Local Jews this week expressed confusion over the details of the ports sale, surprise that many U.S. ports are already controlled by foreigners, and skepticism over the Bush administration’s handling of the affair.
"This is an outrage," said Democratic Rep. Steven Rothman (NJ-9), in an interview with The Jewish Standard. "The U.S. and not the United Arab Emirates should be responsible for the safety of Americans and I strongly support legislation to keep it in U.S. hands."
"The margin for error here is very slight. We are talking about the potential for a WMD or more than one being smuggled into the U.S. and exploded, causing the deaths of, God forbid, thousands, if not tens of thousands, of Americans. This whole realm of national security should not be farmed out."
The UAE’s history fighting terrorism is "very ambiguous," said Rothman. "After all, several of the terrorists involved in 9/11 came from the UAE and hundreds of millions of dollars of terrorist funds are laundered through the banks in the UAE."
And that weighed on locals’ minds. Elaine Silverstein of Glen Rock said she’s so worried about dangers in the U.S. "that I almost can’t focus on anything else," including events in other countries. "Our Western liberal values are feeling more and more threatened," said Silverstein, a writer and editor of college textbooks. The sale to Arab interests "is a pretty scary thing, much scarier than if it were France, say."
"I don’t know where to begin to understand it," said George Bean of Tenafly. "I guess I feel helpless in a situation like that."
Bean, whose real estate business is based in Passaic, said he watched a weekend TV show in which homeland security chief Michael Chertoff said the review process of the ports deal was "classified" and seemed to treat the public as simply unable to understand what’s going on. To listen to Chertoff, said Bean, it would appear that everything goes through "a magic upper level process which makes it okay, so just trust us."
But Bean has "no confidence in this government," which continues to act in ways that "seem questionable either ethically or on common sense." And he said he heard this week that a major reason the Israelis were able to be successful in their raid on Entebbe airport in 1976 was that they knew the facility well, having helped design it. "Do we want other people to have a leg up [like that with our ports]?" he asked.
American ports are "very vulnerable entry points" and their safety is already "among the weakest" of those areas the government needs to be concerned with for national security, said Leonard Cole of Teaneck, an adjunct professor of political science at Rutgers University. Like Rothman, he said the question then becomes "who can do it best for you?" shouldn’t the U.S. want Americans to be in charge here?
Instead, said Cole, whose specialty is biological and chemical warfare and terrorism, "we’re not only outsourcing it," but to a country that "has not had a stellar record in terms of terrorism. On a symbolic level, I could understand why many Americans would be uncomfortable with this."
But Jerry Milch of Teaneck said the reaction to news of the sale may be "a little bit overblown right now."
Noting that the ports would still be domestically owned, Milch, a research director for American Express, said this is likely just a business deal, not a situation in which all of the port’s workers would become Arabs just because the management becomes Arab. The reality of a global economy is not only that "you can do business elsewhere, but others can do business here."
Although Milch said it’s understandable that New Yorkers especially would react emotionally to the sale and that there may be security concerns that have not been made public, "people do tend to overreact to this right now."
Jacob Berkman contributed to the report