Jewish Journal

10 years after 9/11, what has changed?

by Julie Gruenbaum Fax

Posted on Sep. 7, 2011 at 2:14 pm

The twin towers of the World Trade Center pour smoke in New York, Sept. 11, 2001. Photo by REUTERS/Brad Rickerby/Files

The twin towers of the World Trade Center pour smoke in New York, Sept. 11, 2001. Photo by REUTERS/Brad Rickerby/Files

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.

The emphasis on security — and on what is scary and evil in this world — while necessary, can also skew our sense of priorities and has thrown parenting into disarray, according to psychologist Wendy Mogel.

“Everybody is kind of a nervous wreck and anxious, so we displace these global fears of things we have no control over onto the one thing we can control — our child’s safety, and whether they will get the better second-grade teacher,” said Mogel, author of “The Blessing of a B Minus: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Resilient Teenagers” (Scribner).

But parents’ desire to safeguard their children from any potential harm actually makes the children more vulnerable in the long term.

“Look, for example, at these crazy safety-first playgrounds, where they don’t have swings or high monkey bars or Tarzan ropes, and the idea is to keep children safe. But the paradoxical part is that it has the opposite effect, because children don’t learn to titrate their level of risk if they’re not faced with any risks on the playground,” she said.

Others wonder if the impact 9/11 had on personal behavior went deep enough.

“In the days and weeks right after 9/11, our community responded with increased thoughtfulness, selflessness and personal sacrifice. There were lessons learned from the tragedy, but as time has passed, unfortunately, we have mostly slipped back,” said Jay Sanderson, president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. “We have to reconnect to the feelings we felt and remember how simple acts of kindness can make us and our community stronger.”

Other generous impulses in the immediate aftermath of the attacks also failed to penetrate, according to Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom.

“Generally, Americans are still … oblivious to how the world lives, especially in underdeveloped — what we used to call ‘Third World’ — countries. We’re oblivious to how we’re seen in that world. As Jews, we are taught to view the world as a whole. Torah begins with the creation of all,” he said. “But, in general, Americans view their world much like that old New Yorker cover — we see our own neighborhood in perspective, and the rest is an undifferentiated abstraction, far away geographically and culturally.”

Some have responded to that sense of isolation by joining interfaith groups.

“One of the things I realized after 9/11, as someone who had just gone through undergraduate and graduate school, was that although there were plenty of Muslims at both universities, I didn’t have a Muslim friend, and I could not point to any Muslim with whom I could have a discussion about Sept. 11 or other domestic issues or about Israel,” attorney Nick Merkin said.

Merkin was an early member of NewGround: A Muslim Jewish Partnership for Change. The group was founded after 9/11 by the Muslim Public Affairs Council and the Progressive Jewish Alliance, and recently became independent. It brings together small cohorts of Muslim and Jewish young professionals, twice a month over the course of six months. Around 80 people have gone through the program since it was founded in 2004.

It was the Iraq War following 9/11 that prompted the founding of AFPI, the Abrahamic Faiths Peacemaking Initiative, a Los Angeles-based group of clergy and religious activists who advocate peacemaking as an essential and defining mandate of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater of the Pasadena Jewish Temple & Center, the group’s chairman, said that an essential part of the group’s success has been members’  willingness to look at troubling parts of their own tradition and to be open in their conversations with each other.

“What is unique about us is we don’t agree on everything, but we respect one another and have built relationships with one another, so we stay at the table when someone says something that might be challenging,” Grater said. 

Working over several years, the group put together a 50-page covenant that explores traditions of peace in all the religions. The covenant will be the basis for a curriculum at Claremont College’s new interfaith program. AFPI is co-sponsoring two interfaith commemorations for 9/11.

In contrast to the interfaith groups 9/11 spawned, it also offered proof to others that fundamentalist Islam has no place in America.

The David Horowitz Freedom Center “combats the efforts of the radical left and its Islamist allies to destroy American values and disarm this country as it attempts to defend itself in a time of terror,” according to its Web site.

“Islam is a problematic religion, there is no question about it,” Horowitz said in an interview. “It’s problematic because it’s never had a reformation. It’s a political religion and doesn’t believe in the separation of church and state. It’s rife with Jew-hatred, and has no central authority like the Vatican to expunge those portions from the Quran,” he said.

He said Muslims who don’t decry the genocidal vitriol other Muslims launch at Israel and the West can’t call themselves moderate, even if they participate in dialogues.

“I think in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, there was a huge shock when people became aware that there is a violent hatred of America coming from the Muslim world,” Horowitz said. “But I think in the ensuing years, although there have been over 17,000 terrorist attacks since 9/11 by Islamic warriors, that Americans in general have been lulled into a false sense of security. I think there is a lot of denial in the Jewish community about the threat to Jews in particular. Unfortunately, Jew hatred is rampant in the Muslim world.”

The polarization between right and left, in America and in the Jewish community, is something 9/11 did affect, but for the worse, according to Rabbi Feinstein.

“9/11 has contributed to the hardening of our communal polarization on issues related to Israel, anti-Semitism and the place of Jews in the world. The right is more fearful, more wary, more militant that the priority is security. The right readily views any dissenting view as treasonous to the Jewish people and its future,” Feinstein said. “The left is even more suspicious of expressions of particularism, readily viewing them as extremism. … The left views dissenting views as un-Jewish and a violation of the essence of Jewish social ethics. 9/11 has turned our communal debate into Ground Zero.  There is no safe place to discuss, discourse, debate, listen and learn from one another. Civility died when the towers fell.”

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