Black September - The story of the other 9/11

Hijacked during Black September and held hostage in Jordan half a century ago, the Raab family lived to tell the tale – and hopes the world will never forget.

DAVID RAAB (left) meets with US president Richard Nixon in Rome on the way home from his hostage ordeal in September 1970 (photo credit: BETTMANN/CORBIS/COURTESY DAVID RAAB)
DAVID RAAB (left) meets with US president Richard Nixon in Rome on the way home from his hostage ordeal in September 1970
(photo credit: BETTMANN/CORBIS/COURTESY DAVID RAAB)
The date 9/11 is seared into our collective memory. That sunny Tuesday morning in 2001, Arab terrorists hijacked four airplanes and wreaked massive death and destruction on the United States.
A full 31 years before, Arab terrorists hijacked four airplanes in Europe and took hundreds of hostages. And although the incident faded in the world’s collective memory, the date 9/11 was seared into David Raab’s memory.
At 2:30 a.m. on September 11, 1970, David, his mother and four younger siblings were sleeping fitfully on a TWA plane. It was the beginning of their fifth day on board, with hijackers from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) demanding freedom for terrorists jailed in Israel and Europe.
The plane was no longer full. On September 7, non-Jewish women and children had been released and six male passengers were taken to an unknown location. About 80 passengers and 10 crew members – including the Raabs – remained trapped in the jet on Dawson’s Field, a dirt strip in Jordan.
The copilot came down the aisle and gently woke the 17-year-old rabbi’s son from Trenton, New Jersey. The hijackers, he said, wanted David at the front of the plane for questioning.
The terrorists often searched the Jewish passengers’ luggage for Israeli goods and badgered them to “admit” to Israeli citizenship or loyalty. But this summons seemed more ominous.
“My mother, who had been sitting a few rows behind, heard the rustling and quickly came to me, trying to convince my captors not to take me away, that I was but a child. She was threatened with a gun, and I descended the rickety wooden ladder off the plane, sure that I was being taken to be killed,” David recalled in his 2007 book, Terror in Black September.
A TWA Boeing 707 similar to the hijacked aircraft. (Wikimedia Commons)A TWA Boeing 707 similar to the hijacked aircraft. (Wikimedia Commons)
This is how he describes his five days on the plane: “With the power off, we had neither air-conditioning during the blistering hot days nor heat during the cold desert nights. There were no lights and no functioning toilets. Food and water were scarce. Jewish passengers were interrogated, some threatened at gunpoint. To the Holocaust survivors among us, this was a recurring nightmare.”
David was taken away with nine other American men aged 16 to nearly 40: Ben Feinstein, Bob Palagonia, Rabbi Jonathan David, Yaakov Drillman, Meyer Fund, David Miller, Mark Shane, Mitchell Meltzer and David’s high school friend Jeffrey Newton.
David and his group spent the next 16 days in cramped quarters in Amman, as civil war raged outside, for a total of 21 days in captivity.
His mother, Sara, and his siblings – Moshe (then 14), Tikva (11), Noam (eight) and Yaron (six) – were released on September 12 with 68 other TWA hostages. They were soon reunited with their husband and father, Menachem. David didn’t arrive in Trenton until September 28, just before Rosh Hashanah.
The episode was much more than a traumatic ending to the Raab family’s summer vacation in Israel.
As David writes: “It was a pivotal moment that changed the course of Middle East history and still informs us today on the motives of Israel’s enemies, the roots of Islamist terrorism, and how to confront both.”
While the PFLP had hoped the hijackings would bring recognition and glory to the Palestinian movement, instead they triggered a civil war that turned Jordan and Egypt against them.
“Over the prior years, the PLO had sown anarchy in Jordan – its then-base of operations against Israel. The hijackings proved to be the last straw for King Hussein, who was now determined to reinstate his sovereignty over his country,” David writes.
Accordingly, the PFLP termed the month “Black September,” which morphed into a movement with far-reaching sinister consequences, including the murders of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics.
The hijackings did not diminish support for the PFLP in Western Europe. Following the release of the hostages, Great Britain transported seven terrorists held in Britain, Germany and Switzerland to freedom in Cairo – in flagrant violation of the UK’s extradition treaty with Israel.
“I think in some ways things haven’t changed,” David reflects now. “The Palestinians have rejected every deal ever offered. They never have new ideas; it’s just rejection, rejection, rejection. Europe still sees everything as Israel’s fault. Germany and Great Britain still have the same approach.
“What did change for the better is Israel’s relationship with the United States. Even though there was no pure Israeli on the plane, Israel was willing to go to battle against Syria to help the US. That’s when the strategic relationship with the US started.”
Fifty years later, David, Moshe and Noam live in Israel, as does their father. Tikva lives in New Jersey, Yaron in Florida. Their mother died in May.
The three Raab brothers in Israel talked with the Magazine about their memories of the ordeal and the insights they’ve gained with the passage of time.
Noam: “I felt that I won”
Noam has 100 laminated pages of newspaper articles about the Black September hijackings, which included three on September 6 (TWA, Swissair and Pan Am) and a British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) plane hijacked on September 9. (The PFLP also attempted unsuccessfully to hijack an El Al plane.)
Because he was only eight, Noam retains just a few mental snapshots of his six days on the plane.
One memory is the uncomfortable feeling when Jordanian army officials came onto the plane “to look at us like animals in a zoo.”
And he remembers an aborted trip to the restroom, located just past the door of the plane, which was open because of the heat.
“One of the terrorists was sitting and guarding the open door with his gun. He probably didn’t understand where I said I was going, and thought I was trying to escape. He cocked his gun and aimed it at me, and I ran back to my seat,” he relates.
On Friday evening, September 11, when one of the Jewish women on the plane procured candles to light to usher in Shabbat, Noam suddenly grasped the precariousness of their situation.
“I think that’s when I realized we had a problem, because I remember crying that I missed my father,” he says.
He also has food-related memories, particularly when they were given watermelon and his brothers roasted the seeds on the sizzling hot wing of the plane. He recalls his mother handing out toffees to all the children aboard as a Shabbat treat.
But the incident had lasting effects. He never flies without his tefillin, a change of clothes and food in his hand luggage. He always scrutinizes fellow passengers and the security arrangements on an airplane.
The biggest impact of the ordeal was Noam’s determination to live in Israel. This feeling was shared by his parents, who took the family on aliyah in 1973.
When Sara and Menachem Raab returned to America five years later, 16-year-old Noam chose to stay in Israel with his grandparents, who had made aliyah prior to the hijacking. He married an Israeli woman and speaks only Hebrew to their children.
Today, the Jerusalem resident volunteers with Magen David Adom and the police, “I think because of that experience.”
Looking back, Noam says, “I feel the world will never learn; they will always side with the terrorists. But I felt that I won. I made aliyah, I served in the army. I’m here and nobody can get rid of me.”
SARA RAAB and her children in 1996 near Dawson’s Field in Jordan, where they were held on the hijacked plane. (Courtesy David Raab)SARA RAAB and her children in 1996 near Dawson’s Field in Jordan, where they were held on the hijacked plane. (Courtesy David Raab)
Moshe: “We weren’t going to Cuba”
“I was sitting in the aisle seat with my arm hanging out, and I had a blanket over my head because I was trying to sleep,” Moshe recalls about September 6, just after the TWA flight left Frankfurt en route to New York from Tel Aviv.
“Suddenly we heard yelling and screaming from the back and I felt something bang against my arm. I pulled the blanket off my head and saw a guy running with a pistol in his hand. I was thinking to myself, ‘This can’t be good.’
“In those days there were so many hijackings to Cuba, and he looked like he could have been Cuban, so my first reaction was, ‘Whoa, we’re going to Cuba. I’m going to get a cigar!’
“I was supposed to start MTA [Yeshiva University High School for Boys] in two days and I thought it would be a great way to make friends in my new school. But then the plane made a U-turn and I knew we weren’t going to Cuba.”
When the jet landed, the hijackers identified themselves as PFLP and told the passengers they were in a “friendly country,” Jordan.
“To the best of my knowledge, Jordan was not a friendly country,” Moshe recounts. “I looked around at my mother and sister and brothers and wondered what was going to happen to us.”
The feeling of dread intensified when he discovered Friday morning that David was missing.
“I recently watched a BBC interview of a flight attendant on our plane who said we were treated very well and had delicious food, and I was thinking to myself, Where was she? It’s true they did not physically abuse us, but we didn’t have enough to eat or drink and it was extremely hot. Those of us who kept kosher had nearly nothing to eat,” says Moshe.
“The hijackers kept saying they were not responsible for what happened to us, that it was our [American] government’s responsibility. This attitude has continued to today. It’s always Israel’s fault or the United States’ fault. The [Palestinians] are not responsible for anything and nobody holds them responsible.”
Like Noam, Moshe became a practical Zionist because of his ordeal.
“When we were finally released, we were flown from Amman to Nicosia [Cyprus] to New York. When we landed in Nicosia, someone from the American Consulate lectured us about the suffering of the Palestinians. I said to myself, ‘I’m an American citizen, what does it have to do with me?’
“There were five or six American-Israeli dual citizens on the plane, and they were met by the Israeli ambassador to Cyprus. He gave each one flowers. And I felt I belonged to that group – the Israelis. That’s when I decided I had to move to Israel. I felt America didn’t have my back.”
Moshe started Bar-Ilan University in 1973, went back to America to do his doctorate, got married, and returned to Israel in 1997. He lives in Ma’aleh Adumim.
“We celebrate the day of our return home every year. My children grew up with it, and now my grandchildren are growing up with the story of the hijacking. It’s almost like a Passover Seder,” he says.
“I viewed it as a war between them, the hijackers, and us, me and my family. My four children each served in the IDF or Sherut Leumi, and most of my grandchildren live here and speak Hebrew. I feel that I won this war because I’m here, helping this country grow.”
David: “All of a sudden our lives changed”
David reflects that one of the life lessons learned from his harrowing experience is that “life hangs by a thread. We’d had a great vacation and all of a sudden our lives changed. I learned that you have to take advantage of what you do have and keep things in perspective.”
After returning to New Jersey, he spent a year at Yeshiva University and then switched to Bar-Ilan. “I have always tried to live here; I’ve had to go back and forth several times, but I’ve always been driven to come back to Israel,” says the Ra’anana resident.
“About 80 Jews boarded the plane that day in Tel Aviv, and around 20 came to live in Israel,” he adds. “There was a sense of ‘You did this to me because of Israel, so I’m going to live there.’”
He has stayed in touch with fellow hostages and is arranging a 50th-anniversary Zoom reunion.
David worries that the events of Black September will be forgotten.
“I’ve always had the feeling that this was a major geopolitical event. Syria invaded Jordan, the US and Russia went on alert... and somehow this story gets lost. It’s not an Israeli story and never became an American story. That bothers me. At one point the Palestinians were starting to hijack the story and that’s why I wrote the book, as a historical record,” says David.
YARON RAAB, 6, with a Bedouin man at the Intercontinental Hotel in Amman after being released from the hijacked plane on September 12, 1970, with brother Noam, 8, looking on. (Bettmann/Corbis, Courtesy David Raab)YARON RAAB, 6, with a Bedouin man at the Intercontinental Hotel in Amman after being released from the hijacked plane on September 12, 1970, with brother Noam, 8, looking on. (Bettmann/Corbis, Courtesy David Raab)
Tribute to a brave woman
Sara Raab showed remarkable fortitude during the ordeal.
She was responsible for five children on a hijacked plane. She was harassed and questioned many times by the terrorists. She was helpless to prevent her son’s imprisonment. And she had to make the difficult decision to go home with the four other children while David was still captive in Jordan.
During the shiva for his mother, David relates, many passengers from the hijacked plane reminisced about her strength of character and how she helped other young mothers and Holocaust survivors. They remembered how she handed out toffees as a Shabbat treat.
She even distributed to other kosher-keeping passengers the cheese she’d brought onto the plane from Israel, while her own family ate the non-certified cheese supplied to them, relying on a halachic leniency.
“I can’t imagine what it was like for her to sit on that plane with five kids, with her husband in America and then watching a son taken away into the darkness,” Moshe says.
These days, the Raab family would surely have been offered psychological counseling after their ordeal.
But in 1970, Moshe notes, “We arrived home on a Monday and our mother whipped us all into shape. We had to go back to school. My father drove me to the MTA dorm on Sunday and I began my high school career. We never had counseling. Inside our house, we were always encouraged to talk about it, and that was our therapy.
“Our mother showed us what’s important was to go on. To have life resume.”