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A Muslim Community Center? Why Not?

Why Should Jews Care?

by Robin Podolsky with Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak,, September 7, 2010

During the month of Elul and the Days of Awe 5771 (and, really, we're encouraged to stretch it all the way to Hoshanah Rabah), we Jews have an opportunity to look at our conduct, individual and collective over the past year; to think about what we might have done better, to say sorry for our wrongs and to forgive others.

We have time to ask if we have done all we could to make our communities and our country better places. Have we spoken out to protest injustice, even when to do so would be to draw enmity to ourselves? Have we treated others as we would be treated? Shabbat 54 (a tractate of the Talmud) teaches:

Rab and R. Hanina, R. Johanan and R. Habiba taught: Whoever can forbid his household [to commit a sin] but does not, is seized for [the sins of] his household; [if he can forbid] his fellow citizens, he is seized for [the sins of] his fellow citizens; if the whole world, he is seized for [the sins of] the whole world. R. Papa observed, And the members of the Resh Galutha's [household] (the head of the Jews in exile) are seized for the whole world.

We who live in a representative democracy cannot "forbid" our fellow citizens, but we can speak up, and we can vote. We are liable, therefore, for those times in which` we did not use our agency as citizens to effect what policies we believe to be right. footnote here

The crisis and the opportunity
Throughout the secular year of 2010, the United States has been racked with controversies concerning a proposed Islamic community center in Manhattan close to where the World Trade Center stood, "Ground Zero." Debate has given way to accusations and even violence. Mosques have been vandalized. A Muslim cab driver in New York was knifed only because of his religion. There has been loose talk, throughout the country, of forbidding the construction of any more mosques at all. Islam has been characterized as something other than a "real" religion by people whose expertise consists of having "read" the Quran. (Based on our experience, we are probably safe to class most of those pundits with the sort of Gentile scholar who assures us that he or she knows all about Judaism having "read" the "Old Testament.")

A CBS poll released on August 25 of this year indicates that only a fourth of the Americans surveyed had a favorable opinion of Islam, while 39% had an unfavorable opinion and 37% didn't know. It is of course difficult to draw conclusions from such general questions about one of the largest religions on the planet; one which, like Judaism and Christianity, is distinguished by a great variety of internal movements, orthodoxies, heresies, sects, regional customs and interpretations. But, somehow, most people who answered the questions were certain enough of what "Islam" means in aggregate to have a blanket positive or negative opinion of it.

What's it to us?
We live in a time and place in which Jews, as a religious minority, enjoy unprecedented freedom of worship and social mobility. However, it is not so long ago that much of what is now being said about Islam and done to Muslims has been said about and done to us.

A recent film series, PBS's The Jewish Americans documents the extent to which anti-Semitic tropes employed by such career bigots as Henry Ford (who was, the film reminds us, discussed positively in Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf) are the same as those by which Muslim-Americans are now characterized by their domestic enemies. In the 1930s and pre-World War II 1940s "the Jew" represented a threat to those who felt that the America they knew—white, Christian and rural was slipping away to be replaced by a more cosmopolitan, urban society; one in which the film reminds us, the anti-Semitic Ku Klux Klan had over four million members—more than the American Jewish population of the time.

There was a time when, outside of enclaves such as a few boroughs of Manhattan, "good Jews" were expected to be careful not to be blatant, a time when suburban synagogues, like gay bars, were nondescript buildings that did not advertise their function. There was a time when Jews who wanted to get ahead in America were expected to change their names, regulate their gestures and, with regard to where they might live and what office they might hold, be modest in their expectations. There was a time when "Jew"—like, in some quarters, "Muslim" today—was slung as an insult, and Jewish Americans described themselves as "Hebrews."

It was only after the reverberations of horror following World War II, with its reminder of where anti-Semitism can lead, and also the cultural shift in favor of diversity effected by the African-American civil rights movement, feminism and their social cousins, that Jews emerged into full participation in American life. A key element in that transformation has been the sharpening understanding of the guarantee of religious freedom afforded by our Constitution: the assurance that, cultural biases aside, our nation as such was founded on the basis that our government promotes no religion and respects them all.

Today, we are reminded of our own history, our potential vulnerability, at the same time as we are being actively recruited to join in the anti-Muslim bullying. A recent World Gallup Poll revealed a link between anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, indicating that contempt for Jews makes a person "about 32 times as likely to report the same level of prejudice toward Muslims."

What happened?
Last December, the Cordoba Initiative, a non-profit organization with the mission of promoting dialogue and understanding between Muslims and people of other faiths, applied for the necessary permits to build a community center in Manhattan. The center, conceived on the Jewish Community Center model, is to offer educational and cultural programming, to house a sports center and art gallery and to host worship services. Supporters of the center, which is to have Jews and Christian on its board of directors include the American Jewish Committee, the Episcopal Diocese of New York and its neighbors, congregation B'nai Jeshurun and St. Peter's Church.

At that time, one of the Cordoba Initiative's founders, Daisy Khan, was interviewed by conservative talk show host Laura Ingraham. Khan said that one of the main motivations for establishing the center, then to be called Cordoba House, so close to Ground Zero was to deal "a blow to the extremists" because, "We Muslims are really fed up with having to be defined by the actions of the extremists." In addition to teaching "tolerance, love and commonalities with other faith communities" the center would teach "what it means to be Muslim and also what it means to be American."

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