Why It Is Important that Jews Support The Building of the Muslim Center Two Blocks from Ground Zero
There has been a great deal of discussion these past weeks about the proposed building of a Muslim Center/mosque two blocks from the site of the World Trade Center.
The more cogent arguments generally can be summed up as: We are not against a Muslim Center but why does it have to be near Ground Zero when it could be anywhere. Especially since some of the 9/11 families object to the Center as an insult to the memory of their loved ones killed that day. Weren't they killed in the name of Islam? Why not build it some where else?
A recent article in the NY Times about the objections to the building of mosques in many communities across the United States suggests that there is something else going on here. I believe if the Center was being built on the Upper East Side it would still face the opposition of many of the same people who have demonstrated against it. Their claim is that Islam is the enemy of America and that it is dedicated to the destruction of our way of life. This is why mosques are facing opposition in places far from Ground Zero.
Yet, most of the people who have said to me that they think the Center should be built elsewhere do not believe that all Muslims are the enemy. They just wonder whether it would be easier if it was built somewhere else. But that's the problem. Because if the Center is forced to move it would look like there is something wrong with their being a Muslim Center/mosque near Ground Zero. No one would object to the building of a synagogue, church, retail store, or movie theater in that location. Only a building connected to Islam. Doesn't that suggest there is something wrong with Islam?
Moving the Center would just add credence to the anti-Muslim sentiment that is becoming too prevalent in our country. This is not the first time that America has demonized our enemy as other. The treatment of Americans of Japanese origin during WWII remains one of the more disgraceful episodes in recent American history. We need to be careful not to make all Muslims into terrorists. We should not claim that Islam is unlike all other religions but rather it is a form of terrorism.
If Osama bin Laden cares about the Muslim Center at all, he would not want it built. Rather he would hope that it would face unceasing roadblocks so American Muslims would come to understand that they have no place in America.
Some have said to me: "Well personally I don't care, but the 9/11 families object and we should pay attention to their feelings." The families of course don't speak with one voice. Some do object. Some don't object. I would not deny the feelings of those who object. I would never say to them they should forgive and move on. Yet, what is at stake here is the vision of America that proclaims that we are all created equal. This includes a freedom of religion—each of us to worship or not worship as he or she wants.
When the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, it was a catastrophe for the Jewish people in the magnitude of 9/11. There were those who said that we should never drink wine again in mourning for the Temple. There were some Jews who followed that practice, yet Rabbi Joshua said: Not to mourn at all is impossible…But to mourn too much is also impossible. (Tosefta Sotah 15:10-15). The dominant view was we don't forget, but life moves on. Each of us will practice their remembrance of 9/11 in their own way. Yet, no one suggested that we close Broadway theaters indefinitely or ban movie theaters in Manhattan.
As much as we try to respect those who suffered unbearable losses, we cannot abandon these larger principles that America holds dear and is at the core of who we are.
Some have suggested an analogy to the objections to the Carmelite nuns near Auschwitz. The idea of the nuns praying for the souls of those murdered at Auschwitz as well as crosses in sight of the camp led to objections by the Jewish community. Finally, the Pope asked the nuns to leave. The use of this analogy is at the heart of the problem. Auschwitz had only one purpose—the murder of human beings especially Jews. The World Trade Center was a place where people worked. It was a totally normal place until that day. All kinds of people ---from many different countries and from different religions including Muslims lived and died there. They were killed because they were Americans and Westerners by radical Islamic terrorists. To say that a Muslim Center can't be two blocks away is to say that the Muslims who died at the World Trade Center were not the same as the rest of the victims that day.
It is to make a distinction that is the opposite of what we want to say---our enemies want to say one religion is better than another---we need to proclaim we embrace everyone who wants to participate in the American dream. We do so by treating all religions equally. For those who offer fear, fear of those who look different or worship differently then we do, we proclaim the importance of a freedom from fear even in these troubled times.
We are not naïve. Terrorists want to destroy us and everything we stand for. We do have real enemies, but we have to be careful not to be pushed into becoming our own worst enemies. We have to be careful not to defame what has made America the Beautiful from sea to shining sea.
I would suggest that this is something Jews should know and stand for more than anyone. It is what is so disheartening in the ADL calling for the mosque to move and in the extraordinarily tepid statements of support by the American Jewish Committee and the Jewish Community Relations Council of NY. We know what it is like when people say Jews are essentially different from Christians or that all Jews care about is money.
In each generation, there arises a new group of people who society demonizes as the other. We the victims of the longest running form of demonization and defamation have the responsibility to remind ourselves and the world of the most essential teaching of the Torah---we are all created in the Divine image. To do anything less is to be a kofeir ba-ikkar---to deny the Torah and the Holy One