September 11, 2001, was a beautiful sunny day in Milan. Like every morning, I was in the library of my university, busy with my PhD dissertation.
I’m not sure how I realised that people were leaving the reading room.
Internet wasn’t a big thing in Italy back then. Still, there were a couple of terminals accessible in the library’s main reading room (next to the catalogues). From there, trying to find my way through a group of students huddling around the computer, I learnt of the terrorists’ attack.
I did what I saw other people doing. I went home. Walking towards the bus stop, I passed by Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, which at that time of the day was always crowded; not that day, though. There were only small groups of tourists, one of whom tried to watch the news on a TV inside a shopping window. But as I said, it was a beautiful sunny day, and it was difficult to see through the glass.
One of the tourists -an American- asked me what was going on. I had to tell him, “Do you remember the Twin Towers? ”.
In the evening, we had the choir rehearsal for our synagogue. Rosh ha Shana was one week away. We met in an apartment, and of course, the TV was on. A young Israeli said that he had seen that Palestinians were celebrating in the Territories. They were offering sweets, but some cab drivers refused to take the sweets and cursed the cheering crowd. An elderly lady said she had just been on the Twin Towers last Summer; the cruise to NY was a gift for the wedding anniversary from her daughter.
Psychologists explain that one of the most common reactions to shocking events is denial, pretending that nothing has happened, and keeping on with previous commitments. We decided to do that. So we spent the evening rehearsing El Norah and other masterpieces of the Sephardic liturgy while ice-cubes were melting in the jugs of fruit juices. It was, as I said, a very hot day.
I saw other rationalisations, other narratives, emerging in the following days. We need narratives. When we face events that we cannot understand, our minds build a story. Such a story helps us to figure out the why -why did it happen- and the possible outcomes.
There is nothing more terrifying than uncertainty. We human beings need to tell ourselves that we know what is going to happen and that we are prepared.
The narrative I saw materialising around me was as follows: September 11 was an attack by Muslims against the West. Muslims worldwide have all the good reasons to be upset against America, against the Western world, because of colonialism, “Orientalism”, Islamophobia and -above all, what’s-happening-in-Palestine.
I heard such a narrative from several people, usually literate, academic colleagues, or people who, like me, considered themselves liberals. It was thrown at me, for example, during informal conversations -on the bus or around the coffee machine. I remember as if it was today how I felt speechless and exposed, how quickly I looked around the rooms, often realising that I was the only Jew, the only person in the room with an emotional connection with Israel. And the expectation, or worse: the assumption, that I shared a narrative which assigned to Israel, and to Zionism, a share of guilt for what has happened on September 11.
It got worse. At that time, I was like many citizens of Milan, an attentive listener of a community radio and its program based on unfiltered telephone calls. And I heard several listeners call revealing what they had heard from Arab newspapers and friends: that on the morning of the 9/11 attack, no Jew has shown up to work. They have been probably informed in advance that was the unspoken, or sometimes openly spoken. The Israelis knew it. The Jews knew it (or have been informed). That is, the Israelis and the Jews were complicit. I could not share with anyone the fear that I felt because of the quick spread of this legend. So small, so little it seemed my fear; if compared to the pain of the New Yorkers, of the Iraqis, and of course of the Palestinians. I had adopted the mindset that the suffering of the Jews is never a serious problem; there is always someone who has it worse (and quite often by the hand of Jews).
Even more terrifying was another narrative I found myself exposed to. It went this way: Americans had it coming. They are so arrogant; they impose their so-called culture on the rest of the world, they are nothing but colonialists, and now “the peoples” rebel. Sorry for the casualties, but that’s inevitable.
I am actually quoting from the person who told me this narrative; he was my barber. And, of course, you do not engage in a political discussion if you are sitting on a barber’s chair and the other guy has a sharped razor in his hands. But especially because the other customers were nodding in agreement.
I have known this guy since we were teenagers. He was not a leftist; quite the contrary, his family were fervent nationalists. He himself, in the 80s, was in love with Reagan’s America, a deep believer in individual freedom and a virulent anti-Communist. He was so enamoured of America that he had abandoned the Italian passion for football and embraced the all-American basketball.
But evidently, in 2001, America was no longer the cultural beacon it was two decades before when we were schoolmates. Now he reacted with a kind of pleasure at the thought of American citizens suffering. Now he wanted the Americans to be punished. And the other young gentlemen who that day were waiting for a haircut shared his feelings and newfound worldview. According to which we Jews are, of course, on the side of America. A Country we probably run.
Fast forward twenty years. Today, and for us Jews, things are not that changed. If anything, they got worse.
Israel is still portrayed as a source of the problems between Islamic Countries and the Western world, if not the main source of problems. Never mind if a growing number of Muslim Countries have now established diplomatic relations with Israel. They are, probably, the wrong kind of Muslims.
Conspiracy theories abound. And they have a growing number of followers. Conspiracy theories are pure nonsense; think to Q Anon or the Flat Earth-ist. But sadly, there is never a shortage of people eager to discover powerful and small cabals of intermarried families who rule the world. And even when a conspiracy theorist does not speak openly of a Jewish plot, we know what his audience think of us.
But even more worrying for us Jews, especially the talks- which we also hear from conservative politicians — about the end of democracy, the references to liberal elites, narrow circles of privileged rootless cosmopolitans, and powerful bankers.
We know where this language leads. It may not be explicitly anti-Semitic, but it depicts an enemy with the same evil traits that for centuries have been part of the antisemitic repertoire.
This is the cultural atmosphere ushered by September 11. A poisonous mixture of ingredients that were around already, perhaps since the end of the Cold War. September 11 was the event that put all these ingredients together, creating a poisonous atmosphere that we breathe today.
I wish I could conclude this sermon with words of hope and optimism, but it seems to me too difficult. Today in Kabul, they will actually celebrate the war against the Western world and against all the Western world stands for, including our existence as a free people.
I have no prescriptions other than the duty we have in the West to welcome refugees from that part of the world and to prepare ourselves for a long-term confrontation with a part of the Islamic world and -perhaps- China which will likely be similar to the Cold War.
But as this Shabbat, we are halfway between Rosh ha Shanah and Yom Kippur. We are preparing ourselves to give an account of our spiritual failures, our mistakes, and what we can do better for the future.
I invite you to pray more; to come more to synagogue, to keep more in touch with our community, and, if possible, to spend some time studying our tradition.
A cultural tradition that invites you to look inside yourself honestly, admit failures, and commit to being a better human being is the best antidote to fanaticism and violence once a year. And this is precisely why insecure and violent people are so afraid of them. But as for us, let’s not be intimidated.
I wish you Shabbat Shalom and a very Jewish Jewish New year.
11 September 2021, Brighton & Hove Reform Synagogue