Yom Kippur 5782 and remembering Sept. 11

The holiest day of the Jewish year is Yom Kippur. This year, Erev Yom Kippur falls Wednesday, Sept. 15, and Jews around the world will observe the Day of Atonement through nightfall Thursday, Sept. 16.

The majesty of Yom Kippur — its opportunity for repentance and spiritual renewal — is both solemn and clothed in beauty of the soul and spirit. For on Yom Kippur, each of us may embark on a journey of renewal, a chance to ask forgiveness from Hashem and those against whom we may have transgressed — for forgiveness and redemption.

A critical part of Yom Kippur is remembering the souls who no longer actively live amongst us, but whose spirits — as grandparents, parents, children, spouses, family and friends — are very much a part of who we are.

This year, Yom Kippur begins just four days after the 20th anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, surely the darkest day in American history in the last 50 years.

Nineteen men affiliated with the militant Islamist fundamentalist group, al-Qaida, conspired to hijack four airliners.

Two planes struck New York’s World Trade Center towers, which collapsed and burned from the impact. A third jetliner struck the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. A fourth plane, United Airlines Flight 93, collided into the earth of Somerset County, Pennsylvania. The crew and passengers onboard courageously revolted against the hijackers. These brave souls averted the terrorists’ goal of crashing the aircraft into its programmed location in our nation’s capital.

Immediate deaths from the attacks numbered some 2,977 souls. These mortalities include 265 individuals on the four planes, including the terrorists; 2,606 in the World Trade Center; and 125 who died at the Pentagon. More than 6,000 people were injured in the attacks. The accounts of heroic first responders, many of them law enforcement forces and firefighters, are etched into history.

Of course, it is natural to wonder why Osama bin Laden, al-Qaida’s leader, perpetrated these savage attacks. As Foreign Affairs magazine recently reported, bin Laden had been pondering a massive attack on America for many years. As early as 1986, bin Laden’s family members recalled “that he first suggested that jihadis ‘ought to strike inside America’ to address the plight of Palestinians, since in bin Laden’s mind, it was U.S. support that allowed for the creation of the state of Israel on Palestinian land.”

To be sure, al-Qaida was steeped in anti-Zionism. The idea of a free state of Israel, as a homeland for the Jewish people, was anathema to bin Laden and his minions. Thus, in 1998, al-Qaida bombed the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing 224 people and injuring more than 4,000.

On Oct. 12, 2000, at bin Laden’s direction, al-Qaida exploded a small boat filled with explosives at the side of the USS Cole. Seventeen naval service members perished. Bin Laden bragged that this attack was “a critical turning point in the history of the umma’s (worldwide Arab community) ascent toward greater eminence.”

Two weeks after the attack on the Cole, bin Laden disseminated a public ultimatum to the United States. “I have only a few words for America and its people,” he said. “I swear by G-d almighty, who raised the heavens without effort, that neither America nor anyone who lives there will enjoy safety until safety becomes a reality for us living in Palestine and before the infidel armies leave the land of Muhammad.”

Thus, Sept. 11, its thousands of dead and casualties, and resulting conflicts, were seeded in the sadistic bile of bin Laden. His moral compass permitted the senseless slaughter of thousands of innocent human beings with the explicit goal of annihilating Israel. Any other interpretation of bin Laden’s spoken and written words simply overlooks his core hatred of Israel and the Jewish people.

In the aftermath of Sept. 11, vile propaganda proliferated asserting that somehow Israel had known of the attacks in advance. A rumor spread on the internet stated that Israel had somehow evacuated some 4,000 of its citizens from the targeted areas in New York City. This rank antisemitic screed reverberated throughout the world. On the Arab streets, and throughout Europe, the idea that Israel and Jews were responsible for Sept. 11 reverberated.

In 2003, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) issued a detailed report analyzing and refuting these rumors. The ADL concluded: “These theories are the latest manifestation of centuries-old allegations that Jews manipulate and control world events for their own benefit. They bring the ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion’ into the 21st century, updating a familiar theme: that Jews are inherently evil and have a ‘master plan’ to rule the world.”

The ADL report also noted: “What makes the 9/11 conspiracy theories particularly important is that they have united disparate groups of Jew haters — American far-right extremists, white supremacists and elements within the Arab and Muslim world — who are exchanging and echoing information, ideas, and conspiracy theories, particularly through the internet.”

Yom Kippur is a deeply spiritual experience. Let us remember that life is a precious gift from Hashem, to be cherished and protected. May we rekindle our spirits with a renewed commitment that good shall triumph over evil.

As we fast and commune with Hashem on this holiest of days, let us remember that hatred of Israel and the Jewish people is not selective. What happened on Sept. 11 20 years ago opened a gaping wound on the body of America. Let us take a few moments during our sacred respite to remember those who fell on Sept. 11, 2001.

And, let us pray, this Yom Kippur, that America and the world engages in healing.

A version of this editorial appeared in the Sept. 9, 2021, issue of the Jewish Herald-Voice of Houston.

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