Monthly Archives: September 2014

Remembering 9/11

Twitter is a new medium, an immediate means of mass communication. It’s also highly personal in its subjective compression. The combination makes it the avatar of social media. Most of the time I retweet things that are interesting and relevant to Ireland and Irish Israeli relations – or just plain irresistible on occasion – but 9/11 prompted me to recall my posting to New York and my memories of that day. On the way to the Remembrance Day event in the Arazim Valley on the outskirts of Jerusalem yesterday, I tweeted a sequence of my most vivid memories and impressions of 9/11 (copied below); used like this, tweeting in its staccato brevity seemed to work like memory.

Talking about 9/11 last night, my son, who was seven years of age at the time, said he remembered the day. He was delighted that it was a half-day at school when his mother came to get him. He remembers his mother’s shocked incredulous reaction at the sight of a single tower where two had stood when she had entered the school only minutes earlier; a bystander’s laconic explanation to her that “it went down.” He guiltily wondered whether he caused 9/11 in some way because he had been hoping for something dramatic to happen to break the boredom of the return to school. It’s the kind of guilty conscience we all had as children on occasion, part of childhood innocence.

New York lost its innocence that day. This might seem a strange thing to say about a city that used to be known for its wealth, crime, ceaseless bacchanalia and iconoclastic art scene. However, there was in New York up to 9/11 a zest and love of life that made its residents proud of the city and drew so many to visit and live there. On the edge of the continental US landmass, sheltered by a vast ocean that separated it from the complications of Europe and the troubles of the Middle East, New York was a haven onto itself, Manhattan a crystalline island of success, glamour and good times. And then in a flash from some inexplicable malign force, two of those very highest crystals were shattered and some 3,000 innocents of the city lost their lives.

9/11 showed another side to New York and New Yorkers and what it made it great. If there is a broader sentiment in my memory, aside from the unreality of it all, it is the immediacy of how the city dealt with the attack. The city did not reel in shock but grappled with the immensity of the emergency head on. Firefighters did not think twice about rushing to the scene and entering the dizzy towers visibly being consumed by a ferocious living fire. Police officers and first responders did not flinch in courage or professionalism, even as bodies began to rain down from the heights above. Those leaving the area walked home with dignity, often through the night. Whoever could help did help; and more help came from all over the US.

Sometime after the event, my wife and I had dinner with a friend, Irish journalist and writer Conor O’Clery, whose apartment overlooked the site of 9/11. He had seen what had happened that day and photographed much of it. We saw his snaps of the billowing cloud of dust and debris but he reserved other photos, too dreadful to share and out of respect for those it showed in their last moments. By now, the rubble had been cleared away and we could look into the vast cavern of the excavation, arc lights creating a fog of glare around the workers in the deep and infernal pit. With undaunted energy and application, New Yorkers were clearing to build anew: Perhaps less innocent now but always resilient, always forging ahead, always New York, New York.

If you are minded to, taking a trip to the memorial in Jerusalem in the Arazim Valley is worth a visit and a pause for reflection. Beneath a sculpture of a monumental American flag a piece of one of the towers is entombed behind glass and the names of the victims inscribed around the elegant amphitheatre. Information here

Shabbat Shalom


Remembering 9/11 on Twitter

Hard to believe 13 years since my family and I woke up on a beautiful New York morning and a day that would reshape our world.

After I dropped our young kids to the UN school, I recall glancing down Park Avenue and seeing a billowing grey cloud of dust.

As Press Officer, I had the only TV in the Consulate. Local staff were trying flickers to turn it on: something terrible had happened.

We stood around the TV images of smoke billowing from the Twin Towers, all of us wrapt and confused. A tower sank in a haze of thick dust.

We got a call through to HQ on a land line. We didn’t hang up for days. It was our lifeline to Dublin as comm systems crashed.

DFA cranked into gear as the SG created a crisis centre in the Grand Ballroom and assembled a consular team to fly to NY asap to support us.

My wife called. Should she get the kids out of the school? I said no, it was miles from the Twin Towers.

Rumors were flying: more planes were in the air about to strike DC: two were hijacked and flying from Heathrow heading straight for NY.

News reports came in about a plane hitting the Pentagon. I called Mary and said get the kids.

What followed was a blur of activity, piecing together what was happening, reporting to HQ, dealing with the press from Ireland.

We needed to figure out how many Irish were killed, injured or needing our help. The Irish media asked many ‘Irish were among the dead?’

But in NY how do you define Irish? Irish born? Child of Irish born? Passport holder? And what of Irish Americans going back generations?

Stairwell: Irish American firefighters going up meet Irish American financial traders going down. Story of the Irish. They died together.

As 9/11 unfolded, one of the biggest helps to the Consulate was the NYPD. Every other cop had an Irish name: the Irish pulling together.

During the crisis and its long aftermath, it felt surreal. Clichéd but true, at times it felt like a movie, not quite real.

The Consulate was manned 24/7: a great team running on adrenaline. Old friends arrived as part of the consular group from Dublin.

Our home was on East 37th St. My wife checked in when she could: kids home safe but confused by the news. People were streaming by on foot.

Evening 9/11: she said the air had a strange odor, a wretched mix of dust and burn. Save for emergency vehicles, city at a standstill. NY, city of spontaneous shrines.

We pilgrimaged to nearby Armory Building, festooned with notes, photos of those hopefully just missing.

The missing of 9/11 we knew later were dead, families forever bereft. As we remember them today, may they rest in peace.

My wife and I honoured to attend moving 9/11 Remembrance Ceremony, Jerusalem.



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Some thoughts on Ari Shavit’s ‘My Promised Land, The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel’

Every country should have an Ari Shavit. His acclaimed and criticized book My Promised Land, the Triumph and Tragedy of Israel (Spiegel and Grau, 2013) is an engrossing and insightful story of a nation told from the perspective of a questioning, ardent man. It is the kind of compassionate dissection and health check that every country could do with once in a generation or so.

Shavit makes no claim for his account as history and that is its strength. It is his story, the story of his family, of his profession as a journalist and how his life has been shaped by the dramatic creation and evolution of Israel. The narrative moves from encounters with the landscape of Israel and the individuals who shaped Israel’s achievements in key fields to majestic thematic sweeps that explain why and how Israel got to where it is today.

Perhaps Shavit’s greatest quality as a writer and chronicler – and he has many – is his empathy with the other viewpoint and the courage with which he explores and records the experiences of others, in particular those of the Palestinians dispossessed by the creation of Israel.

Shavit has thought long and hard about Israel and the dynamics that have shaped it. His narrative falls into well-defined even abrupt phases, each driven by social and political revolts. He moves eloquently from the founding Zionist idealism, the wars for survival and the massively under-appreciated impact of the arrival of the Oriental Jews – the mizrahim – in the 1950s and 1960s to the arrival of one million Russians in the 1990s, the growth of the settler movement and the Orthodox community (now numbering 700,000), the cultural and economic opportunities of globalization, and the burdens and expectations of the middle classes.

Each of these revolts presented an enormous challenge to Israel. Each of these was dealt with expediently and ultimately successfully, though Shavit argues at a price. That price, he suggests, is cumulative and now coming due.

Shavit is smitten with the notion that Israel is in trouble, possibly deep trouble, despite the miracle of its birth and survival. He looks backward in time; his family’s history is woven in the very fabric of Israel’s story. But he projects forward too; as he watches his children grow, he wonders what future lies ahead for them. Indeed his anxiety about Israel’s future is what has driven his exploration of its past. The title of the book captures his belief in a bifurcated Israel, triumphant and tragic. Shavit posits, mainly, that Israel’s triumph precedes a cluster of hinge moments between 1967 and 1977 and that its tragedy follows that cluster.

But Shavit is too aware of Israel’s dualistic nature – socialist and ruggedly individualistic, secular and religious, liberal democratic and oppressively colonializing – to suggest that the triumph and tragedy are divided chronologically by a convenient caesura. Rather the triumph and tragedy interplay: What made Israel triumph contained the seeds of its tragedy. He is mindful and courageous in facing the fact that Israel could not have come into existence without the Nakba, the forced expulsion of Palestinians from their ancestral lands and villages. Indeed he goes on to argue that the heart of the matter is not 1967 but 1948 (his account of what happened at Lydda in 1948 has drawn particularly heavy fire from his critics.) Without the original sin of the 1948 expropriation and expulsion of Palestinians, the state of Israel could not have been possible. Yet the existence of Israel was an existential and moral imperative against the backdrop of the Holocaust.

Much of his account indeed is a constant juggling of such moral juxtapositions and how to understand, even rationalize, them. The many moral and strategic conundrums he encounters make the book the thrilling, courageous and sympathetic account that it is.

Shavit is not blithe enough to suggest that expiating the moral corrosion of the 1967 occupation by acceding to the two state solution is an easy or obvious thing to do: for ending the occupation certainly increases the security risks to Israel through the sheer loss of a heavy security and intelligence presence that the occupation demands. But unless Israel ends the occupation, it faces an increasingly difficult international environment, the prospect of a bi-national state and demographic uncertainty about sustaining a Jewish majority, and the alienation of the younger Jewish Diaspora notably in the US.

Shavit writes vividly about the unique threats that Israel faces and of which we comfortably in Europe are less cognizant. After the Holocaust, the decision to concentrate so much of world Jewry in one place was necessary but a gamble of a very high order; “…essential but dangerous” as Ari Shavit writes. He points out that in 1950 10% of Jews were in Israel; today it is 45% and by 2025 the majority of the world’s Jews will be Israeli. Israel is western, democratic and Jewish in an Orient of Arabs and Muslims comprising an outer circle of 1.6bn Muslims, an intermediate circle of 370 million Arabs and an inner circle of Palestinians who by 2055 will comprise 10 million or 55% of the population between the Jordan and the sea. All these circles press in on Israel in some form or another.

In a very specific way the title does not do justice to Shavit’s thesis and conviction. It might have been more accurately entitled if it contained the word ‘hope’ along with ‘triumph’ and ‘tragedy’. In all fairness that might have defied the cleverest of editors but it’s a necessary caveat because Shavit concludes on a positive note. He sees his children contented and confident as young citizens of Israel in a way that proved impossible for Jews anywhere else.

The concluding chapter is at one level hopeful but its title – By the Sea – is double edged. Yes, he seems to be saying, it’s lovely to see my kids by the sea free and equal in this miracle of a country but being by the sea is very dangerous because there is nowhere else to go, we are at the edge. Yet as he reflects on the miracle that is Israel, he concludes that its resilience and creativity, its commitment to life and restless energy suggests that Israel can yet again fashion a solution to its problems, that another chapter defying the odds can and will be written.

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