It’s been 21 years, but the Manhattan skyline remains tragically orphaned. Visiting New York on 9/11 brings back echoes of the panic and the fear that changed something, deep down, in the collective consciousness, the angst that stripped away our certitudes in the permanence of democratic life. I remember trying, desperately, to call the continental United States from my office in Jerusalem, eager for the slightest piece of news about my older brother who worked on the 66th floor of 2 World Trade Center. Communications, of course, were down, and it took several hours until I heard that he had surfaced, covered in soot, in lower Manhattan.
Mike was a straight laced, conservative American lawyer, an Eagle Scout who taught me to hit a baseball and took me to Shea Stadium when I was a child. Soon enough we parted ways. He started a family and a legal career; I pursued a Zionist trajectory, moving to Israel where I’ve built a very different life over the decades. But on that September day, my brother was all that mattered. After the first plane hit 1 WTC at 08:47, Mike had rounded up his co-workers and led them down the stairs. As they reached the 44th floor sky lobby, the Port Authority announced that all was safe, advising to people to take the stairs back up. Many complied. Driven by some primordial instinct, Mike convinced his colleagues to follow him down the stairs. Minutes later, the second plane hit just ten stories above his office.
In the ensuing years, Mike and I grew closer. I had almost lost him. The US had lost a symbol of its ingenuity and greatness. People united around New York’s firefighters, mourned 3,000 victims in stunned silence, drew solace and meaning from the omnipresent displays of the American flag. More than just a symbol of patriotism, the stars and stripes were emblematic of a way of life, an open society and democratic ethos whose roots once seemed to embrace our civilization, carrying it forward towards what Fukuyama had claimed, just a few years before, was the end of history. Now it represented something inherently vulnerable, grounded not in concrete slabs and steel columns that soared 110 stories into the atmosphere but rather in a voluntary community of people on the ground, and a fragile consensus that made one from the many.
Two decades later, Mike and I moved slowly down the boardwalk on the south shore of Long Island. Thousands of people thronged the beach, soaking up the September sun. Scanning the crowd, I noticed small political encampments every 50 feet all along the shoreline, tall flagpoles displaying oddly misplaced political messages, obscene slogans proclaiming a vituperative contempt for the President of the United States. And flags, dozens of flags with black and blue stripes, a literal photonegative of the red, white and blue around which democracy has rallied for generations, from Gettysburg and Guadalcanal to the March on Washington for Civil Rights. Mike explained the symbolism of this indignity with sad resignation. Aghast, I could not peel my gaze away from the enormity, like some voyeuristic impulse to gape at a car accident, or TV images of that fireball rising out the South Tower of the World Trade Center. On January 6th, 2021, America had experienced another 9/11 moment, a calculated attack on the institutions of democratic life. The edifice, to be sure did not collapse, but the structure is still burning.
Back home, in Israel, partisans of democracy face another election with no small measure of angst. One side of the political fence has all but embraced a successor to Meir Kahana, the hate mongering immigrant-turned-politician from Brooklyn who briefly spewed paranoid invective form the Knesset podium in the mid 1980’s. In doing so, they have mainstreamed the very clerico-fascism Israel’s High Court banned from the political process a generation ago. He has mellowed, they say, matured, and after all, he’s not the one in charge. A certain Donald Trump, too, called upon his own racists to “stand back and stand by.” Authoritarianism on stand-by. Democracy at the abyss.
There are times in a nation’s history when ideologies clash and systems collapse, suddenly: at the gates of the Bastille, the doors of the Winter Palace or the foot of the Berlin Wall. And there are times of protracted struggle or, more lyrically perhaps, gradual evolution — like the slow flowering of America’s republic, from the Emancipation Proclamation to the Civil Rights Act — or the maturing of Israel’s own democracy, from the end of martial law over Arab communities in 1966, to the participation of the Islamic United Arab List in the governing coalition of 2021. Such times require patience, stamina, and determination to see beyond the vicissitudes of the moment, to persevere because of what we believe to be right, not because of what we know is certain. What sustains us at times like this is not just ideology. What sustains us is community, family, and an abiding conviction that democracy is the way of life we cherish – for ourselves and the people we love.