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A Muslim Community Center? Why Not?

Why Should Jews Care?

by Robin Podolsky, JewsOnFirst.org, September 7, 2010

Note: This is the print version, which lacks many features of the paged version; the paged version begins here.

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 cabdriver 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 Koran. (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."

Khan, the Executive Director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement, was heroically gracious in the face of Ms. Ingraham's trademark crass provocations. (Ingraham wanted to know, if a new Mosque is allowed near Ground Zero, what would be the chances of building a new church in, say, Lebanon? We can't speak to the church question, but as it happens, this August the government of Lebanon announced the completed restoration of the Magen Abraham Synagogue in Beirut.)

Khan's husband, Imam Abdul Rauf, the spiritual leader of the Cordoba Initiative, has conducted trainings for the FBI and gone on speaking tours throughout the Middle East under the aegis of the U.S. State Department as a spokesperson for American Islam. He preaches an inclusive form of Sufism, an inward, spiritually rich Muslim tradition.

One would be justified to expect that for those who have been calling loudly for moderate, pro-American Muslims to raise their voices against terrorism, this group and their project would look like a Godsend. However, such an expectation would have been mostly disappointed.

In May, after the center won the unanimous approval of a local zoning board, a group called Stop Islamization of America (SIOA), led by Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer, launched a campaign against the project. (SIOA's sister web site, Stop Islamization of Europe, features articles sympathetic to the genocidal Serbian leader Radovan Karadzic). It was they who characterized the center, inaccurately, as the "Ground Zero Mosque." Actually the proposed center is on the grounds of a former Burlington Coat Factory, two blocks from the site of the former World Trade Center, in a neighborhood bustling with fast food restaurants, "adult" entertainment arcades and other commercial enterprises.

Between May and September, the echo chamber has grown in volume. Right-wing political figures, such as Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin have added their voices to it, Palin famously tweeting her hope that "peaceful Muslims" would "refudiate" the center. Although New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a Jewish Republican, speaks out eloquently in favor of the center as an example of the United States' religious freedom, former Mayor Rudolph Guliani, whose failed run for president was based, almost entirely, around his leadership during the 9/11 attacks, has condemned it. Franklin Graham (pictured at right), son and successor to Billy Graham was quoted in Time magazine, saying, "It wasn't Islam that built America; it was the people of the Christian-Judeo faith that built [the U.S.]. We've given freedom to other religions to come, and now you have other religions coming that want to bring America down." Read more. This use of the phrase "Judeo-Christian" exemplifies the ways in which some conservative Christians seek to simultaneously court American Jews and annex us as auxiliaries to their project. There is of course no single faith called Judeo-Christianity. Judaism is an independent religion, not a modifying adjective. This phrase is often tacked on to the word, Christianity when the user wishes to assert Christian prerogatives without appearing to ignore Jewish allies and also without abandoning the centrality of Christianity which is the heart of their argument.

Pajamas Media's Andrew Klavan, whom we can only assume to be both hip and cool due to his shaved head and tieless red shirt, confronts us with the ever-so-edgy question, "Does Islam Suck?", the answer to which question, he tells us, depends on whether the Cordoba Initiative accedes to whatever proper Muslim-free zone its critics designate. Imagine the howls of victimization if any mainstream commentator appeared on cable news to ask "Does Christianity Suck?" and to assert that an answer would depend on whether a single church agreed to conform to a set of rules laid out by the interrogator. Such a person would not only lose their job, they would expose themselves and their employer to a barrage of retaliation, including a likely lawsuit from the ACLJ.

The ACLJ, the American Center for Law and Justice—was formed, according to its mission statement to, "protect religious liberty and safeguard human rights and dignity." However, its work is almost exclusively dedicated to expanding the presence of Christianity in such institutions as the public schools. The ACLJ has filed a lawsuit against the construction of the center. (For more on the involvement of this group, please see our Why Now? section below.) In addition, such figures as the Reverend John Hagee, who like Sarah Palin, has connections to the more apocalyptic strains of right wing Christianity, has attached his name to this cause (also more below) as has the Reverend Pat Robertson of the 700 Club.

The general argument against the construction of the community center, which will contain a mosque, is that it would be insensitive to the feelings of the survivors of people murdered at Ground Zero. Certainly, this was not the intention of the Cordoba Initiative, which sought to make the statement that Muslim Americans will not be deterred by terrorists from practicing their religion in their own country.

The center was originally to be called Cordoba House, in honor of that place and time remembered by Jews as Al-Andalus, where Muslims, Jews and Christians lived, traded and studied together. Incorrectly, as we will demonstrate, that name has been characterized as an expression of triumphalism. However, in sensitivity to a that concern, the project has been renamed Park51.

It cannot be emphasized enough, in this context, that there are Muslims included among the 9/11 dead and among those first responders whose heroism provided Americans with inspiration and hope at that terrible time. Among them are: Salman Hamdani, a 23-year-old New York City police cadet and part-time ambulance driver, whose family was questioned by law enforcement officials about his post-9/11 disappearance until six months later when his remains were identified near the North Tower, along with with his EMT medical bag; and Rahma Salie, a passenger on American Airlines Flight 11, who died seven months pregnant with her first child, whose family members were barred from taking flights to her memorial service.

In an article for Salon.com, Osman Adnan writes,

I am a lifelong resident of Middletown, N.J., the town that lost more victims per capita on 9/11 than anyplace in the state, and the second hardest hit city after New York. Almost 50 of our neighbors died that day, in a town of 60,000. Most of those who died worked at Cantor Fitzgerald. Although I was only 18, I was an enlisted medic with the New Jersey National Guard on that day, and I wound up on many Homeland Security missions in my four-year stint after the attack. My older brother commissioned as a U.S. Army officer after Sept. 11, and was awarded a Purple Heart during his service in Iraq. To this day he has shrapnel lodged in his body from the IED that blew up his convoy.

Adnan, who has served as an American aid worker in the Middle East and is well-informed about actual extremists, is convinced that the Cordoba Institute is dedicated to articulating an American Islam and wants to establish the center to celebrate our democracy's religious freedom—thus denying violent Islamic fundamentalists a victory.

Consequences
On September 11, 2010, Christians at the Dove World Outreach Center in Florida will ceremoniously burn Qurans. According to Pastor Terry Jones, Islam is "of the devil." (The same group plans to protest Gainesville's openly gay mayor, Craig Lowe.) Mosques and construction sites for mosques in Texas, in northern and southern California, Tennessee, Connecticut, Washington DC and in New York, where an attacker yelled "terrorist" and urinated on a prayer rug, have been vandalized and subject to ongoing harassment. In New York a cab driver was slashed across the neck and face by a customer who asked his religion and attacked when the driver said that he is Muslim.

From Pat Robertson, television pastor to millions, and anonymous internet trolls alike, we hear the same accusations: Islam is not a "real" religion. It is an international conspiracy of conquest. The center was only going to be called Cordoba House in order to signal a victory over those Westerners too ignorant to realize it. Muslims will smile at your face and lie behind your back. (Where have we heard this before?) For a grass roots movement, this grouping is astonishingly on-message.

If the details of this conspiracy theory aimed at all Muslims seem familiar to Jewish readers, they should. We have heard this before and we know where it leads.

We too have been painted as alien, a fifth column, a conspiracy. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a fantasy concocted by Czar Nicholas II's secret police, portrays Jews as a worldwide, secretive cabal, owing loyalty only to one another, no matter what nation, class, social movement or other outside group they may situate themselves in. According to the Protocols, Jews are simultaneously behind all capitalist and all communist conspiracies; and the more patriotic they seem, the more blatant is their perfidy. In this perfectly closed system, there is no way for Jews to escape categorical suspicion. Now this trap is being woven for Muslim Americans.

Looking deeper
We have been told that Islam is not a religion but a political ideology because it has a holistic system of laws for daily living. Shall we then call Judaism a political ideology because of the system of Halachah? Daniel Pipes, a conservative academic specialist in Islam, asserts that the comparison is unfair, because "Islamists aspire to apply Islamic law to everyone, while observant Jews seek only to live by Jewish law themselves." Indeed. Perhaps Dr. Pipes has not been to Jerusalem lately. There he could find Jews who are willing to throw stones at anyone who drives within their neighborhoods on the Sabbath, physically assault other Jews whom they deem to be immodestly dressed and stab, bomb and shoot (without inquiring about their religion) people they encounter at gay pride events. On the other hand, the vast majority of religious Jews are indeed observant without compelling other people to join with them. The same is true of Muslim communities.

There are countries where Islamic law is threaded through the system, some of which are very exacting and some of which are relatively laissez-faire. Like the State of Israel, such countries are laboratories where new forms of government, accountable to religious and to parliamentary law, are being grown.

In the United States, observant Muslims, like observant Jews, often live close to one another in neighborhoods where they can enjoy the food at restaurants in which their rules regarding food will be observed (uh-oh--creeping Halachah!), find places to worship and enjoy common recreation. Are such people "clannish?" On the left, right and center, American Jews who participate in elections and social movements are often motivated by values and imperatives they derive from Judaism. Are such people attempting to "impose" Jewish law?

Unlike Jews in most non-Jewish countries, the last three generations of Jewish Americans have, for the most part, thrown off centuries of pressure that schooled us to avoid making trouble—to either live very obviously apart in ghettos where people from the dominant cultures are in no danger of mistaking us for one of them or else to assimilate as completely as possible, to avoid standing out. As Jews who are fully integrated into society, we have reclaimed our yarmulkes, our chai pendants and our ancestor's surnames; when we are asked to work on Shabbat, we speak up. Jewish Americans are rediscovering the richness of Jewish study and communal life, and we do continue to shape our country as we continue to let it shape us. Now that bagels are as American as apple pie and egg rolls and a first run movie is called Dinner for Shmucks--more profoundly, now that we boast Ginsbergs among our Supreme Court Justices and treasured national poets, has our nation fallen apart? Or is it a richer, more interesting place for everyone?

Why would we want anything less for our Muslim compatriots? Just as Ginsberg has become an American name, so will Ahmed. Just as yarmulkes are American articles of clothing, so will be hijab. Just as employers are learning to accommodate Saturday Shabbat, so they will become aware of Friday Jum'uah. Just as our foodie friends have embraced Kashrut, so will they discover Halal.

Pipes argues that Sharia is more problematic than Halachah because it is more decentralized. There is no Muslim Shulchan Aruch or Mishnah Bruria to consult for a quick ruling. Imams, like traditional ravs, (rabbis) rule in the particular case for their own communities. In other words, Islam is, in interesting ways, much like Judaism has been for great portions of its history; before the pressures of accommodating to state structures for recognizing "legitimate" religions, such as that in Germany, pushed Ashkenazi Jews to create the sort of denominations that our Christian neighbors would understand. This is actually an argument for why Islam is both strong and supple enough to develop forms and interpretations that reflect the cultural particularities of this country as it has done in other places.

Pipes, who has coined the phrase "soft Jihad" has already been instrumental in campaigns against two American women, Debbie Almontaser, who was forced to resign her position as principal of an Arabic-language charter school, and Nadia Abu el-Haj, a professor of Archeology at Columbia's Barnard College who has written a book analyzing the role of archeology in crafting the Israeli national narrative. Because Almontaser had served on the board of an arts organization at which some very young women had printed t-shirts reading "Jihad NYC" and because she had condemned the 9/11 terrorists by saying that, as far as she is concerned, they are not Muslims (disinformation!), Pipes launched a campaign in New York painting this educator as a stealth infiltrator. Almontaser has been defended by New York rabbis and other Jews, including Larry Cohler-Esses of the Forward, who compare this extremely idiosyncratic interpretation of her words and actions to the machinations of Joseph McCarthy against people he accused of being Communists, including, of course many Jews—and reminds us that nothing protected actual Communists from scrutiny like the utter unlovlieness of the McCarthyites.

The McCarthyite pattern of closely monitoring the speech of target groups, cherry-picking disturbing quotes and then mounting aggressive campaigns to get them to explain themselves in order to prove that they are "responsible elements", the "good" members of their group and so forth is one with which Jews have become familiar throughout our history. The very creation of an atmosphere in which simply being a member of the target group is considered legitimate grounds for suspicion represents an attack on that group's civil rights and social standing. The very exercise legitimizes the right of the accuser to pass judgment. Jews in America have put our collective foot down. We are not the sort to start standing on Jew stools and swearing oaths in pointed hats. No--now we are being wooed and recruited and encouraged to put Muslims in a similar position.

Painful truths
We have been told that Islam is dangerous because it is a proselytizing religion, one that distinguishes qualitatively between believers and others and that has been spread through empire. There is no way to engage this issue without acknowledging some difficult truths.

Because we do live in a plural society, people of various religions, and denominations within those faiths, have found ways to work together. Often, those ways demand that we put certain differences—of theology and of historical perception--aside. Jews and Christians, in particular, have had to live with the facts that Christianity is a proselytizing religion, that Christian doctrine asserts the impossibility of salvation without submission to the divinity of Jesus Christ and that in every part of the world colonized violently by Christian nations, Christianity was not only preached but, to some extent and at some time, imposed.

This story begins with the Holy Roman Empire, as it was bolstered by Augustinian politico-theology and extends to the European colonies in Africa, Asia and the Americas. For centuries, Western Europe, known as Christendom, was defended at its borders by such brutal despots as Vlad the Impaler, the reputed model for the Dracula stories.

In this country, American Indian children were forcibly taken from their parents and kept in boarding schools where they had no choice but to learn Christianity and to disparage their native languages and religions. Jews faced pressure to convert. To this day, the American Armed Forces have been riven with controversy over the overt Evangelical agenda of some high commanders, including those with responsibilities connected to the Middle East. Today, there are small, but potentially deadly, groups of white supremacist militias in the US, arming themselves for race war, sustained by their idiosyncratic Christian Identity theology, which combines white racism with Christian triumphalism. Even the majority of Evangelical Christians who would never throw in with militias, who are truly horrified at them, say openly that their goal—for the good of humankind—is the worldwide spread of Christianity. Some of them utilize the metaphors of conflict, calling themselves prayer warriors. Shall we call Christianity dangerous then?

It is only in the previous century, through the deep Western reconsideration prompted by the horrors of the Holocaust and, most importantly, the victorious independence movements of previously colonized nations, that the 'civilizing and Christianizing' project of the West has been (imperfectly) discredited. None of that changes the fact that many Christians believe it to be their duty to witness for their faith in order to redeem the world. They have the right to do so, just as Muslims do, just as Jews have the right to assert the Jewish roots of our own values.

History
Those who oppose Park51 have been armed with the following talking point: the name "Cordoba" means conquest and oppression. Jews who are conversant with our history know a different story.

A Muslim Caliphate did indeed take over Cordoba, and all the Iberian peninsula beginning in 711 C.E. It has become an oft-repeated charge that Muslims often erect Mosques on the sites of conquests. It is true that the Muslim Governor Yusef Abd al-Rachman bought St. Vincent's church in 750 C.E and there constructed Cordoba's mosque. (Also true that, under the Spanish monarchy, the site would be redone again with a Gothic cathedral in the middle of it.) Prior to that it had been under the control of the Visigoths, who had themselves conquered the area in the early 6th Century and, according to the historian Gregory of Tours (died 594), "the Goths had adopted the detestable custom of killing with the sword any of their kings who displeased them." (Medieval Islamic Civilization, Josef W. Meri and Jere L. Bacharach, Routledge, 2005, p. 176 ff.)

Under the Visigoths, Jews had faced cruel persecution which sometimes escalated to forced conversion, torture and murder. By the late seventh century, it became a practice of the Visigoth rulers to steal Jewish children from their parents and have them baptized. Even during periods of relative calm, Jews were always subject to strictures under Visigoth rule, which obliged them to observe their religion with utmost discretion.

As Muslim rule of what would be called Spain, and what was then called Al-Andalus, was consolidated, the situation for the Jews improved greatly. Under the Umayyads, who came to power in 755, the Jews of Al-Andalus—including and notably, the Jews of Cordoba experienced what has been called a Golden Age. The period has sometimes been over-romanticized; but that may be because it provoked nostalgia by comparison to what preceded and followed it. It was an extraordinary time for Jewish scholarship, poetry, statecraft and commerce. Great philosophers emerged from Al-Andalus and poets and even generals. Muslims, Jews and Christians studied together, re-confronting the challenges of Greek wisdom and re-inventing revealed religion such that it could stand up to the challenges of science, logic and that burgeoning invention moving from east to west: spiritual interiority.

This Golden Age lasted till the early 12th century, when the more fundamentalist Almoravides and then the Almohads took control. (The great philosopher Moses ben Maimon, whose intellect had flowered in Cordoba was forced to leave the city, because of Almohad persecutions. He settled in Cairo, another Muslim city, where he achieved his greatest work while employed as physician to Saladin's vizier.) Jews were again subject to pogroms and other depredations under Almohad rule and some encouraged a second Christian invasion in the hope of finding relief. As most of us know, the situation for Jews under Christian rule was not improved for long. It became precarious in the extreme and grew worse until the expulsion of 1492.

In this context, it is imperative to remember that the status of "dhimmis"—the category assigned to Jews and Christians in the Medieval Muslim world which has been newly rediscovered by those same savants who have "read" the Quran-- which rendered those communities protected but less than equal, was in no way more degrading or oppressive than the strictures on Jews common in the Christian world. At various times, under their Christian rulers, Spanish Jews were not allowed to build new synagogues, to employ Christian servants, to celebrate too openly or to hold any office which would put them in authority over a Christian. They were were ordered into ghettos (Juderias). They were not allowed to hire Christian servants or to eat, drink, or bathe with Christians, or hold intimate conversation with them, or visit them, or give them presents. Christian women, married or unmarried, were forbidden to enter the Juderia either by day or by night. In some places, Jews were prohibited from practicing medicine, surgery, or chemistry; from dealing in bread, wine, flour or meat; from handicrafts or trades of any kind; from public offices—and, stereotypes notwithstanding, from money lending. If the poverty brought on by these strictures did not effect a change in their dress, the law did, because Jews were ordered to wear clothing of special, coarse material and forbidden to trim their beards like gentry.

In the first years of the Spanish crown, these rules were not always in place or rigorously enforced. Sometimes, they were enforced beyond all reason. But none of the regulations regarding Jews in Christian Spain differed in kind from the strictures set out for dhimmis under Islamic law. There were no democratic republics then of our own sort. There was no part of the earth in which the prerogatives accorded to minority religions were not at the pleasure of the ruling elite. By the standards of the time, the Jews—and Christians and Muslims-- of Cordoba lived, for generations, extremely well. (Mark R. Cohen Under Crescent & Cross: The Jews in the Middle Ages Princeton: 1995, pps. 111 -116.)

This changed under the Spanish Christian kings and nowhere was this change felt more cruelly than in Cordoba, where, in 1391 a bloody pogrom destroyed most of the inhabitants of the Juderia. The former home of such luminaries as Moses ben Maimon and the great commentator and poet, Abraham Ibn Ezra had been reduced to an abattoir.

Analogies
We are told further, by both Christian and Jews, that the presence of a community center containing a mosque near Ground Zero is as offensive to New Yorkers as was the presence of a Carmelite convent on the grounds of Auschwitz. The analogy fails.

Auschwitz was a place where Jews were killed for being Jews (and Poles for being Poles, Rom for being Rom, etc.) The nuns made it their mission to pray for the souls of all the departed—including, as one fundraising brochure suggested for "the conversion of strayed brothers." Ground Zero was a place where people of many religions and ethnicities were all were killed for being Americans and doing business with Americans. The convent was perceived to be a place where people prayed that Jews cease to be Jews; the Park51 community center will be a place in which Americans will pray for America to be blessed and strengthened.

Why now?
There is no denying the raw pain felt by families of 9/11 victims and by survivors. Their emotions are real. But somehow that pain has been co-opted into a political and cultural war that goes beyond the personal. When Glen Beck, Sarah Palin, John Hagee and Daniel Lapin, sharing a platform at a rally in Washington DC, start to harness this energy in service of a particular (not conspiratorial—it's right out there!) agenda—when the ACLJ, Pat Robertson and Daniel Pipes are not far behind, then we might be forgiven for seeing cold calculation behind the rhetorical fire.

We have seen this configuration and this message before. In 2008, prior to the historic presidential election, millions of unsolicited DVD's were inserted into newspapers delivered to homes in swing states. It takes serious funding to pull off a campaign of that size. The DVD, Obsession, begins with horrific footage of the two towers attack, mixed with images of ordinary Muslims at prayer along with images of Muslims in uniform practicing with weapons. Therein lies the message of the film. Although it ostensibly seeks only to warn Americans of the danger posed by violent Muslim fundamentalists, the effect is to suggest that all Muslims must be legitimately regarded with suspicion and required to prove themselves.

Obsession preaches that the United States is engaged in what Senator John McCain called a "transcendental struggle" against all of worldwide Islam—except for the good Muslims whom we can recognize by their revulsion at the very notion of combining into social action groups unless those groups have the sole purpose of telling everyone else who the bad Muslims are. A Muslim ADL, we are to assume, must be an arm of the soft Jihad. The Clarion Fund, which distributed Obsession, has the so-called "Ground Zero Mosque" splashed across its website, which features a section, under the rubric "Homegrown Threat" called "U.S. Mosques" and which accuses Muslims of "the infiltration of school boards, textbook distributors, and government entities."

What interests might be served, then and now, by this sort of thing? Just as they did two years ago, the political veterans who are shaping spontaneous responses to Park51 into a movement with slogans and memes, are people on the political right. Now, as they did then, they have a beef with President Barack Obama. They wish to see him and his party disempowered.

As was the case two years ago, the right wing is faced with some problems. To truly focus on the economy—the key issue in our last presidential election and a driver of the congressional races—is to veer too close to the legacy of disaster left by the last Republican president. The only solution to massive unemployment that they can countenance is the lowering of corporate and personal taxes on those for whom the marketplace is still generating prosperity. That solution cannot work—did not generate jobs during the Bush era and ignores a key ingredient in beating the recession: rebuilding the middle class with jobs and investments. (See also Peter Laarman's essay Labor Day of Mourning)

But, let's be honest, the economy has never been the Republican Party's happiest métier. They do far better with transcendental struggles. In the absence of the Soviets, during the Clinton years, they suffered. Now, in Al Qaeda the right wing of the Republican Party (which is hard, these days, to distinguish from its mainstream) has found a partner who will rock and roll all night and party every day. And if Al Qaeda isn't quite enough, if the global struggle has to come down to anybody who is a Muslim and everyone else, well this crowd has the stomach for it.

On August 9, the John Hagee Ministries' Weekly Update conflated the Park51 issue with anger at the President's economic policies. It reads in part:

When the people of New York City don't want a mega-mosque built at Ground Zero, but the mosque goes forward while liberal elites lecture us about tolerance… When the American people don't want the government telling them what they must buy, but they must buy it anyway, which is exactly what ObamaCare does...this is dictatorship.

Elsewhere in the article, the defeat in court of Proposition 8, which had banned same-sex marriage and the federal challenge to Arizona's anti-immigrant law were also mentioned.

Hagee, of course is famous for founding CUFI, Christians United for Israel, an organization that supports the Israeli Likud Party policies with regard to the occupied territories, because its members believe that all of Biblical Israel must be in Jewish hands. Hagee is also famous as a millenarian, who pins great hopes on the founding of the State of Israel as a sign that the War of Armageddon is at hand. In his book, Jerusalem Countdown, Hagee indicates that a necessary stage in the process of global redemption is a period of tribulation in which Israel is almost wiped out through wars with her neighbors. This conflict is necessary so that the "remnant" that remains will be in a position to recognize Jesus as the true Messiah and give up Judaism altogether.

Hagee is also allied with that section of the Christian right which is working to re-brand the United States as a Christian nation. A common tactic of such groups is an appropriation of the language of the civil rights movement, in attempts to paint themselves as fighting for an embattled minority. An example of the double standard such groups promote is the entire project of the American Center for Law and Justice. A look at the ACLJ's actual work indicates that the sort of "religious freedom" being promoted is entirely one sided. In addition to a lawsuit filed by the ACLJ against Park51, the group invoked the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment along with other legal doctrine to protest a junior high school assembly in Houston in which students were taught basic facts about Islamic beliefs. However, in their "Education" issue brief, the ACLJ asserts that:

Perhaps more than in any other arena, Christians find that their values and beliefs are under continual attack in the nation's public schools.…The so-called "doctrine" of separation of church and state has become the battle cry of those who wish to purge all religious expression from the public schools.

In the context of a battle to display the Christian version of the Ten Commandments at the Texas Capitol and two Kentucky courthouses, Jay Sekulow, Chief Counsel for the ACLJ said, "...even the Supreme Court admitted this is a Christian nation up until the 1930s."

There is a confluence with that view—which regards the Jews of the United States as being best off under the protection of benevolent Christians, although never free from the specter of anti-Semitism—and one that can only imagine the State of Israel in a beleaguered warlike state, never to realize the original Zionist dream of a nation that lives in the world like any other.

What is at stake
America is a unique kind of experiment. Not to overindulge in American exceptionalism, but every country has its particularities, and here is one of ours: we were not only founded through a constitution that guaranteed freedom of religion for all, the conquest of the Americas--carried out overtly as a Christian project and, therefore, in opposition to all indigenous religion--removed the ground for any organicist claim to the place for any of the Abrahamic faiths. This happened just as Europeans, reeling from centuries of bloody religious war between Christians and having rediscovered the virtues of scientific skepticism, were calling received certainties into question. The result was a country founded not only without a state religion but without any history of one.

This is why it is possible for observant Jews, Muslims and Christians to be equally at home here. This narrative is repellent to those who want to frame the US as a Christian nation. It is also inconvenient for those who wish to emphasize the nationalistic possibilities of Judaism based on the idea that this nation must always be, in some way, the territory of Christians on whose tolerance we must rely.

One of the many things at stake here is the soul and shape of America. Are we to be defined by our Constitution or by Plymouth and Jamestown? Those early colonies were indeed religious enterprises, founded by Puritans and Anglicans seeking religious freedom; but only for themselves to practice what they believed in, relieved of the pressure to co-exist with others. It is certainly no accident (and almost too ponderously ironic) that Pat Robertson, the man who wants us to know that Islam is no religion but an ideology of conquest, said on his website that, "we reclaim the holy covenant of 1607 (referring to the Jamestown colony in advance of a beach party planned to celebrate the colony's founding) and we reaffirm that America "is dedicated to our Lord Jesus Christ, for His glory and for His purpose...the Gospel will go out…to the entire world."" (At the end Robertson quotes Jamestown's Reverend Robert Hunt.)

However, our Constitution really does forbid any government establishment of religion. Generations of interpreters have elucidated that principle to mean that the government doesn't get to play favorites, to treat one religion as more "real" than all the rest. It is that founding principle—even when it has been honored more in the breach—that has allowed Jews the exceptional opportunities that we have been blessed with in America. Well, that and the color line, especially since it was redrawn in the 20th century to include most of us who happen to be here. (It is easier to get ahead when the lowest rung on the ladder is always already taken.)

Video interviews of participants in Glen Beck's capitol rally on the anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech indicate that Reverend Hagee's enemies list--Muslims, the President, people who would impose controls on the economy but not on their neighbor's personal lives--is fairly common. Muslims, like gays and immigrants are understood as having taken away an America that the Tea Partiers, who are mostly white, Christian and relatively well-off, are determined to "take back."

So. The folks who believe that they are losing America are angry with the President. Some are angry because he is a Black man who appears to be smarter than most people and can't be bothered to conceal the fact. Some are angry because he is teaching his children to savor arugula with their Five Guys burgers. Many are angry precisely to the extent that he is keeping his campaign promise to reform healthcare and other aspects of the economy in favor of the middle classes, which means government regulation of the marketplace to curb dishonest and predatory practices, to reward responsible entrepreneurs including those who invest in research and development, to spur employment and to monitor working conditions for health, safety and transparency.

As has been pointed often enough, it is not easy to build a mass movement against policies that directly benefit the people you are trying to organize. Thomas Frank in What's The Matter With Kansas put his finger on it. People who don't want to talk economic facts resort to culture wars. They need an enemy around which to unite.

According to a new Pew Research Poll: nearly one in five people, or 18 percent, said they think Obama is Muslim, up from the 11 percent who said so in March 2009. The proportion who correctly say he is a Christian is down to just 34 percent. In a separate poll by Time magazine/ABT SRBI conducted Monday and Tuesday — after Obama's comments about the mosque — 24 percent said they think he is Muslim, 47 percent said they think he is Christian and 24 percent didn't know or didn't respond. In addition, 61 percent opposed building the Muslim center near the Trade Center site and 26 percent said they favor it.

The Pew poll found that about three in 10 of Obama's fiercest political rivals, Republicans and conservatives, say he is a Muslim. That is up significantly from last year and far higher than the share of Democrats and liberals who say so. But even among his supporters, the number saying he is a Christian has fallen since 2009, with just 43 percent of blacks and 46 percent of Democrats saying he is Christian.

Yes, there is passion here and genuine anguish and competing views of what our nation should be. Therefore, there is politics. The right wing is attempting—with a terrifying degree of success—to turn "Muslim" into an epithet and to get it to stick to our President. Why would Franklin Graham, son of Billy and heir to the mantle of "responsible and mainstream Christian conservatism," refuse to state clearly that he takes the President at his own word about his Christian faith? Why would anyone who looks forward to the day when our current wars are over and our country lives with the Muslim world in peace be anything but overjoyed to have the world see that we elected to lead us an African-American man with a white mother, an Arabic middle name and a confessed faith in Jesus Christ?

We have to live in a world—and yes, still, in a country—that contains some places where "Jew" is thrown at us with the same emphatic satisfaction that one finds in nailing someone for some bad thing they are: "crook!" "murderer!" We do today--but we do not have to accept it as inevitable. Not here and not for anyone. We know the feeling of frustration and utter wrongness—"no, they don't understand, whatever they mean by 'Jew,' it's not what we are, no matter what they are thinking, it's not all there is to us! Don't they know we have a centuries-old tradition of meditation and prayer, of study and debate, interpretation and wild permutations? How can they reduce us like that?"

How indeed? And what do we want when such things happen—or, as is more often the case, if we are afraid that they might? We want the people around us to take it personally, to refuse to let the bigots speak for them. We want not to be isolated but to be seen. Rabbi Denise Eger, President of the Southern California Board of Rabbis writes:

You all know the very famous story from the Talmud: (Shabbat 31a): A certain gentile came to Rabbi Shammai and said: "Convert me on the condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot. Rabbi Shammai was incensed and repulsed him with a builder's cubit that was in his hand. When he went before Rabbi Hillel, he said to him "What is hateful to you do not to your neighbor: that is the whole Torah, while the rest is commentary thereof; now go and learn it.
The Talmud comes to teach us and build upon the Torah principle of loving our neighbor. A simple truth you know how you would like to be treated and how you don't like to be treated. Therefore—don't do what is hateful to your neighbor. And that is the essence of our faith…The essence of our religion. The essence of Judaism is according to Rabbi Hillel—What is hateful to you do not to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah. All the rest is but commentary.
We know how we are supposed to act…Why? Because we know how it feels. We know when a line has been crossed. We intrinsically know in part what the good Rabbi Hillel is telling us...
"And so it is with our neighbors then in Talmudic times and with our neighbors today. We ought to know when we have crossed a line.
In recent weeks and days a line has been crossed. Some in America have been treating our neighbors in a hateful way.
"Islamophobia has reared its ugly head. All over our country people are talking about a Muslims in increasingly hateful tones. The commotion and questions that have been raised over the Cordoba Initiative's plan to build a Muslim Community Center in lower Manhattan is something we in the Jewish community should be ashamed of. And the ADL – the Anti-Defamation League—our own Jewish organization that fights Jewish discrimination was among those to add fuel to the fires of hatred.
The Cordoba Initiative is an organization that seeks to build ties between the Muslim World and the West. Its board has both Christians and Jews that sit on it. This group has sought to build a community center that would also contain a small mosque in a neighborhood two blocks away from the site of the former World Trade Center—known as Ground Zero.
Some have said that building a mosque so close to Ground Zero—since the perpetrators of 9/11 were Muslim extremists is an affront to those who died. That is what the ADL said. Not that the Cordoba Initiative group shouldn't build a center. But build it elsewhere. That still is hateful and hurtful. Are we painting all Muslims with the broad stroke of extremism? That's like saying all Jews want to oppress women and want to settle in the West Bank….As Jews we ought to know better. We know what it is like to be the outcasts of society. To have someone suspicious of our religion. Because we are more accepted now—should we turn and do this to our neighbors? This is an opportunity to build bridges and extend our hands as neighbors. This is a chance to live out the Torah's highest ideals—Love our neighbor as ourselves…
The memories of those who perished at the World Trade Center are not diminished by the building of a mosque two blocks from Ground Zero. I believe their memories are honored. For we live in a Country that celebrates Freedom of Religion and Free Speech. These are our American ideals—and they are our patriots who died because America stands for these values. Those that murdered the 3000 plus victims of the World Trade Center on 9/11 that fateful day struck the Twin Towers because we as a country stand for those values and terrorists hate those values.
I am ashamed that some in our country want to diminish those values for others.
So let us learn from our Torah and from Rabbi Hillel—Do not do to others what is hateful to you. And Love your neighbor as yourself.

During this season of reflection, when we are encouraged to face our regrets, apologize and try to do better; do we have the clarity and courage to follow this rabbi's example?



 
 
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