Steven Windmueller
Where Jews and Judaism Meet the Political Road!

Twenty Years After: Reflections on 9/11

No event in our lifetime has so transformed America and its citizens as 9/11. The orchestrated attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon would fundamentally disrupt this nation’s sense of security and forever change the character and content of our democracy.

For Jewish Americans, as with the rest of our society, this significant moment would alter both personal beliefs and attitudes, as it would transition the performance of the institutions of our society. Looking back over these twenty years, the events surrounding September 11th, 2001, generated five specific outcomes impacting our community:

  • Our understanding of institutional preparedness would result in a shaping our Jewish community’s relationship with governmental agencies regarding matters of security. As such considerations over terror accelerated, a new and different relationship would be formed between government and the religious sector, resulting in a reconfiguration of the church-state equation.
  • Along with other constituencies, the Jewish community would join a major national debate over the limits to national surveillance and the preservation of civil liberties.
  • As part of a post-9/11 response, there has been a conscious involvement on the part of some American Jewish organizations to expand their connections with Muslim Americans, and in turn creating a more significant discussion on the state and focus of Jewish community relations.
  • Following 9/11 the Jewish community experienced significant fallout in connection with the rise of conspiracy theories identifying Jews and Israel as being responsible for these terror attacks. 
  • In the aftermath of this momentous moment, the nation experienced an increase in the number of incidents of domestic terror, with tragically some of these deadly actions being directed against Jewish citizens and institutions. Over these past twenty years, national security agencies and Jewish defense organizations have reported a heightened increase in the number of radicalized groups operating within the United States.

As we commemorate this, the 20th anniversary of 9/11, we can identify a number of other key factors that have transformed this nation, its citizens and our culture:

9/11 would profoundly impact the emotional and stress levels of our citizens.

According to various studies, following the terrorist attacks 90% of Americans exhibited symptoms of stress, and 44% “displayed substantial symptoms of stress,” weeks after these events. Even two months after the attacks, some 17% of US citizens experienced post-traumatic symptoms.[1]

The effect of that moment would elevate the centrality of religious expression and spiritual connection.

Data from an online survey indicated that respondents reported significantly higher levels of spirituality and faith in the two months after 9/11. These respondents also reported higher levels of what the study authors refer to as “theological virtues”—an index of faith, hope, gratitude, kindness, love, leadership, and teamwork.

“Furthermore, Americans overwhelmingly claim to have used religion and spirituality as methods of coping with the events of 9/11; 90 percent claim to have turned to prayer, religion, or spiritual feelings at some level in order to deal with the tragedy, including 44 percent who said they relied heavily on these coping mechanisms. Indeed, these numbers are quite impressive. A study of young adults, however, finds only modest increases in religiosity and spirituality.”[2]

The return of trust in government would represent a significant but short term outcome.

In October 2001, 60% of adults expressed trust in the federal government, “a level not reached in the previous three decades, nor approached in the two decades since then.”[3]  Since 9/11, however, the nation has experienced a significant decrease in such confidence in government action.

In its aftermath there would be a heightened interest by Americans in growing their understanding of Islam.

 A deep partisan divide would result in the aftermath of these terrorist events. Nearly seven-in-ten Republicans (68%) held to the belief that “Islam is not part of mainstream American society” while 37% of Democrats held such a viewpoint. In a separate 2017 survey conducted, “56% of Republicans said there was a great deal or fair amount of extremism among U.S. Muslims, with fewer than half as many Democrats (22%) saying the same.”[4]

New technologies would be created to monitor various hate and terror operations.

“Substantial alterations in news transmission, technology innovation, telecommunications networks, disaster preparedness, personal privacy, digital inequity, and security levels arose after the tragic events of this day. From a virtual standpoint, so many things have shifted over the last two decades that it is hard to imagine the world as it existed in 2001.”[5]

Over these two decades, government, business, and nonprofits have encountered cyber threats, ransomware attacks, and unwanted digital intrusions, elevating a growing concern over foreign influence.

New Political Realities: Civil Liberties vs. National Security

Following 9/11 the balance between protecting civil liberties and protecting the country from terrorism had shifted. 55% of Americans indicated that, in order to curb terrorism in the U.S., it was necessary for the average citizen to give up some civil liberties. By contrast, in 1997, only 29% said that this would be necessary while 62% said it would not.[6]

The balance between privacy and national security shifted markedly following 9/11. In October 2001, government officials gained new authority to surveil possible threats with the passage of the Patriot Act. With the establishment of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA), the government could  request permission to monitor phone calls, emails, and/or text messages. With the advent of smartphones and the prevalence of electronic communications, public authorities also developed new tools for monitoring particular individuals and tracking their physical whereabouts via geolocation data.[7]

Public Policy Implications:

“Taken together, these actions (federal legislation) dramatically expanded government power to engage in mass surveillance. Yet at the same time, the moves alarmed civil liberties advocates who worried about privacy invasions and unwarranted oversight of people’s activities. Those fears eventually led to some curtailment of government activities via the Freedom Act of 2015, but we still face a policy environment where there is no national privacy law and considerable government power for monitoring national security threats. Twenty years after the attack, the country continues to debate where to draw the line between promoting personal privacy and protecting national security.”[8]

 The Unresolved Immigration Debate: Deportations and More

 In the aftermath of 9/11, Presidents Bush, Obama and Trump deported record numbers of immigrants, going from about 18,000 criminal deportations in 2001 to 91,000 in 2012.  “The attacks understandably injected terror into the immigration debate.  Pre-9/1l, most of the conversation around immigration was about labor and the economy, not national security and terrorism. 9/11 gave energy to nativist and populist groups that did not want any immigration.”[9]

The Distinctive Impact of Television:

It was an era in which television was still the public’s dominant news source – 90% said they got most of their news about the attacks from television, compared with just 5% who got news online – and the televised images of death and destruction had a powerful impact. Around nine-in-ten Americans (92%) agreed with the statement, ‘I feel sad when watching TV coverage of the terrorist attacks.’ A sizable majority (77%) also found it frightening to watch – but most did so anyway.[10]


 9/11 has left a profound and sustained imprint on American culture and politics, just as it has impacted the lives and behaviors of our citizens. For Jewish Americans, the events surrounding September 11th have served to transform elements of our communal agenda and altered institutional and individual behaviors and practices, as well as shaped public policy debates and community relations strategies and priorities.


[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.







About the Author
Steven Windmueller, Ph.D. is an Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. Prior to coming to HUC, Dr.Windmueller served for ten years as the JCRC Director of the LA Jewish Federation. Between 1973-1985, he was the director of the Greater Albany Jewish Federation (now the Federation of Northeastern New York). He began his career on the staff of the American Jewish Committtee. The author of four books and numerous articles, Steven Windmueller focuses his research and writings on Jewish political behavior, communal trends, and contemporary anti-Semitism.
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