Religious Freedom and the Muslims
(Union for Reform Judaism Executive Committee, New York, NY — 9/14/10)
The plan to build a community center and mosque near Ground Zero in Manhattan has ignited a storm of controversy that has engulfed not only the religious world but all of America. As we gather here a few days after the 9th anniversary of 9/11, I would like to share with you a few thoughts about what this issue means to us as Reform Jews.
An interesting question for me from the very beginning of the crisis has been: Where are our people? Polls indicate that 70% of Americans oppose the building of the mosque at the current site. (I have no numbers on Canadians.) A poll of New Yorkers indicates that 40% of Jews in this city oppose the mosque.
On the one hand, many of our rabbis have spoken eloquently on this subject in their Rosh Hashanah sermons; others, I am certain, will address the issue on Yom Kippur. Overwhelmingly, these sermons have been supportive of the Cordoba House project. On the other hand, many of you in this room and other Reform leaders as well have told me that your fellow congregants are not necessarily in favor of building the mosque at the current site. It has been suggested to me that if a secret ballot were conducted in your synagogues, as many as half – if not more – of the members might oppose the mosque. You have confirmed that feelings run very deep on this issue, and you have suggested the Reform sentiment might be more divided than some suppose.
With these divisions in mind, let us see if we can move away from the heated emotions that have characterized the debate and let us analyze closely the various arguments being put forward.
When this issue exploded in the press, the Union [for Reform Judaism, the organization of 900 Reform congregations in North America] convened two conference calls with the rabbis and presidents of our congregations in New York City and the surrounding area. We thought that we had a fairly clear policy, but when local concerns are involved, it is always best to consult, if possible, with local leaders. A reasonably strong consensus emerged from those calls, expressing the view that this was an issue of religious freedom and it required our support. We issued a statement supporting the building of the community center/mosque at the current site, and noting that our commitment to religious freedom made such support essential.
It is natural that religious freedom should be our central concern. Jews have been denied religious freedom as we now understand it for most of our history. In the modern period, we have struggled to win that freedom in country after country. America was different because the free exercise of religion is guaranteed by the constitution, and barring a compelling state interest, it cannot be denied to Jews or to anyone else. Nonetheless, even here our rights have not come without struggle.
After World War II, when Jews moved out of urban areas, suburb after suburb attempted to prevent Jews from building synagogues within their borders. Appeals were made to zoning laws and land use laws as a means of keeping Jews out. But invoking constitutional guarantees, we fought these restrictions, and virtually everywhere, we won.
So of course we care deeply about religious freedom and the right of religious groups to build congregations in the places of their choosing. We know what religious freedom is about, and we do not deny others the rights that we have demanded for ourselves.
At this point, virtually everyone – even most of the opponents of the mosque – has conceded the constitutional argument. Yes, they acknowledge, the sponsors of the mosque have a legal right to build. The argument they make instead is that the sponsors of the community center/mosque have the right to build, but should not exercise that right.
Two primary reasons are given for this claim. The first is the need to be sensitive to the concerns of the victims’ families. The problem, of course, is that most of the families support the building of the mosque. Mayor Bloomberg of New York suggests they are virtually unanimous in that support.
But absent precise data, let us assume that some do not support it. We do not want to challenge these family members. We do not want to debate them. We do not want to do anything to intensify their pain. The ADL says they are entitled to their prejudices, and perhaps they are.
Nonetheless, while their personal pain needs to be understood and respected, they are not entitled to determine public policy. Public policy needs to be determined by what is legal and what is right, and by that alone. We need to say to the families: We can sympathize with your anger and understand your pain, but this is not a decision that you should make.
The second reason given for not building on the current site, even if the right to do so exists, is that Ground Zero is hallowed ground.
This is true, it seems to me. Ground Zero is a mass grave, the site of an atrocity – there is a sense in which it is a sacred place, for Americans and for others. One can reasonably argue that anything that detracts from the memory and the message of the site is out of place there, and that a place of worship – any place of worship – might do that.
With this in mind, the analogy that we have heard most frequently is the Auschwitz analogy. A convent of Carmelite nuns was planned for Auschwitz – in that area of the camp where most of those exterminated were not Jews. Nonetheless, Pope John Paul understood that the presence of a convent anywhere in Auschwitz would be offensive to Jews, and he instructed the nuns to move to a site outside the grounds. From this, many have concluded that the Cordoba House should be moved as well.
Yet in fact the lesson is exactly the opposite. The convent was initially to be on the grounds of Auschwitz, while the Cordoba House was never to be located at Ground Zero. The convent was moved off the grounds, but nearby; the mosque is near Ground Zero but not on the site. Just as there is nothing inappropriate about the convent being located close to Auschwitz, so there is nothing inappropriate about the community center/mosque being located close to Ground Zero. Some experts have suggested that the convent is now closer to Auschwitz than the Cordoba House will be to Ground Zero, but I have been unable to verify exact distances. Nonetheless, let me say this very bluntly: The Auschwitz example is being misused to appeal to the deep emotions that Jews appropriately have about the Holocaust in order to lead them to a mistaken conclusion about the mosque.
And the other problem with the hallowed ground argument is this: It is being made by those who don’t understand the Twin Towers area and don’t understand New York. We are talking about one of the busiest and most congested urban areas in the country – one in which this particular building would not normally attract any interest at all. It is two and a half blocks from Ground Zero and might as well be 100 miles from Ground Zero. As others have pointed out, retail stores, strip joints, office buildings, and other places of worship are to be found there, all part of the general frenzy that is downtown New York. That is why as this center has been discussed for the last year all parties – right, left, and center – were supportive and found no reason to oppose it.
In short, I find nothing compelling about those who argue that the right to build this mosque should not be exercised by those who are planning it. And in my view, none of these arguments makes any sense unless you hold that all Muslims are somehow to be held responsible for the actions of a few. That is really the claim here, acknowledged or not.
And by the way, I am not one who says that the perpetrators of the 9/11 atrocity were men who happened to be Muslims. This is too simple. They were adherents of a radical Muslim group; their ideas were shaped and their actions motivated by their understanding of Islam. We oppose their ideas, just as we oppose religious extremism in all forms, and we are committed to combating them.
But the point is that we do not tar all Muslims with the brush of extremism because extremist strands of Islam exist in their midst. To do so is to engage in the kind of stereotyping that has plagued us as Jews throughout our history, and that we reject, categorically and unequivocally.
There are several other points that need to be clarified.
It has been suggested in many circles that the battle over the mosque is simply another round in the culture wars between liberals and conservatives – and in these wars Reform Jews should be reluctant to reflexively side with one camp or the other. It is obviously true that more liberals than conservatives support Cordoba House, but that is far from the whole story. Mayor Bloomberg supports the mosque and he is an independent. Governor Christie of New Jersey supports the mosque and he is a conservative Republican. Congressman Ron Paul, a libertarian, said the following: “The justification to ban the mosque is no more rational than banning a soccer field in the same place because all the suicide bombers loved to play soccer.” Josh Barro, writing in the on-line edition of the conservative magazine National Review, argues the conservative case for the mosque. Conservatives, he said, believe that private property should be used as the owners see fit; they also believe that using arcane land use laws to oppose construction for private purposes is a misuse of government prerogatives. According to Barro, for conservatives “the proper question is not ‘Why here?’ but ‘Why not here’?”
And what of Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf?
While I do not know him personally, he has worked with our Commission on Interreligious Affairs and with the RAC (Reform Action Center). He has addressed groups of Reform rabbis. He is a Sufi and a moderate by any definition. What is happening now is that many are searching through his 30-year activist history to find things he has said that could discredit him. And let me say clearly: he has said things that I oppose and find offensive. But if he is not a fitting partner for dialogue then there are no such partners. And I am distressed by those in the Jewish community who continue to believe that we should only talk to and approve for dialogue those who agree with us on every point and who have never made a problematic statement about Judaism or Israel. We don’t need dialogue with those people. We need it with people like Imam Rauf, who are reasonable, sensible, and courageous – even though, to be sure, we often don’t agree.
Finally, many of you have asked me about the role of ADL (Anti-Defamation League) in this controversy.
ADL is an important organization that is vital to our future – an organization that we need to fight for Jewish rights and to oppose discrimination in all forms, against us and against others. Abe Foxman is an extraordinary and dedicated Jewish public servant, who has served our community with great distinction and to whom we are appropriately grateful. To suggest that ADL is somehow anti-Islam in its outlook is absurd.
But ADL made a very serious error here. At precisely the moment when the American people were teetering, torn between the clamoring voices of bigotry and the sensible voices of calm and reason, ADL entered the argument, urging understanding for those with prejudice in their hearts. It was surely not intentional, but the effect of their statement was to open the floodgates and lend weight and legitimacy to those whose primary concern was not Ground Zero or the victims’ families but, instead, inciting hatred against American Muslims. With all of its experience in the politics and the dynamics of bigotry, ADL should have seen this coming.
This phenomenon, in fact, is the most troubling aspect of the crisis: Most of what we’ve witnessed in recent weeks has nothing whatever to do with location-specific issues related to the World Trade Center site. Most of what we’ve witnessed is an orgy of hatred against Muslims and a concerted effort to exclude a group of our fellow citizens from our neighborhoods and to limit their ability to worship as they choose in America. Don’t misunderstand me: I am not suggesting in any way that everyone who is uncomfortable about the mosque is a bigot; that is surely not the case, and that is why I have responded to the arguments, one by one. But when we listen to the public debate, it is too often true that the voices of bigotry are setting the tone.
As Reform Jews, we need to oppose this bigotry with all of our might. We need to affirm that we will not tolerate efforts to keep Muslims out of our neighborhoods – because we know better than anyone that everywhere is somebody’s neighborhood. If we were silent here, a century of work for interfaith relations would be for naught. If we were silent here, we would be casting aside those fundamental values of tolerance, compassion, understanding, and religious freedom that we have affirmed again and again from our earliest days as Reform Jews.
I am proud to say, however, that we in the Reform Movement have not been silent, and our rabbis and congregations have not been silent. I am proud as well that most of the Jewish community has not been silent either. As Jews, we sympathize with the victims of terror, and we fight religious fanaticism wherever it is found, but we remember, now and always, both the lessons of our own history and what this great country is all about.