The “five dancing Israelis” intrigue lives on twenty years after the September 11 attacks. But the reality behind the incident may have been more mundane.
A bizarre incident in which a group of Israelis were arrested on September 11, 2001 has led to theories about the men’s role in the attack on New York City’s World Trade Center that day. After twenty years of conjecture and speculation, an investigation by The Grayzone indicates that the infamous incident was the product of much more mundane circumstances than previously understood.
In an interview with this reporter, one of the five Israelis arrested after the Twin Towers attack admitted to wrongdoing for the first time. However, he did not confess to being a terrorist or spy, as alleged by many skeptics of the official version of events on 9/11. Rather, he and his former co-workers had been employed by a sketchy moving company known for small-time scam operations.
Hours after hijacked airplanes crashed into both of the World Trade Center Twin Towers in downtown Manhattan, five Israeli nationals were arrested and held under suspicion of involvement in the terror attacks. Suspicions against the men increased when their employers fled the US for Israel soon after the arrests, before they too could be interrogated about the incident.
Unverified accounts in international media claiming the Israelis had been seen dancing while the towers burned deepened the sense that they were more than mere observers. The sentiments the arrested men expressed to FBI agents about the 9/11 attacks, including remarks like, “Israel now has hope that the world will now understand us,” only added to the growing suspicions.
Two months later, however, the incarcerated Israelis were released without charges and returned to Israel. The FBI concluded that the men were not in any way involved in the 9/11 attacks, however, it did not publicize its report. It was only thanks to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request that the FBI’s findings ever came to light.
The highly unusual incident continues to fuel speculation about Jewish or Israeli involvement in the WTC attacks. Two years ago, on the eighteenth anniversary of the WTC attack, a large rock at the center of the Knoxville campus of the University of Tennessee was covered in graffiti that read, “Jews did 9/11 – Google: Dancing Israelis.”
And so it continues… @UTKnoxville, you gonna do something about it this time? pic.twitter.com/7k0mK2yDts
— Jaime (@jaime_marquis) September 12, 2019
So who were the so-called “dancing Israelis,” and what were they doing in a van with a wad of cash and a camera while gazing at the smoldering towers in downtown Manhattan?
‘Dancing Israelis’ a misnomer first introduced by father of 9/11 hijacker Mohammad Atta
The five employees of Urban Moving Systems have been dubbed “Dancing Israelis” because a female eyewitness observed three of them in a parking lot in New Jersey, watching the WTC towers in flames across the Hudson River on the morning of the attacks. According to testimony she gave to the FBI later that day, “all of the males appeared to be jovial in that they smiled, hugged one another, and gave ‘high fives.’”
From the balcony of her Union City apartment, the eyewitness, Maria, observed the men photographing each other with the WTC towers in the background. When the FBI developed the film found in a Canon SLR camera on their possession, they found that the Israelis were indeed “visibly happy on nearly all of the photographs.”
In a second interview by phone with the FBI two days later, Maria characterized the behavior of the Israelis on the morning of 9/11 as “horsing around”. In a third interview with the FBI at her residence four days later, she related that the men “appeared to be happy and ‘joking around.’”
At no point did Maria or any witness allege that the Israeli men were dancing in any way. The FBI report refers to the men as the “Israeli Nationals” and “The High Fivers.” The first documented allegation that the men had danced in celebration of the Twin Towers attack comes not from any American law enforcement agency, but rather from the father of Mohammad Atta, the ringleader of the Al Qaeda-affiliated cell that hijacked American Airlines Flight 11 and crashed it into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.
On September 28, 2001, a USA Today article entitled “Conspiracy theories say Israel did it” cited Egyptian news agency MENA’s interview with the elder Atta, complaining that insufficient focus was being paid to reports that the FBI had “seized a number of Jews while they were dancing in celebration over the incidents.” [PDF]
To this day, skeptics criticize the FBI’s decision to release the men, insisting that their jovial responses to the 9/11 attacks was evidence that they knew of the terror plot in advance.
An internal FBI memo dated September 24, 2001 stated: “Both the Newark and the New York Divisions conducted a thorough investigation which determined that none of the Israelis had any information on prior knowledge regarding the bombing of the World Trade Center. Furthermore, Newark and New York determined that none of the Israelis were actively engaged in clandestine intelligence activities in the United States.”
The following day, the FBI instructed the Immigration and Naturalization Service that it no longer required the Israelis to remain in the country, and that the agency could move forward with immigration proceedings against them. And so, on September 25, the men signed papers acknowledging their violations of US immigration law, and were allowed to see a lawyer for the first time.
By November, the men were deported back to Israel and forbidden from reentering the USA for ten years.
Israelis’ first reaction to the Twin Towers attack was ‘shock and disbelief’
The Grayzone spoke to one of the Israelis arrested on 9/11, and closely reviewed FBI casework on the arrests.
According to the Israelis, they learned of the first plane crash into the WTC’s North Tower when one received a phone call from a friend alerting him to the incident.
“Oh my God,” “No way,” and “I can’t believe it happened there,” were some of the responses that a female employee of the firm recalled hearing from the men upon their first learning of the attacks. She described the men’s demeanor as “shaken up,” expressing “shock and disbelief.”
Two of the men accessed the internet using company computers to confirm the story at CNN and Ynet, Israel’s most popular news website. They then went to the roof to observe the skyline.
To get a better view of the towers, three of the men “climbed into the company van and drove to a parking lot fronting the Hudson River, which gave them a view of the entire length of both towers,” per the FBI report. Photographs produced with Google Maps confirm that the parking lot of the Doric Towers in Union City, NJ, where the men parked their van and snapped pictures, sits at an elevation over the Hudson River, and boasts a rare unobstructed view of the New York City skyline.
After taking the photos, the three men returned to work, and snapped more images of the smoldering New York skyline from the rooftop of the office building where they worked.
Once it became apparent that work would be cancelled for the remainder of the day due to the attacks and the unfolding chaos, the men resolved to head back to Brooklyn, where they rented apartments. But because their regular routes were now sealed off in response to the attacks in downtown Manhattan, the men were unsure of which route to take in order to reach their destination.
“We stopped next to the police, to ask them how to get back to Brooklyn. We’re talking about 2001 – no GPS. We used maps. You remember the big atlas? You need to navigate through roads that you don’t know. And to go around everything to go back to Brooklyn, because Manhattan was closed, and we are in Weehawken [NJ]. So we need to make a big, big turn to get back,” one of the men recalled in an interview with The Grayzone in August 2021.
The men pulled up to Scott DeCarlo, a police officer from East Rutherford, New Jersey who was diverting traffic on a service road near Giants Stadium. Recalling that police dispatch had instructed him to keep an eye out for a vehicle fitting their description, DeCarlo circled behind the van and noted that its license plate matched the numbers authorities were looking for.
“I returned to the driver door and requested the driver to stop the vehicle and exit,” DeCarlo wrote in his report. “The Driver did not immediately exit the vehicle and was asked several more times but he appeared to be fumbling with a black leather fanny pouch type of bag. This officer then physically removed him.”
Upon his return to Israel two months later, Yaron Shmuel was still bitter about the incident. “We were arrested aggressively,” he complained to Israeli daily Ma’ariv. “They pulled guns on us, threw us to the ground like terrorists, and citizens that were in the area yelled ‘shoot them in the head.’”
Police across the country had been told to be on the lookout for a 2000 white Chevrolet van with New Jersey plates, after Maria, a resident of Doric Towers, observed the men in the building’s parking lot, taking photos and “joking around”. Deeming their behavior suspicious, she reported it to the police.
Camera, cash and multiple passports set off suspicions
Suspicions against the five Israelis increased when they were found with an odd collection of items at the time that could easily have been associated with terrorists or spies. These included large sums of money, multiple passports, and plane tickets to foreign destinations. In the end, however, federal officials accepted the explanations offered by the Israelis.
The driver of the van, Sylvian Kurzberg, was carrying his passport and a plane ticket to India for a flight the following day because he was ending his employment as a mover and going on an extended vacation. Another arrestee, Omer Marmari, was the new employee brought on to replace him.
Yaron Shmuel, a dual citizen of Israel and Germany, had his two passports on his person, along with an application to visit Australia, which he planned to submit to that country’s consulate, to secure permission to travel there.
A fourth member of the group, Oded Ellner, was found to have $4700 in bills balled up in his sock. He had been carrying large quantities of cash on him, he told federal authorities, because he and his Brooklyn flatmates had been robbed a few days earlier.
The state of the camera and the film used by the men to photograph themselves in the foreground of the Twin Towers also raised the suspicions of federal investigators. The Canon camera appeared as-new, and the film found inside had been used that morning for the first time.
But even here, the men were able to offer a plausible explanation. The camera, they said, had just been purchased for Sylvian to take on his trip to India. It was given to him as a present by his brother Paul, the fifth man in the group.
Though their stories seemed to pan out, the FBI ran a series of forensic tests to determine exactly when the Israelis had first taken photographs of the Towers. FBI analysts compared photos developed from Kurzberg’s camera with images taken by a news helicopter that was identified in those photos, tracked down with the help of the Federal Aviation Authority, using air traffic records.
According to the FBI, the radar records “verified that the Israelis were at the parking lot observation point between 8:50 AM and 9:03 AM” – after the first tower was struck at 8:46 AM – and that this “corroborated the Israelis’ claims that they departed Urban Moving Systems for the parking lot observation point after hearing of the initial explosion.”
Suspicions of espionage hinged on prior security detail of one of the five men
Another oddity that occupied federal investigators was that one of the Israeli men arrested, Paul Kurzberg, possessed a diplomatic passport.
After the FBI’s counter-terrorism teams ruled out the possibility that the Israelis had foreknowledge of the 9/11 attacks, the investigation was handed over to the Squad C-9 of the bureau’s Newark, New Jersey office. This FBI foreign counter-intelligence unit attempted to determine whether Kurzberg or any of his associates had carried out acts of espionage in the US on behalf of the Israeli government.
Suspicions regarding Kurzberg persisted because he “refused on principle to divulge much about his role in the Israeli army or subsequently working for people who may have had ties to Israeli intelligence,” his lawyer told the New York Times on the day he was deported back to Israel. Only in the final week of his incarceration did Kurzberg finally submit to two polygraph tests by federal authorities.
The five Israelis were eventually released, in part due to pressure from US members of Congress from New York’s delegation and Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage.
Months after the Israelis departed, however, the Forward cited a former government official’s claim that the FBI believed at least one of the Israelis to be a Mossad operative.
“The assessment was that Urban Moving Systems was a front for the Mossad and operatives employed by it,” said the source, who claimed to have received regular briefings regarding the affair from two different law enforcement officials. “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.”
According to the source, the FBI was “very irritated because it was a case of so-called unilateral espionage, meaning they didn’t know about it.”
However, one of the Israelis arrested on 9/11 told The Grayzone that Paul Kurzberg had only ever served as a simple security guard for the Jewish Agency, an outside organization that functions as an unofficial arm of the Israeli government, promoting Jewish immigration to the country.
“Paul had a diplomatic passport,” he stated. “Somewhere in his past, he [worked for] the Jewish Agency. He was a security guard for one of their delegations somewhere in the past, so they saw it.”
The following year, an internal FBI report asserted that the Israeli citizen previously suspected of espionage had not, in fact, engaged in the trade on US soil. “Newark’s investigation found no factual evidence to suggest that [Paul Kurzberg] was operating in an overt or covert capacity inside the United States for the ‘Jewish Agency,’” the report stated. “Furthermore, Newark found no basis to even remotely suggest [Paul Kurzberg] was in the possession of prior knowledge relating to the attacks on the World Trade Center of 9/11/01.”
But the FBI reports were never made public, and were ultimately released only as part of a FOIA request. As a result, suspicions that Kurzberg and the other Israelis actually worked for the Mossad and spied on US citizens persist to this day.
Israeli nationalist attitude toward terror attacks inflame theories about five Israelis’ activities
If the five Israeli men had no hand in the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, what can explain the impressions of Maria, an eyewitness who insisted that the men were “horsing around” as they watched the World Trade Center in flames?
“I could see that they were happy. You know? They didn’t looked shocked to me,” Maria later told ABC News. “I thought it was very strange.”
Although it is common for advocates of close relations between the US and Israel to speak of shared values between the two countries, there are also major cultural differences between the two societies.
Diplomatic negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority had broken down a year before the 9/11 attacks. On September 28, 2000, when the hardline politician and Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon entered Jerusalem’s Haram Al-Sharif – the site of the country’s holiest Islamic shrines, the Al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock – he triggered riots that soon spiraled into a wider conflict which would become known as the Second Intifada. Four years and four months of armed combat ensued; over a thousand Israelis and over three thousands Palestinians were killed in the conflict.
During the 1990s, a plurality of Israelis cautiously considered the prospect of a peace agreement that would see their army withdraw from parts of the West Bank and allow a measure of Palestinian autonomy. But the new millennium heralded a return to the political status quo of occupation and apartheid over Palestinians, along with a reversion of reactionary Israeli attitudes about the situation.
Convinced that peace with Palestinians was an impossibility, many Israelis came to see their non-Jewish neighbors as eternal enemies who had to be conquered, not cajoled back to the negotiating table. Returning to the path of forever war, Zionists demanded that America abandon its Oslo-era role as a peacemaker and throw its full super-power support behind the Israeli state.
So when Salafi-jihadi militants attacked the United States on September 11, 2001, many Israeli nationalists expressed a twisted sense of satisfaction, hoping that the attack would convince Americans to adopt their understanding of the conflict with the Palestinians, and to take up Israel’s fight against the Arab world.
Ariel Sharon perfectly embodied the phenomenon when he declared to US Secretary of State Colin Powell just days after the attacks, “Everyone has his own Bin Laden. Arafat is our Bin Laden.”
Benjamin Netanyahu, the opposition leader who would become the longest-serving prime minister in Israeli history, provided an even more cynical take on 9/11. “It’s very good,” Netanyahu remarked on September 12, 2001. The politico quickly qualified his comments, remarking, ‘”Well, not very good, but it will generate immediate sympathy.”
The alleged elation expressed by the Israelis arrested on 9/11 fits within this context.
“We are Israeli, we are not your problem,” Sylvian Kurzberg told officer Scott DeCarlo as he was being arrested. “Your problems are our problems, the Palestinians are the problem.”
Five days after the attack, one of the arrestees “apologized for appearing happy in the photographs” and told the FBI that “Israel has been dealing with incidents like this for years,” adding that “the United States will take steps to stop terrorism in the world.”
Three days later, an Urban employee told the FBI that she heard one of the arrestees say, upon first learning of the attack, “Now you see what they are capable of doing.” He allegedly added, “the US will have to get involved now.”
The following day, one of the arrestees told his FBI interviewers, “Israel now has hope that the world will now understand us.”
According to a Hebrew-language report in the Israeli daily Ma’ariv, the FBI “eventually accepted their explanations that they had merely exhibited a type of ‘black humor.’”
The men were allegedly told, however, that if they failed to cooperate, they could be charged with “black humor statutes.”
Bosses abandoned offices and New Jersey home, flee to Israel
A month after the 9/11 attacks, just as suspicions against the Israelis were dissipating, their cover story took a turn for the worse.
On September 13, armed with a warrant, the FBI searched the Weehawken, NJ offices of Urban Moving Systems, seized fifteen computers and assorted external hard drives and floppy discs, and questioned Urban’s owner, Dominik Suter.
On October 12, 2001, when local police returned to Urban’s offices, they found that “the building and all of its contents had been abandoned by [Dominik Suter] the owner of Urban Moving Systems. This apparently being done to avoid criminal prosecution after the 09/11/2001 arrest of five of his employees and subsequent seizure of his office computer systems by members of the FBI,” according to an incident reported filed that same day.
The following May, the names of Urban’s owners, Dominik Suter and Ornit Levinson-Suter, were featured on the FBI’s 9/11 suspect list right beside those of Mohammed Atta and his fellow hijackers. Agents unfamiliar with the Hebrew name Ornit entered it as Omit.
Ever since, the disappearance of the Suters has provided fodder for alternative theories about the Urban employees arrested on 9/11. Some of these musings rightfully question what the Suters had to hide, and why they felt compelled to leave their lives behind in practically an instant.
Others have homed in on the Suters as evidence that the Israeli government planned and perpetrated the 9/11 attacks for the same reason that Netanyahu and other Jewish nationalists initially expressed elation at the news: the hope that it would generate sympathy for Israel, and potentially draw the US into military engagement with its regional rivals.
Suter declined, through his lawyer, to be interviewed by the Forward in 2002.
A decade later, in 2012, Suter apparently made an half-hearted attempt to clear his name, opening up a Wikipedia user account and using its profile page as a platform to insist upon his innocence of any wrongdoing.
“For years now, there have been individuals whom have been making up lies, bogus stories, spreading rumors about me and my family,” Suter wrote. “In the coming days and weeks, I will begin addressing these malicious acts, which their only objective is throw mud on me, my family, friends and spread hate and antisemitism.”
Suter never added any content to the page which would explain his flight from the US, or dispel any of the allegations against him.
The Grayzone reached out to both Suters via phone, email and social media accounts, but received no response to a list of queries by press time. Dominik’s account indicated that he had received the questions.
From statements made by their former employees to the FBI and The Grayzone, it would seem that Dominik and Ornit Suter fled the US because they feared that the FBI’s investigation of their company would lead to their own arrests. Indeed, they seemed acutely aware that they were wanted not for any involvement in the 9/11 attacks, or for espionage against US citizens, but for their own shady business practices.
Suters exploited workers and swindled customers, former employees say
The FBI report on the Israelis arrested on 9/11 contains an array of allegations about the business practices of their employer, Dominik Suter, and his wife and partner, Ornit Levinson-Suter.
One of the arrestees told the FBI that he “is certain that [Suter] is aware that most of UMS’ Israeli workers are working there illegally.”
A woman who once worked for Urban told the FBI that Suter “places ads in Israeli and Russian newspapers to get people to work for him and pay them cash on a weekly or daily basis.”
Another former employee of Urban interviewed by the FBI on the same day told them that Suter “used to advertise in the Polish, Ukranian and Israeli newspapers to get tourist visa visitors from those countries to work for him. This enabled [Suter] to pay below minimum wage and with cash as to avoid paying taxes and benefits too.” According to this source, on occasion Suter “would also refuse to pay employees knowing that they would not fight him since they are working on a tourist visa.”
After a search of Urban’s Weehawken offices on September 13, 2001, the FBI “identified several pseudo-names or aliases associated with Urban Moving Systems and its operations.” Urban’s insurance records retrieved by the FBI show that these firms “are under the same financial control as Urban Moving and employ the same people.”
In an interview with the FBI, one Urban employee opined that the Suters operated multiple moving companies “so if a customer is dissatisfied with Urban Moving, for instance, perhaps they would be willing to do business with” another of the firms under their control.
The Suters also operated their business vertically, simultaneously owning and operating firms that sold packing materials, including to some of the same customers that hired them to move house. Although the Suters have wiped their resumes clean of any mention of Urban Moving Systems, Ornit still proudly lists on her LinkedIn profile the two years and eight months she served as co-founder and vice-president of sales for BoxesNstuff.com, one of the packing material companies co-listed on Urban’s insurance policy.
The packaging materials were sold to customers at profit, but according to one former Urban employee, they were also used to artificially inflate the cost of the moves themselves.
A former employee of Urban told the FBI that Suter “was a crook. He would have the delivery teams fill up the trucks with empty boxes, because he would charge the customers by cubic feet. He would also have some employees stay on the trucks when they were weighed, so that he could charge more.”
In 2003, grand juries in Florida charged sixteen moving companies and seventy-four of their owners and employees with fraud, extortion and conspiracy for running similar scams. “Once the customers’ goods were loaded, the government said the defendants would inflate the price of the move, often by thousands of dollars, claiming the customers’ goods took up more cubic feet than estimated and/or by overcharging customers for packing materials,” the South Florida Business Journal reported.
The vast majority of those charged in the FBI operation that nabbed the scammers were Israeli nationals. One of those arrested is alleged to have had been a former business partner of Dominik Suter.
Former Urban Movers manager: inflating prices ‘was the Israeli system over there’
According to then-US Attorney for the Southern District of Florida Marcos Daniel Jimenez, the Florida firms charged with fraud “lured customers into a business relationship by offering low estimates and then fraudulently inflating the price of the move and withholding delivery of a customer’s goods until that customer paid the inflated price.”
One of the five Israelis arrested on 9/11, an employee of Urban who managed the firm’s long-distance operation at the time, told The Grayzone that these flim-flam tactics were also employed by Israeli firms in the New York area, including at Urban.
“Basically, that was the Israeli system over there. The moving system. That you start the move with one price estimate, and then start to charge for every box, for everything. Anything you ask for,” he told The Grayzone at a meeting in a northern Israeli city where he has resided for years.
“And when it goes to storage, then the clock starts to tick,” he continued. “For every night, for every day, every day. And if you don’t pay, you don’t get your stuff. That was the big system.”
Once the former manager and the other arrested Urban employees were deported back to Israel, without being charged for any financial crimes, the Suters may have come to the conclusion that they had no longer had anything to fear from the FBI.
The former manager said that several months after his return to Israel, Dominik called him to sever all ties. “Don’t make contact with me ever. That’s it,” he barked.
But the following year, Dominik and Ornit elected to return to the United States, where they retain citizenship. Since that time, with the exception of a single year spent back in Israel from 2013 to 2014, the Suters and their now-adolescent sons have lived in the United States.
According to Ornit’s social media accounts, she has consistently worked in the US as a Hebrew teacher at various Jewish schools on both coasts of the country. Today, she manages the Hebrew Education activities of the San Francisco office of the Israeli-American Council, an ultra-Zionist group founded to outflank the Israel lobby umbrella group, AIPAC, from the right.
Though much spottier, Dominik’s resume seems to indicate that after filing for bankruptcy in Florida in late 2005, he has worked as a sales manager and a marketing director for various high-tech firms, some owned by Israelis. Today his indicated place of employment is Ad Labs, an internet start-up that uses artificial intelligence to create advertisements for high-volume clients like Google and Microsoft. The company’s head office in San Francisco is, coincidentally, located on Sutter Street.
Dominik Suter and Ornit Levinson-Suter reside today in the San Francisco Bay Area. Instead of setting the record straight, explaining in concrete terms why they bolted the US in 2001 in an apparent state of panic, they have ignored interview requests from The Grayzone and kept mum, allowing conspiracy theories about their activities on September 11, 2001 to run rampant.
Though we may never get the full story from the Suters, the truth that Israelis like them are just like everyone else: some are good, some are bad, and all are perfectly capable of criminal behavior. In the case of those arrested on 9/11, there is scant evidence they danced, and plenty indicating that they scammed.