Howard Rotberg
Howard RotbergCourtesy

Author’s note: This is from my novel about Israel during the Second Intifada and about a professor writing a controversial book claiming a Second Shoah is underway, when his daughter gets injured in a terrorist attack at a Jerusalem restaurant. The professor contemplates the significance of 9/11 and whether the world will learn anything at all from it. Excerpted from the novel, The Second Catastrophe: A Novel About a Book and its Author (Mantua Books, 2003)

The weather in Jerusalem on Tuesday, September 11th was perfect: a high of 27 degrees Celsius, with a low expected of 13 degrees at night. With the warm sun shining, we tried to put out of our minds, the continuing violence that was being inflicted on Israel and its civilians (in the Second Intifada). We were so happy to be bringing Chana home from the hospital (after her injuries in the terrorist attack at the restaurant), even though we weren’t bringing her “home” but to the hotel, and even though we knew she had to go back in three weeks for a further operation.

We had ordered a special van which transported wheelchair patients. We reserved it for 3:30 but it arrived at the hospital closer to 4:00. Lucky, Dov and I were all there to assist Chana, whose leg was in a raised position, resting on a metal flap on the wheelchair. The poor van driver had the three of us supervising his every move.

When we arrived at the Jerusalem Tower Hotel, Dov held the door open while I steered Chana’s wheelchair through the somewhat narrow door. When we entered the desk clerk had joined a group of five or six patrons of the small bar to the left of the lobby, all gathered in front of a television, the volume of which was turned way up. Dov, whose Hebrew was the best of our group, went over to one of the people in front of the television, and I could hear him ask, “Ma karah?” (What happened?)” After a short conversation in Hebrew, he motioned us over.

Unfortunately, in Israel, people are news crazy; that is, they quite often stop everything to listen to the news. Of course, that is because so much of importance is happening all the time. There are reports of terrorist attacks, casualties, and military responses to those attacks. There are stories about the latest on the diplomatic front, and a constant stream of political stories about the struggle of the coalition government to keep its disparate members onside. I first noticed it, travelling on buses or taxis. No matter what else was going on, the driver would turn up the volume. A whole busload of noisy, chattering Israelis could become silent in seconds, as everyone struggled to hear the latest details of Israel’s eventful, often calamitous, history in the making.

“You won’t believe what just happened in New York”, said Dov, as we looked up at the television screen. There, before our eyes, was television footage of a commercial jetliner crashing directly into the side of an office tower, which Dov told us was one of the towers of the World Trade Center in New York. As the small crowd looked on in shock, we saw footage of dense black smoke pouring out of the building. Other footage showed people running in horror down the adjacent street, fleeing from the burning inferno.

None of us could move from the television set. It was as if we were mesmerized. And what sights did we see: a second airplane hitting another tower. Then one of the towers collapsing into itself, causing the group of us to collectively gasp at the horrible site we were witnessing. It was as if we all began to realize the enormity of the catastrophe taking place before us. These were office buildings, full of thousands of people, and the time, being about 9:30 a.m. in New York, would mean that most of the employees would have arrived at their desks.

Dov kept whispering explanations of what the Hebrew news reporter was saying. All that I could think of was how this terrorist madness was taking over the world: the biggest, most powerful, Western democracy was now being attacked on its home front. Nothing like this had ever happened to the U.S. before; in neither the First nor Second of the World Wars had the military action been brought to the American homeland. Now, however, America was being delivered a message in a dastardly fashion, that no one could ignore: radical Islamism was no longer interested simply in attacking Israel as America’s symbol in the Middle East, now it was going after the Land of Liberty itself, and it would show America that it could be struck in the financial heart of its premier city, New York.

Eventually, we moved from the hotel lobby, up to one of our rooms, and we sat there, watching the coverage on CNN for close to four hours. Then Lucky and I volunteered to go around the corner and pick up some falafel sandwiches and drinks, while Dov helped Chana move into her room. As we walked out to the Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall, Lucky said, “You know, Norman, what we saw today was just like the Japanese bombing Pearl Harbor. I think that just like Pearl Harbor brought the U.S. into the war against the Nazis and the Japanese, I think the World Trade Center bombings are going to force the U.S. into a war against the Islamic terrorists. We always thought that there would be a war between the U.S. and the Russians, especially around the time of the Cuban missile crisis. But I think we are going to see a war this time against the Islamic terrorist groups.”

“Do you think that President Bush has the guts to do it?” I queried. “You know, he was elected on a pretty isolationist platform, like tax cuts. And his dad had the chance to wipe out Saddam Hussein, and he wimped out and left him in power.”

Lucky said, “Well a war to save the Kuwaitis is one thing, but a war on American soil is another.”

“I think you may be right”, I said. “I hope this means that the Americans will start showing some understanding of what Israel’s going through, and start supporting a tough Israeli response.”

“I hope you’re right,” said Lucky. “But I wouldn’t count on it.”

When we got back to the room, Dov and Chana were back from their unpacking of Chana’s stuff, and were glued to the television. “Would you look at this?” said Chana. On the screen were pictures of Palestinian Arabs from the 'West Bank' cheering, laughing and throwing candy in joy, at the news of the attacks on the World Trade Center.

“I don’t think that is going to play too well in Oklahoma”, said Dov.

We watched a lot of television for the next few days, mostly CNN and a little BBC. It didn’t take too long for the Americans to finger Osama bin Laden as the culprit, along with his Al-Qaeda organization, based in Afghanistan. I was still spending every morning in the writing of my book, and I was doing a fair bit of revision to the early part of the text to update it with references to September 11th. Lucky was, it seems, almost addicted to the news coverage. We made it a habit to go out for lunch together, and invariably he would give me the latest in the news coverage and news analysis.

My emotions were up and down like a yo-yo. Tamar and I were getting together for brief meetings and I could feel myself daily become more intense in my feelings for her. On the other hand, the news coverage of September 11th was getting me down. The CNN coverage we were watching was based in London, not Atlanta, like the coverage we got in Canada. Thus, many of the analysts were British, and they tended to be apologists for the Arab world.

We were getting lectured on the need to look for the “root causes” of Arab hatred for the West, as if there was some justification for what was done in New York. Invariably one of the “root causes” cited by these analysts was the need to remedy the “plight” (as it was called) of the Palestinian Arabs. Implicit in so much of this talk was a sense that Israel was somehow responsible. It was never clear exactly what Israel was supposed to do, other than create a hostile Palestinian state, armed to the teeth, in territory within 20 kilometers of Israel’s major centers, and based on an ideology to get rid of the Jewish majority in the State of Israel. But it seemed that so many analysts were accepting that Israel was somehow the naughty boy of the Middle East.

The other thing that was getting me down, and Lucky talked about it a lot too, was that these TV networks continually lecturing the U.S. about what it could or could not do, based on what the “Arab street” would stand for, and what the Arab states would support. In other words, if the U.S. attempted to go after the perpetrators of this infamous terrorist act, then the U.S. would be responsible for the ”Arab street” rising up and de-stabilizing the entire Middle East, and perhaps the rest of the world for good measure.

Israel was constantly being warned to show “restraint” in its attempt to defend itself against Arafat’s terrorist infrastructure, let it rouse the Arab street, and lest it disrupt a type of coalition the U.S. was attempting to build among certain nations, including Arab nations, to facilitate a prospective U.S. military action in Afghanistan. And so, we, and other viewers from Israel, were stuck watching a scenario where President Bush was courting a variety of Arab and other world leaders to support the U.S. effort to destroy Bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda, and the Taliban government that was hosting them. As Israel remained under constant attack, the Israelis were once again being counselled to remain well-behaved on the sidelines, just as they had done during Bush Sr.’s Gulf War, when the Israelis sat passively on the sidelines as Iraqi scud missiles rained down on Tel Aviv. We felt again that Israel was going to suffer in return for the U.S. gaining Arab support. It was a tough time and Lucky and I could talk of little else.

It seemed that the U.S. too had been thrown forcibly, by the events of September 11th, into a war. The question is, would they be able to properly identify the enemy? Most of the politicians were saying it was a war against Al-Qaeda or a war against terrorism. To be sure, it was not a war against an identifiable nation-thinking…a war against a certain view of Israel and the Jews, and their spiritual successors, the Americans…a war by those who were rejecting our values.

As mentioned, many politicians were counselling against any actions that might incite the “Arab street”. I couldn’t understand why we should care about the “Arab street”. Wasn’t the “Arab street” in fact part of the problem – the anti-American, anti-Western, antisemitic, anti-liberal hordes from who sprang the volunteers for terrorist attacks?

If we refrained from acting out of fear of the “Arab street”, then we were losing the war from the start. These Arabs hate Westerners because of our liberalism, because of our democracy, because of our material success, in fact because of our goodness, is in fact the essence of what threatens us. This mindset is viewed sympathetically by many Western leftists who are self-hating of our values. Western leftists counsel appeasement towards the evil of Arab terrorism and the evil of third world opinion expressed through the United Nations. They are sometimes motivated by what novelist/philosopher Ayn Rand called “hatred of the good for being good” which is the essence of nihilism.

I realized that the “situation” in Israel would soon become the “situation” for the entire Western world, as shown by 9/11. It occurred to me that the West’s lack of full support for Israel portends badly for how successful the West itself will be as the “situation” spreads to Europe and America.