The year is 1970. Imagine yourself at age 17, experiencing an enjoyable summer in Israel with friends and family. You’re looking forward to going home to Trenton, New Jersey. Your whole life is ahead of you: college, a great job, and all the dreams of the average American teenager.
Then, on your trip home over Labor Day weekend, you become a victim of the greatest criminal act in aviation history: the hijacking of four passenger planes by Islamic terrorists.
Pretty heavy stuff for a precocious teenager halfway around the world from home. Yet it was the reality for David Raab, author of Terror in Black September, published by Palgrave/Macmillan. The saga lasted three weeks, but it came to define Raab’s life. The book is his story.
For this writer, that memorable weekend was spent at the annual Young Israel Intercollegiate get-together at the Pine View Hotel in Fallsburg, far from Middle Eastern affairs. Nevertheless, as concerned and active Jews, the events took center stage for all of us, and for Jews worldwide. It influenced our communal activities for years to come.
It is not my intention to detail Raab’s entire saga. But given my bent for the historical and to the lessons to be learned, I will attempt to highlight some of the events and personalities involved, people whose actions should influence us forever.
First, we have David Raab himself, a 17-year-old who, for the three weeks of this horrific ordeal, had the presence of mind to keep a detailed diary that serves as the backbone of the book. The actions of the passengers, crew and terrorists will keep the reader in suspense. Human frailties and emotions are described with sensitivity and understanding. The diplomatic maneuvers of the governments involved, as well as the military action that dominated the outcome of this tragedy — are brought into sharp focus by the author.
In my interviews with Raab, I sensed a sacred mission in his writing of this book after so many years. He explained the pain and hurt that he experienced in recalling the events — and the people, now long gone, especially the Holocaust survivors among the passengers who witnessed a new “selektzia” by terrorists whose hatred knew no bounds. Their déja vu is the most tragic experience of the narrative.
However, the most heroic story of this experience involved eight-year-old Zipporah Moraine, who was returning alone to the United States after an extended stay in Israel. Although she was an American citizen, Zipporah was traveling on an Israeli passport, which could have had fatal consequences for her had it become known to the terrorists.
Also aboard the flight was a prominent rabbi from Brooklyn, Rabbi Yaakov Drillman. His leadership in this dire time was the stuff of legends. But this was no legend. His actions were simple and to the point.
“The guerrillas would never find young Zipporah Moraine’s Israeli travel documents,” Raab said. “Rabbi Yaakov Drillman … had eaten them.”
Readers, these actions were on par with the heroism of great leaders of our people through the ages. To risk one’s life for a total stranger is an awesome act, an honor for me to retell.
There were others on the planes who were prominent, and other writers have noted their presence. Their involvement has also been documented, some in greater detail, by Raab, especially Rav Yitzchak Hutner. Nevertheless, the mesirat nefesh by Rabbi Drillman — an action unheralded to this day — in my opinion, deserves to be the centerpiece of this review.
Yet other lessons are to be learned. The Black September experience served to foreshadow events that would haunt the world for decades to come. The tragedy of 9/11 came to overshadow it, both in terms of the role that aviation played and in the numbers of those who perished.
Yet given the behavior of diplomats in Europe and other neutral powers, one cannot help but speculate that had the global community responded with greater vigor to the actions of these Islamic fanatics, the tragedies to come might have been averted.
Raab believes that this is the lesson to be learned from the incidents recorded in his account.
As time passes, the actions of those who wish us ill become more manifest in the war on terror. The United States, and our faith, are under relentless attack, and only a firm and informed hand can serve to stem further harm.
With G-d’s help, that will be the lesson of Black September, a lesson that will soon be learned with new national leadership, both in Washington and in Jerusalem.
A version of this column appeared in September 2008.