The Human Spirit: David Raab's salt shaker

The teen boarded his flight to NY in Sept. 1970, eager to show off the IDF greens he'd bought.

barbara sofer 88 (photo credit: )
barbara sofer 88
(photo credit: )
You never know when you'll need a salt shaker, David Raab thought as he slipped into his pocket the little dispenser that came with the packaged meal. His family was returning from a glorious summer in Israel on TWA flight 741. His dad, a rabbi in Trenton, New Jersey, had already returned home to perform a wedding, but his mom and the five kids stayed until the last moment before the 1970 school year began. Raab, 17, with a toothy John Kennedy smile, was the oldest. He couldn't wait to show his classmates the IDF greens he'd bought and was flying home in. The September 6 flight would stop for refueling and to pick up passengers in Athens and Frankfurt. Raab changed from his army pants into shorts. Soon after they left Frankfurt, two passengers rushed down the aisle from the back of the plane carrying hand grenades and a pistol. They entered the cockpit. "This is your new captain speaking," a woman's voice said over the intercom. The plane was changing direction. Raab's first emotion was a teenager's excitement. He would be part of history. He was an American on an American plane. What could happen to him? What did happen was the subject of a talk this week in Jerusalem to mark the publication of Terror in Black September (Palgrave Macmillan), the book that's been percolating in David Raab for 37 years. Raab is married, a father and a grandfather, but he has a tremor in his voice when he describes his three weeks of captivity. September 11, 2001 wasn't the first four-plane hijacking. On September 6, 1970, terrorists also targeted four planes. An hour after Raab's plane touched down on a deserted desert strip in Jordan, Raab saw a fireball racing toward it. The pilot on hijacked Swiss Air flight number 100 from Zurich had just barely stopped close behind them. The desert dust sucked into the engines had burst into flames. Pan Am 93 from Amsterdam was diverted to Egypt. Only the captain of the fourth plane, El Al 219 from Amsterdam, managed to disarm the two terrorists who boarded with a gun and hand grenades. A sudden nose dive knocked Lebanese Laila Khaled and Nicaraguan Patrick Arguello off balance. Three days later, BOAC 775 from Bahrain was hijacked, too. RAAB'S MOOD turned from thrill to trepidation when he learned that the hijackers were members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and they were headed to the salt flats of Dawson's Field in Jordan. Raab jettisoned his IDF shirt. Most of the passengers were sent to hotels. Luggage was searched. The terrorists were seeking Israelis, but found none. In their place, the Diaspora Jews were left in the desert, surrounded by machinegun-toting terrorists as the sun set. His mother, Sara, was repeatedly interrogated because of the membership card in her wallet: Hadassah, the Women's Zionist Organization of America. After four stifling days on the plane, Raab was ordered off. His mother's pleas were useless. "We looked at each other, and we condensed the hours of being together that we deserved to have throughout our lifetimes, as mother and child, into a short moment," Raab said. He was shaking so hard he nearly fell from the wooden ladder propped at the plane's exit. Ten men had been selected. Raab thought they would be shot, but instead a van took them to a refugee camp near Amman where they were locked in a small room. They huddled on the floor. Any time they raised their voices, the guards threatened. Friday night came. Ten men, nearly a minyan. One turned out to be Christian. Quietly, in their crowded cell, they recited Shabbat prayers to themselves, welcoming what they assumed could be their last Sabbath ever. The special psalm for the month of Elul consoled him: "If an enemy camps around me I shall not be afraid... believe in God and your heart will become strong..." No wine for Kiddush. But when you have no wine, says the Talmud, make Kiddush on bread. The terrorists had given them pita. On Shabbat, we dip our bread in salt to remind us of the sacrifices of old. Suddenly Raab remembered the saltshaker in his shorts pocket. Joy and hope coursed through him. The others cheered. He'd never understood just how much tradition could lend comfort and strength. AFTER 21 days in captivity, David Raab was released. His mother and siblings had been freed earlier and had returned to the US. The terrorists blew up the empty planes in the desert. They were never punished. Laila Khaled, incredibly was released by the British, and currently is a schoolteacher in Jordan. But in the midst of the crisis, the furious King Hussein began the internal war that Palestinians call "Black September" and many Jordanians call "White September" because they forced the terrorists out of their country. On September 28, after a stress-filled meeting about the situation in Jordan, Gamal Abdel Nasser died of a heart attack. Anwar Sadat became president of Egypt. In Syria, Hafez Assad took over after a failed Syrian attack on Jordan during King Hussein's war with the terrorists. For the first time, Israel entered a strategic alliance with the United States when Israel agreed to the US request to help out the embattled Jordanian king. The world would never be quite the same. Not for airplane passengers, either. After meeting president Richard Nixon, David Raab went back to high school. Today he's a management consultant and he's become the proud Israeli that the terrorists were seeking on his plane. Salt, he's apt to point out, is a symbol of the covenant, the enduring and unbreakable bonds of the Jewish people and the creator.