GOP presidential frontrunner Donald Trump on Sunday refused to back down from his assertion that thousands of Arabs in New Jersey celebrated as they watched the World Trade Center come down on Sept. 11, 2001. From the network website:
“There were people that were cheering on the other side of New Jersey where you have large Arab populations,” he told George Stephanopoulos today on ABC’s “This Week.” “They were cheering as the World Trade Center came down. I know it might be not politically correct for you to talk about it, but there were people cheering as that building came down — as those buildings came down, and that tells you something. It was well covered at the time.”
Here’s the thing. As the towers came down, some people indeed saw a group of five — not thousands, but five — Middle Eastern men clowning around and photographing themselves in front of the burning towers from the New Jersey waterfront. They weren’t Arabs, and they weren’t Muslims.
They were Israeli and Jewish – young men making asses of themselves, as some young men are wont to do. Perhaps not recognizing the import of what they were seeing.
How do I know this? I tracked one of their friends down to Jesus’ hometown, two months after the attack:
Nazareth, Israel — On the day after the world changed, Roy Barak and his partner were in an empty rental truck, eastbound on I-80 in northern Pennsylvania. The men were movers, near the end of a 16-hour deadhead run from Chicago to a chaotic New York.
Over the truck radio, the 23-year-old Israeli Jew listened to the confusion that billowed from the rubble of the fallen World Trade Center towers. He heard the news reports that five suspected terrorists had been picked up in a white van headed for the city via the George Washington Bridge.
Angry witnesses had seen the five at a waterfront park in New Jersey apparently laughing, clowning and photographing themselves in front of the burning towers.
Barak had no way of knowing the arrested men were his friends, Israelis working for the same moving company. But he found out quickly.
At noon Sept. 12, Barak and his partner, 25-year-old Motti Butbul, were blue-lighted by a patrol car and pulled into a rest stop. The formal charges were minor: a broken turn signal, missing fire extinguisher and the fact that Barak had overstayed his six-month visa. Butbul also had no work permit.
But the quick appearance of four FBI agents made it clear this wasn’t a normal stop. A box cutter was found in the truck.
“Then I disappeared,” Barak said with a smile.
He would not be seen again for nearly two months. Barak and Butbul reappeared only a few days ago, aboard an El Al flight to Tel Aviv and home.
Barak was interrogated first as a possible terrorist, then as a potential spy. He said he did not see a lawyer for two weeks and never appeared before a judge. His parents did not know where he was for six weeks, until someone from the Israeli Consulate could sneak a cellphone into the prison.
“I’m a little bit angry, ” Barak said. “I understand what they were doing. But it took too long.”
Civil liberties groups estimate that federal authorities arrested 1,100 foreigners in the United States in the days after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.
The Justice Department will say very little about them. Most of those arrested are young men between the ages of 20 and 30. Most are from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Egypt.
But 90 to 100 of those detained are Israeli citizens, according to that nation’s Foreign Ministry. It doesn’t know for sure. Nor does it know where all of them are. None has been charged with anything other than improper documentation or failure to obtain work permits.
Most Israelis understand America’s initial reaction to a terror attack that killed thousands of civilians and the need to prevent another. But parents whose children are still in U.S. jails are becoming increasingly impatient with the pace at which authorities are sorting through the detainees.
Israeli journalists are pressing the U.S. ambassador, Daniel Kurtzer, on the issue. Members of the Knesset have handed him a petition. The parents of the five movers still being held in a federal prison in Brooklyn, N.Y., have enlisted the help of Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert and are relying on his close ties to New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.
Olmert has called Giuliani twice, to no avail. Custody of the men is a federal affair, he was told. “Quite frankly, I don’t know why they have to hold them such a long time,” Olmert said. “It’s ridiculous. It’s stupid.”
The families of the five movers have been asked to remain quiet, to make it easier for the Israeli government to intercede. But privately, he parents think their sons are being punished — and harshly treated — for their behavior Sept. 11.
Olmert thinks the parents probably are right. “They acted in a silly, irresponsible, childish way,” he said. “So what?”
The release of Barak and Butbul — the first Israeli authorities are aware of — is seen as a hopeful sign. “I think we’re coming to a happy ending,” said Irit Stopper, deputy spokeswoman for the Foreign Ministry.
Israeli youths often travel, after a compulsory stint in the military and before settling down or going to college. To pay their way, many have found niches in the U.S. economy. In New York, young Israeli men — fresh from the rigors of the military — do heavy lifting for the moving industry.
Barak, an ex-paratrooper, got a job with Urban Moving Systems of Weehawken, N.J., in the summer of 2000. Starting pay was $7 an hour, plus tips. Mostly Barak stayed east. He saw Miami, delivered furniture to Atlanta and drove by Graceland in Memphis.
Like other Israelis, he gave little thought to his expired visa — until Sept. 11.
At the police station, Barak was allowed his one telephone call. He called his employer — it was a toll-free call and so the only one he could make. That’s how he found out the five suspected terrorists in the white van were his friends.
They had been arrested, and circumstances had inspired even more suspicion: One of the five has the first name Omer, which is close to the Arabic name Omar. Another had a German as well as an Israeli passport — unusual in America, but not in Israel, where dual citizenship is common.
And a third mover had booked a flight to Thailand for Sept. 13. The FBI raided the company warehouse and took a dozen computer hard drives and files.
In York, Pa., Barak and Butbul were fingerprinted, photographed and delivered to a nearby prison, where they would spend nearly two months in orange jumpsuits.
For the first formal interrogation session, Barak said, FBI agents brought a polygraph machine — and a photograph of the five Israelis in front of the flaming towers.
“They came and they showed me the picture. And they asked me, ‘Why are they smiling?’ I look in the picture, and I told them that I don’t see them smiling,” Barak said. “They don’t look sad, but they’re not smiling.”
And even if they were smiling, he said, Americans have to understand that the reactions of Israelis with fresh military experience are bound to seem peculiar to others. His friends had seen acts of brutality and terrorism nearly every day. Barak himself had spent six months in Lebanon.
He said, “It’s a little bit different how the Israeli thinks.”
At some point, agents stopped thinking of Barak as a possible terrorist and began to suspect he might work for Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency.
Barak thinks it was his past as a paratrooper that triggered suspicions. Barak’s cohort had been a cook and was not questioned nearly as intensely, Barak said. Butbul declined to be interviewed.
“They asked if someone sent me to the United States,” Barak said. “They asked me if I worked in a moving company so I could monitor people’s movements.”
On the second visit, again with a polygraph machine, the agents told him they were satisfied with all but one of his answers — the one he gave when they asked who sent him. The agents did not return a third time.
Barak spent his first week in a cell and his second in solitary confinement. No books, television or radio — not even a rubber band to tie back his hair. He still doesn’t know why.
Afterward Barak was released into a general population of illegal immigrants who had been rounded up. The Israeli Consulate found him a month after his arrest, then returned two weeks later with a cellphone so he could talk to his parents.
In the beginning, his cellmates were mostly Hispanic. “But when we left, it was mostly Arabs, mostly Muslims,” Barak said. He and Butbul were the only Jews, but there was no tension. “We were all in [the] same boat,” he said.
Unless boredom can be considered torture, Barak was not mistreated, he said. He and Butbul arrived home Nov. 9, wearing the same clothes they had on when they were arrested Sept. 12.
He plans to stay at home awhile, then continue his travels. To Australia.
The Israeli Foreign Ministry says the other five movers should be released by Thanks- giving. But dozens of Israelis remain in custody, said Colette Avital, a member of the Knesset and a former consul general in New York.
Avital received word last week of a half-dozen Israelis arrested near Cleveland in mid-October still being held incommunicado. She also said a young Israeli woman is missing. The young woman is believed to have been arrested in the United States.
“Somehow we would like to see some due process,” Avital said.
Besieged by inquiries, the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv has composed a stock response for Israelis who call to demand an explanation. Even after deportation is agreed to, an embassy statement says, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service has 90 days to arrange transportation and documents and schedule officers to escort prisoners to the airport.
And, the embassy says, “The INS has put in place special procedures to ensure that no alien having valuable information relevant to this or future terrorist attacks is removed until appropriate.”
It declines to speculate on how long that might take.