“Hey, I watched when the World Trade Center came tumbling down,” Trump said while calling for surveillance of “certain” mosques during a campaign speech in Birmingham, Alabama. “And I watched in Jersey City, NJ where thousands and thousands of people were cheering as that building was coming down. Thousands of people were cheering.”
Trump also cited an unsubstantiated claim in a September 18, 2001 Washington Post article by Serge Kovaleski claiming “a number of people” allegedly threw “tailgate-style parties” in New Jersey to celebrate the Islamist terror attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people.
The trouble is, claims of Muslim Americans—or just about anyone—celebrating on 9/11 are little more than urban legends. John J. Farmer Jr, who at the time was the top law enforcement official in New Jersey, ordered an immediate investigation of claims of Muslims dancing in the streets and on rooftops in Jersey City and Paterson, NJ.
“We followed up on that report instantly because of its implications,” Farmer told the New York Times. “The word came back quickly from Jersey City, later from Paterson. False report. Never happened.”
There was, however, a group of Middle Eastern men seen smiling and, allegedly, even dancing while recording video footage of the burning and collapsing World Trade Center on 9/11. But they weren’t Muslims. According to ABC News, a New Jersey woman who could see the twin towers from her apartment called police on 9/11 after witnessing suspicious men on the roof of a van in her building’s parking lot who looked “happy.” The neighbor told police she saw the men “dancing” as the horrific scene unfolded before them. She wrote down the van’s license plate and called police.
The FBI was soon alerted and a statewide bulletin was issued for the van, which was traced to a company called Urban Moving. Hours later, police stopped the van near Giants Stadium in East Rutherford. Five men, ages 22-27, were removed from the vehicle at gunpoint after failing to obey officers’ orders and arrested (read police report here). Officers said their suspicions were heightened by what they found in the van: in addition to box cutters and $4,700 in cash, one of the men had two foreign passports.
“We are Israeli. We are not your problem,” the van’s driver, Sivan Kurzberg, told arresting officers. “Your problems are our problems. The Palestinians are the problem.”
The Atlanta Journal Constitution reported that the Israeli Foreign Ministry counted 90-100 Israeli nationals arrested on or after 9/11. While the majority were picked up for immigration violations, there were suspicions that some of them were more than just tourists.
All five of the men arrested in the van identified themselves as Israelis. With the five suspects in custody, investigators turned their attention to Urban Moving, but found the company had shuttered in a hurry, with owner Dominick Suter clearing out his New Jersey home and hastily fleeing back to Israel. Meanwhile, the five arrested men were imprisoned for more than two months. Some of them were held in solitary confinement—which is widely recognized as a form of torture—for more than 40 days. Some were given at least seven lie detector tests. One of the men confessed to working for Israeli intelligence, but in another country.
The Jewish Daily Forward reported in a March 2002 article titled “Spy Rumors Fly on Gusts of Truth” that the FBI concluded that at least two of the five men were Mossad agents spying on a common enemy of both Israel and the United States: radical Islamists.
“The assessment was that Urban Moving Systems was a front for the Mossad and operatives employed by it,” an unnamed former US official told the Forward. “The conclusion of the FBI was that they were spying on local Arabs but that they could leave because they did not know anything about 9/11.”
The Israeli government denied that the five men arrested in the Urban Moving van were Israeli agents. But many US officials have insisted that the men were, in fact, Israeli spies. The FBI concluded the five prisoners did not have any pre-knowledge of the tragic events of 9/11, and the men were eventually released.
In 2004, four of the Israelis filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Attorney General John Ashcroft and wardens of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, alleging they were tortured with solitary confinement, sleep deprivation and other physical violence and rough interrogations. The “dancing Israelis” were not successful in court, but their suit was a reminder of documented events on 9/11 when Middle Easterners were indeed arrested after witnesses said they saw them celebrating—only they were Israelis, not Muslims as spuriously claimed by Trump.