People across the country are up in arms about the proposed Islamic community center near Ground Zero. The Jewish community, too, seems divided. What sort of Jewish values & teachings should we take into account when determining where we stand on the issue?
This is a vexing issue, wherein it is surely not clear cut, though both sides of the issue are quite convinced their position is the correct one. The first question that we need to address is - who decides? Whose feelings should be the dominant ones? Should it be the families of the victims? Should it be the city of New York? Should it be the residents of Manhattan, or all New York City, or all New York State?
The families of the victims certainly have the strongest feelings, and are very strongly opposed. Since it is they who were and remain most affected, their feelings cannot be ignored. The tribunal that voted in favour of this project going forward should re-visit their decision now that they know the feelings of the families.
At no time should hate be allowed to enter into the equation. This goes for those who are raising their voices, and as well for the sponsors, who have been quoted as saying some pretty radical remarks which would disqualify them from constructing an Islamic Community Center anywhere, not merely near Ground Zero.
In the Jewish way, when there are issues of this sort, we try to bring the sides together to see if there is a way of bridging the gap. The tribunal would be well served to re-visit by bringing the sides together, and reaching an understanding.
The issue needs to be spelled out without rhetoric. It is not a freedom of religion issue, as some have suggested, since there are all sorts of restrictions on where worship places can be built; every city has zoning laws. It is also not a legal issue. It is more a moral matter, and should be treated as such, with the ultimate aim of reaching a solution that is conducive to harmony rather than to conflict.
No spouter of hate should be allowed to open anything anywhere. Hatred of others should not be a factor. Sensitivity to the deceased, and their families, should definitely be the key. And whatever is built in the vicinity of ground zero should harmoniously reflect the sanctity of the place, and the precious memory of the martyrs.
One of Judaism’s great ages, Hillel, once taught his students, “Be a disciple of Aaron: love peace and pursue peace, love your fellow creature and bring them closer to the study of Torah.” (Pirke Avot 1:12) Aaron was Israel’s first religious leader following the Exodus and the brother of Moses. He was a beloved leader because he went out of his way to make peace between conflicting parties. For me that is what religion should be about. Religion can be a powerful instrument for promoting peace in the world. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Religion is often a source of conflict and animosity, even among co-religionists. We see the divisiveness of religious conflict in the recent discussion over the Islamic Center in lower Manhattan
The issues and values involved in the question of an Islamic Center in Lower Manhattan are more ‘American’ than ‘Jewish.’ One of the blessings of America is that our constitution guarantees certain ‘inalienable’ rights to all citizens and our government has a responsibility to protect those rights for people and groups without exception. One of those rights is the freedom to worship as we wish, when we wish and wherever we wish. Of course, that right is not unconditional. There are times when the government must step forward to protect either the individual or the greater good. For instance, if a cult practiced child sacrifice or religious group encouraged the abuse of others, the government would have every right to protect the individual over the rights of the group.
The debate over the building of an Islamic Center near Ground Zero has challenged our understanding of what ‘freedom of religion’ means. On the one hand, we believe in freedom of religion; people should be allowed to establish a place of worship wherever they wish. On the other hand Americans are understandably sensitive to having a mosque so close to a site which was destroyed in the name of Islam. Even if the people who gather in the Islamic Center were not personally responsible for the acts of terror which brought down the World Trade Center, the presence of the center so close to the World Trade Center is a painful reminder to the families of the survivors and those who were present in downtown New York of what happened on September 11th nine years ago.
We might compare the decision to build the Islamic Center close to Ground Zero to the decision to place a Carmelite Convent next to Auschwitz a number of years ago. The nuns had every right to build their convent wherever they wanted. But Jews were understandably offended by the decision to place a Christian center so close to a place of Jewish martyrdom. Debating this question, then, I feel a little like the rabbi in Fiddler on the Roof. When confronted with a disagreement between two townspeople, the Rabbi said, “You’re right,” and “You’re right.” Freedom of religion should be accorded unconditionally (within the limits of reason and morality) but religious groups should also be sensitive to the needs of the larger society in which they live in making decisions that affect the community.
So what values should influence the decision to build or not build an Islamic Center? I believe that the prevailing value in such a discussion should be sechel or common sense. Sechel is sometimes referred to as the fifth section of the Shulchan Aruch, the great code of Jewish Law. Actually, there are only four sections in this code of law, but rabbis have long understood that in deciding matters of law, we must look not only at the letter of the law but the larger issues of society and morality. Moslems have every right to build a community center. Our government guarantees freedom of religion for all groups, even (and especially) those groups of which we are not necessary fond. But communities should use common sense in deciding how to express their religious and communal values publicly. Religion should not cause pain to others.
Having said that it would make good sense for members of the Islamic community to rethink the location of the Center, I should add that I am not at all comfortable with the sentiments of many of the opponents of the Islamic Center in Lower Manhattan. What is really motivating their opposition? To what extent are they concerned about the feelings of families who lost loved ones and to what extent is this simply prejudice against the Islamic religion? Too many people are quick to equate religious extremism with the basic values of Islam. It wasn’t so many years ago that a horrific act of terror took place in Oklahoma City, killing 168 adults and children, and injuring almost seven hundred more. That act of terror was carried out by two Christian men. Yet no one suggested that a church should not be built within close proximity of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.
In the Jewish tradition we have a principle: dina d’malkhulta dina, “The law of the land is the binding law.” (Talmud, Nedarim 28a) The American constitution either applies to everyone and in all situations or it applies to no one. The principle of “dina d’malkhulta dina” cannot be applied only when it is convenient or to groups we favor. Some people may not be happy about the decision to build an Islamic Center, but the members of the Islamic have a right to build this center. On the other hand, we have a right to expect transparency, honesty, sensitivity to the community and commitment to the principles of American society in the way this center is governed and founded.
I wonder, then, whether the present conflict over the Islamic Center doesn’t represent a “teachable moment.” It is an opportunity for people of different faiths and cultures to sit down and better understand one another. American society needs a Hillel today; someone who can help us better understand our differences and seek a deeper appreciation of one another.
The issue of building the Cordova House community center/mosque in Lower Manhattan is primarily a matter of zoning and should be decided by the relevant departments of New York City government. Even though the 9/11 attack impacted all Americans, they do not have the right to make zoning decisions for New York City. One might note, by comparison, that the memorials at Ground Zero, the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania were not subject to national debate or referendum even though those memorials are much more intimately tied to the 9/11 attacks than is this current project.
It is unfortunate that what should be a local issue has become a matter for national political debate. It opens the door to exploitation and abuse by those who see this as a wedge issue that can advance unrelated political agendas. The heat generated by the wide-ranging debate obscures relevant issues.
I do not see a lot of Jewish issues in this debate. Here are some of the ethical values a zoning board might consider.
While I do not believe the feelings of the victim’s families should have a veto in this matter, I do think the board, as a matter of public compassion, should consider the emotional impact of the project on the community of Lower Manhattan.
In 1790, George Washington wrote to the Hebrew Congregation in Rhode Island (Touro Synagogue in Newport) that “the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens.” I believe that all parties to this debate ought to be subject to this standard. Does the evidence support the claim that the mosque or its leaders are promoting hatred and intolerance or does it indicate that they are building a center that will promote interfaith cooperation and community involvement? Are those who protest the project acting out of hateful or prejudicial motives?
I disagree with Rabbi Bulka that there is no freedom of religion issue in this debate. While the main question is a matter of zoning, and every municipality has the right to establish and enforce its own rules and restrictions, I sense a troubling question underlying this debate. It sounds as if some (not all) of those who object to the Cordova House project question the acceptability of this community center/mosque. But who has the authority to proclaim that this mosque is “free enough” of radical influences? If outsiders are authorized to pass on the acceptability of a mosque, what would prevent others from questioning the acceptability of a church or a synagogue on the grounds of their political beliefs, the behavior of their clergy, their allegiance to American standards or some other measure? It is not beyond consideration. Zoning laws have been used in the past as a cover for religious intolerance.
For those of us who live at a distance from NYC and do not have direct access to facts about this project or its sponsors, the debate has been confusing. Competing emails present conflicting portraits of the sponsors and their detractors. One hopes that rhetoric will yield to reason and that the New York authorities will do what is best for the city, the neighborhood and the restoration of Lower Manhattan.
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