defending the First Amendment against the Christian right ...
Jews On First!
... because if Jews don't speak out, they'll think we don't mind
by Robin Podolsky with Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak, JewsOnFirst.org, 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.
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."
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
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
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