Wednesday, September 03, 2003

I don’t know about any of the rest of you, but my mind is very much on the fact that September 11 is coming up next week. Next Thursday, to be exact. Do any of you remember that incredible blue sky? The blue sky to which it seemed nothing bad would happen? The clear blue sky all up and down the eastern coast of the United States?
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.
(W.H. Auden, Sept. 1, 1939)
To me, September 11 is ineluctably connected to the beginning of the academic year. This year I’m teaching a course I last taught two years ago – ancient and medieval Jewish history. I’m looking at the old computer files, trying to see if they’re useful for this year’s version of Jewish history – and I see the ones saved on September 10. That year, I taught the course on Mondays and Wednesdays. How sweet that September 10 was, when I tried clumsily to explain to the students about Jewish sectarianism in the Second Temple period.

The next morning, in my Hebrew Scriptures class (where I assure you we did not discuss the Hebrew Scriptures, although just reciting a few Psalms would probably have done some good), one of my students asked me who Osama bin Laden was. You see, she had heard the name vaguely at some time in her high school years, but she had never had to remember the name as something useful to know. I did my best, with my limited knowledge, to explain who he was, and also where Afghanistan was, and who the Taliban were. I felt it necessary to explain to my students that if we were going to invade a country, they should at least know where it was and who ruled it.

This year, since September 11 falls on a Thursday, and since I’m also teaching ancient and medieval Jewish history on Tuesdays and Thursdays this year, I wonder if I should say something to my students about what happened two years ago. I’m sure many of them will also be thinking about the date. Is there a relation between ancient and medieval Jewish history and the September 11 terrorist attacks? Or is there only a relation between modern Jewish history and the September 11 attacks?

In the course this semester, we will eventually talk about the Crusades – should I mention to the students that Osama bin Laden proclaimed a couple of years before the terrorist attacks that he was fighting against the “Jews and Crusaders”? A strange juxtaposition for anyone who knows even a bit of medieval history, since the Crusaders and the Jews assuredly did not fight on the same side then. What amazing permutations of history have occurred to allow someone to put Jews and Crusaders together as allies! In this respect, bin Laden certainly belongs to modern Jewish history and not to medieval, since the anti-semitism he espouses has its roots in the modern world, and not in the medieval Islamic world, which put both Jews and Christians into the status of dhimmi, protected peoples – a second-class status that protected them from extermination, at the very least.

Well, tonight I am weary of thinking about death. It seems sometimes as if that is all our world offers. I do not want this "war on terrorism" (however well or badly conceived) to last as long as the Cold War did. Isn't it ever possible for we humans on this earth to figure out how to struggle with each other without violence?

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