/11 victims dead in the absence of conclusive physical evidence.

When the Office of Chief Medical Examiner in New York concluded its investigation, more than 1,100 victims of 9/11 remained unidentified. Even with respect to the nearly 1,600 victims who were identified, the identifications could not automatically be presumed to meet the standards set by Jewish law.

In its quest to confirm the fate of the victims, the Beth Din had to determine whether and which modern methods of identification would comply with Jewish evidentiary standards. What would satisfy the physical evidence requirement—DNA evidence? What about dental records?  What about the recognition of clothes or limbs?  The Beth Din also posed an additional question: In the event a determination required reliance upon eyewitness testimony, what person could provide such testimony?

In searching for answers, we studied the literature of prior tragedies, finding Jewish legal discussions of husbands who disappeared in the sinking of the Titanic, in the collapse of bridges in Rome, in avalanches in the Alps, in artillery bombardments in World War I, and in the sinking of the Israeli submarine Dakar. We also looked at the cases of Israeli soldiers who had disappeared during the 1973 Yom Kippur War and, of course, at agunah cases related to the Holocaust.

After 9/11, in some cases, the only evidence for placing someone in the World Trade Center at the time of the attack was circumstantial—phone calls made or emails sent from within an office, swipe cards indicating entry but no exit, and so on.  In certain cases, investigators identified remains through the modern technology of DNA analysis.

After a rigorous analysis of Jewish legal precedents, the Beth Din determined that DNA evidence could be marshaled for identification purposes, certainly when coupled with other circumstantial evidence of an individual’s death. In the few cases where investigators had found no direct physical evidence, the Beth Din relied on the third standard of proof: placing a husband, with certainty, in a situation in which no one could realistically be expected to survive.

More than 90 percent of the casualties of 9/11 were located at or above the point where the planes hit the towers, particularly in the North Tower. With no escape and facing almost certain death, those people were akin to the man who falls into a furnace.  Often, phone calls or emails were enough to place the missing person in his office at a certain time, after which escape would have been impossible. Together with other evidence, the Beth Din could rely on time stamps and statistics in order to pronounce the missing person dead.

For such a pronouncement to be made, it was not automatically sufficient to know that a person worked at the World Trade Center or attended a meeting there if no additional evidence proved he was there on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.

Why withhold judgment under circumstances in which an individual’s disappearance so clearly indicates death?  One unfortunate reason is because some people use tragedy as an opportunity for fraud and manipulation, or perhaps as a way to make a fresh start. The chaos of 9/11 opened the floodgates to a number of fraudulent insurance claims and other crimes.  Another sad reality is that sometimes, in the throes of despair, mistakes are made.  In the decades after the Holocaust, people long thought to be dead were discovered to be alive and well and raising new families in other parts of the world, in cases similar to the story of President Carter’s uncle.

With time, the Beth Din of America found sufficient evidence to make a declaration of death in each of the cases before it. In making those determinations, the Beth Din released each agunah according to the principles of Jewish law and enabled the victims’ loved ones to mourn for those lost and to begin to rebuild their shattered lives.  Ultimately, the halachic process provided a time-honored framework for honoring the dignity of those who had died, while creating a sense of direction for the spouses who had loved them.

(Michael J. Broyde is a professor of law at Emory University. Yona Reiss is the dean of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary at Yeshiva University. Both are members of the Beth Din of America. This piece was adapted from their contributions to “Contending with Catastrophe: Jewish Perspectives on September 11th,” released in August by the Beth Din of America Press and K’hal Publishing.)

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