Jewish Moderation Over Mosque at Ground Zero

The Anti-Defamation League has only made matters worse with its call for sensitivity toward the families of victims. Given its claim to represent tolerance, and its Jewish underpinning, its public statement criticizing the trustees of the Cordoba Initiative is an embarrassment.

Sometimes a good cause can be damaged by the slightest insensitivity. I fear this may end up being the case with the plan of an organization called the Cordoba Initiative to build an Islamic center, with a mosque, on Park Place, across from where the World Trade Center once stood.

Remember the Carmelite nuns at Auschwitz? They too wanted reconciliation, to bear witness to their contrition and build bridges. But their massive cross was there in full view of those who went to pay tribute to people murdered by what was ostensibly a Christian society, and it caused great offense. In the end, under pressure, the nuns removed the cross.

I remember, some decades ago, when the prevailing attitude in the Diaspora was to be “a Jew at home, but a citizen on the street.” Jews were insecure and well aware of their enemies. They thought that keeping a low profile was the best way to survive and prosper. I think we were wrong in this; too submissive. But we at least displayed some element of restraint, perhaps even modesty, that sometimes seems to be sadly missing today, apparently among members of many religious groups.

Attitudes changed in many Western societies as they morphed from conformist to multiculturalist to over-indulgent. The pendulum has swung so far that in the name of freedom of religion, too many people think they have the right to ride roughshod over other people’s real or imagined sensitivities. Of course, there will always be disagreements but the best solution is to find a Golden Mean between extremes of passivity and aggression. I have experienced both and dislike them equally.

Can free criticism of religion − something that since Voltaire has been an integral part of European culture − be permitted even if it offends Muslim, Sikh, Hindu or Jewish sensitivities? May one dress as one pleases, whether it is in a burka or, alternatively, a mini mini? Every action causes a reaction. The struggle today in the free world is not over the right to practice whatever one wants, but the extent to which one can and should shove one’s beliefs and rituals in others’ faces. There are those who argue: Why not? So long as no one is being forced to do something against his or her will. Why shouldn’t “Jews for Jesus” peddle their wares on my street? Why shouldn’t I build as big a house of worship as I want, in as obtrusive a place as possible? Was that not precisely what the Catholic Church and Islam used to do: the bigger the better, the more ostentatious, the greater the presence of God?

What, one might ask, could be a more apt act of contrition than a Muslim center created on the premise that the silence of the moderates encourages the hubris of fanatics? We must surely encourage moderation. The arguments that some of the supporters of the project have relatives who represent the very antithesis of the center’s declared aims, is ridiculous. If we look far enough, we’ll find that everyone has fundamentalist fanatics in his family, no matter what the religion.

Cordoba itself is a name with both positive and negative connotations. Once the very symbol of Islamic tolerance, it was turned by Berber fanatics into a den of hatred, a theme that was furthered by Christianity when it conquered the place. Yet erecting a center right where Muslim fanatics wrought such mayhem and murder, and so recently, is a trifle insensitive. A little forethought could have avoided this sad demarche. Couldn’t it be put elsewhere? A few blocks away? Is this just a matter of a real estate opportunity?
I wonder if greater good, and less antagonism, might not come from a little give and take. Isn’t the pursuit of peace also the pursuit of compromise? At the same time, though, it is sad to see prejudice at work. But then, it saddens me that some Muslim states will not allow Christians ‏(let alone Jews‏) to build houses of worship and reconciliation there. Shouldn’t prejudice at home also be addressed?

That being said, the Anti-Defamation League has only made matters worse with its call for sensitivity toward the families of victims. Given its claim to represent tolerance, and its Jewish underpinning, its public statement criticizing the trustees of the Cordoba Initiative is an embarrassment. If the ADL had an argument with the mosque, it could have dealt with it behind closed doors. The old bad ways of settling things privately and sensitively still have a lot to commend them wherever people of different persuasions live together.

Fortunately, there are some American Muslims who are playing down the opposition, instead of rising to the bait. They point out that all immigrant groups have faced opposition at some stage. Even today, Orthodox Jews often encounter opposition − sometimes even from other Jews − to new construction, even to expanding their enclaves.

The Ground Zero situation is even tougher for Muslims precisely because there are those among them around the world who believe in blowing innocent people up, including their coreligionists. This makes the tasks of moderates − to counteract fanatics − all the more vital. We must encourage those who seek moderation and reconciliation among ourselves and, in this case, among Muslims. And this may also be the time to assert that God is also in the “still, quiet voice.”

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen was representative to Lord Jakobovits, the late, former chief rabbi of the United Synagogue, on interfaith affairs. He now lives and teaches in New York.