The Message Must Be Universal

It would be inappropriate for there to be built at Ground Zero - the site of an attack against an all-embracing way of life - any edifice that represents a particular religious belief.

Rabbi Avi Weiss.
Rabbi Avi Weiss
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Rabbi Avi Weiss.
Rabbi Avi Weiss

In the past few weeks, some, including William McGurn, a former chief speechwriter for president George W. Bush, and in this paper, Rabbi Jeremy Rosen ("Moderation at Ground Zero," August 13 ), have drawn a comparison between the convent built at Auschwitz and the mosque scheduled to be built at Ground Zero in New York. The fundamental argument has been that just as a convent does not belong on the grounds of the largest Jewish cemetery in the world, a mosque does not belong in the place where Americans representing a wide range of religions and ethnic backgrounds were killed. As leader of a group of seven who climbed the fence at Auschwitz in July of 1989 to protest against the convent, I would like to expand upon this comparison.

The convent did not belong at Auschwitz-Birkenau because well over 90 percent of those who were murdered on that soil were Jewish. To erect a convent where nuns would be cloistered and - as they themselves proclaimed - would pray for the souls of the departed, would be, in the minds of so many of the victims themselves, as well as among surviving family members and friends, an act of sacrilege. It would have been understood as nothing less than a Christian show of triumphalism, a sort of tangible declaration at this fundamentally Jewish burial site, that Christianity prevails.

I take second place to no one when it comes to showing respect for religious places of worship of all faiths. But a convent at the largest Jewish cemetery in the world is inappropriate. Although it took many years for Pope John Paul II to come to this realization, it was he himself who finally ordered the nuns to move.

In a similar vein, 9/11 was an attack against America. It was an assault on the country's fundamental principles of pluralism, of the need to embrace all of humankind - people of all faiths, Jewish, Christian and Muslim, believers and non-believers, agnostics and atheists. Here, right before our eyes, was the contrast between the killers, who could only see one way of living, and the American democratic way of openness and universalism that embraces people of all backgrounds and all faiths.

Hence, it would be inappropriate for there to be built at that particular place - the site of an attack against an all-embracing way of life - any edifice that represents a particular religious belief. In the place where America was attacked, the response should be one that embodies the "Spirit of America." It should include a center where believers of all faiths and, of course, non-believers too, can meditate and reflect, in an area open to all. This is not an area where any particular faith should promulgate its beliefs, but where all communities, reflective of what America is truly about, can express themselves.

As the debate has become more acrimonious, it is important for both sides not to impugn the motives of the other. Those who support the building of the mosque should not attribute to those who oppose it a lack of recognition of the goodness in Islam. And, those who oppose the project should recognize that those who are in favor understand that distinctions need to be made between those in Islam who are fundamentalists and preach violence, and those, in the broader Muslim community, who desire to live in peace.

As a clerical first responder on 9/11, I had the task of ministering to and comforting the true heroes - police officers, firefighters and others. At Ground Zero, this rabbi, who for years has fought to defend the Jewish people and the Jewish state, was overcome by a far more expansive feeling: The fate of being targeted, which had once seemed to distinguish and isolate Israel, had now expanded to include America. At the site of the destroyed Twin Towers, during those terrible days, I felt a profound sense of universalism. The Jewish particularism I sometimes experience had spilled over, encompassing all innocents. The soil at Ground Zero is hallowed ground. If one walks those sidewalks carefully, one can't help but feel the cries of all the deceased.

To those who attacked America and for those who were brutally murdered, it is critical that the response be an American one. It must be a tribute that embraces all faiths, all believers and non-believers, created in a place that represents the legacy, the vibrancy and the continuity of America itself - a place that reflects that all of us are created equal.

Rabbi Avraham (Avi ) Weiss is senior rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, co-founder of the International Rabbinic Fellowship, and national president of Amcha - The Coalition for Jewish Concerns. The opinions presented here are his alone.



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