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Peter J. Rubinstein
The Mosque Debate: Lessons on Tolerance and Civility (Yom Kippur 5771)

Peter J. Rubinstein  |  September 18, 2010

I had thought not to focus on the mosque controversy during these holidays, but we have been radicalized by the substance and tone of the debate. 

Underlying and barely masqueraded by the public vitriol ostensibly focused on the location and legality of Cordoba House is a poisonous attack on Muslims themselves.

Since we Jews have suffered from venomous hatred and invidious allegations against us we speak from the truth of our experiences. We cannot stand on the sidelines.

Government agencies affirmed that the sponsors and supporters of Cordoba House, called by some “the Park51 project,” have the legal right to build it. That should be the end of the story, but this story is not simple.

Opponents of the project call it the Ground Zero Mosque though a mosque would occupy only a small portion of the intended building and whether it is at Ground Zero is being debated. Supporters of the Cordoba House Community Center intend to provide space in the building for both a downtown mosque to be used by a growing number of Muslims working and living in the area and to build a community center to further “cultivate understanding among all religions and cultures.”

Both the mission as a mosque and the mission as a community center have merit. 

I trust the intentions of the project’s visionary Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf. He is one of the “moderate, pluralistic Sufi imams on the front line against the most violent forms of Islam.” (1)

As the Jewish Week editorialized “we cannot complain about the dearth of Muslim moderates if we don’t support efforts like his to incorporate democratic values and human rights into the faith.” (2)

By every rigorous measure Imam Feisal Rauf and his wife Daisy Khan, both of whom I know embody the best of inter-religious relations. At great personal risk and despite credible death threats they courageously and passionately spoke out against radical Islam and terrorism after 9/11. They are consistently part of our multi-faith conversations, commemorations and projects.

In response to objections about the sources for financing the project, Imam Feisal said he will clearly identify by name all the financial backers. I trust him to keep his word. And he says he aims to nourish “a culture of forging personal bonds across religious traditions.” He has already done this.

Good people can and do disagree on the wisdom of the chosen location for the Cordoba House project on Park Place, two blocks from the World Trade Center site. We respect the outrage that the memory of 9/11 will always evoke for all American citizens. Those of us in New York City who lived under the cloud of ashes from the collapsed World Trade Center buildings most personally experience the indefinable sacredness of the place. For those who were in those buildings and survived and for the families and loved ones of those who were there and died in those buildings the World Trade Center site will forever remain a killing field and a graveyard. We want to be sensitive to their pain.

While some thoughtful supporters urge Imam Feisal and his followers to “Build on Park Place and build now!” other sensible people counsel the Imam and his followers “Not there!” or “Not now!”

And as a sidebar, which I mention because it is a concern of significant discussion within the Jewish community, I join with others in asking Imam Feisal to do more than condemn Hamas among other groups for their terrorist attacks. I appeal to him to roundly denounce Hamas for its charter and stated intention to obliterate Israel. I understand that Imam Feisal’s moderate views put him on a tightrope in the Muslim world - one in which he has been severely condemned. Nevertheless, I implore him to speak out.

Regarding the proposed Cordoba House, Imam Feisal passionately envisions the “objective of the project … as a center for unification and healing.”

With legal obstacles removed, he and his colleagues alone, whatever their differences, can decide whether building at this moment and at that location supports their stated mission - to build bridges between the Muslim and other communities. We wish Imam Feisal and his community patience and wisdom as they move ahead in making the pivotal and delicate decisions they now confront.

Enough said about the mosque itself. What radicalizes us is the odious debate that has occupied this country of ours ostensibly focused on a mosque but about so much more.

We in the United States have been deeply affected by the firestorm ignited by the media attention paid to the sordid rampage by a 50 member church and their blustering pastor to burn the Koran.
For Jews, talk of book burnings is never inconsequential. Deeply seared into our sensibilities is the terror and the truth of the words of the Jewish poet Heinrich Heine: “Where books are burned, human beings are destined to be burned too.”

A century after Heine wrote those words the Nazis murderously embodied Heine’s ominous prophesy. On May 10, 1933, university students in Berlin incinerated books perceived as “un-German.”
Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Minister of Propaganda, praised the students that night with these words: “You do well in this midnight hour to commit to the flames the evil spirit of the past” and in his mind that “evil spirit of the past” meant the Jews. Two years later the Nuremberg Laws rendered Jews stateless. Six years later Jews of Poland were imprisoned in ghettos. Within a decade of the book burnings, thousands of Jews were being murdered every hour in the death camps of “The Final Solution.”

The specter of book burnings is not inconsequential.

When I returned from Sabbatical I received a deeply troubling letter from a non-member who attends our services. The writer alleged that “Muslims have destroyed our security and happiness. Read the Koran,” he wrote.  “It teaches that we are nothing but ‘infidels’ to be destroyed. They came to this country as our guests but they came to kill the innocent and destroy our city…”

I have read and studied the Koran just as I have read and studied the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. Each of them has been used to justify both murderous campaigns and profound reconciliation. By example, our Torah chronicles God’s cruel demand that the ancient Israelites annihilate all people in the lands they occupied. Sadly, there are still Jews in Israel who uphold that principle. Our Torah also commands no less than 36 times that we are to love the stranger as ourselves. (3)

The Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths cannot be defined by their scriptures alone. We are all fashioned by our histories, accumulated traditions and wisdom over thousands of years. Yet I know that the logic of scriptural debate would not mitigate the deeply held prejudice typified by the letter writer I quoted.

In the safety and sanctity of this service we each acknowledge that we are infected by ugly inclinations and biases which education and enlightened thinking have done little to eradicate. We struggle with our prejudices. We are rationally aware of how defective they are. Even so, who among us has been able to expunge our instincts, purge our biases? I confess – not me.

Given the atmosphere of our nation, it is critical that we honestly acknowledge our preferences for some and aversion to others by virtue of every kind of difference. For ourselves we accept the truth of personal prejudice and then vow to powerfully affirm the Jewish teaching of tolerance as our life’s work. And as a nation, the founders of which had experienced the consequences of, and therefore repudiated religious hatred, we uphold and reclaim tolerance, underwritten by the constitutional guarantee of the freedom to practice religion and, yes, even build a mosque.

We may not like all our fellow citizens. We may be prejudiced against them by virtue of their cultural garb, public rituals, from where they came, how they look or what they think. But unless their aim is to deprive us of our rights we will live beside them and support their rights.

Anti-Muslim agitation is appalling. We Jews have been targeted by disparaging vilifying stereotypes and have been murdered for them. Nicholas Kristof warns correctly that making accusatory generalizations about a racial, ethnic or religious group is “a dangerous game.”

We Jews know that. That is why we cannot be silent.

This nation and especially this city reject the hateful propaganda of virulent anti-Islam bloggers, public figures and politicians who have embraced extreme anti-Islam hysteria and made it mainstream. They argue that “not all Muslims are terrorists but all terrorists are Muslim” and then they conclude that terrorism is the Muslim’s fulfillment of the Koran’s call for the death of infidels. They enflame hatred and therefore cultivate the equation of Islam with murder, and all Muslims with terrorists to be feared. That correlation is false and malicious.

The editor of the American Muslim sadly, but correctly, commented that “the plan for the Cordoba House did not cause this anti-Muslim firestorm, it simply brought the smoldering embers out into the open, and allowed a few individuals to fan the flames.” (4)

Present conditions in this country are confounding. Martin Peretz and Nicholas Kristof from opposite sides of this issue concur that “Muslims haven’t said enough about those Muslims who kill their co-religionists…” and we urge our moderate Muslim neighbors to say and do more.

We abhor extremists who politicize Islam with deep antagonism towards non-Muslims and hostility towards the West. We desperately worry about and condemn the repugnant murderous terrorism of those Muslim radicals who would kill us. All the more so we embrace tolerance for Islam and its peaceable adherents along with all peoples and their faiths. We earnestly trust with deep affection the Muslims we know. They are our neighbors. They represent their communities with dignity and wisdom and love of this country.

We have been radicalized by the vilification of Muslims. We have also been radicalized by the vitriol of the debate about Cordoba House.

The sage Israel Salanter urged respect for opposition. In his words: “Be vigilant in protecting the honor of all people, especially those with whom you disagree.” The debate about the mosque spiraled downward into the nadir of calumny, slander and denigration.  Politicians mounted a platform built upon personal attacks and defamation exploiting powerful emotions of our post-9/11 nation.
Civility in public discourse was and continues to be the victim.

Some people who denounced the Florida pastor’s malevolence were apparently unreflective about their own roles in fanning the flames that led to his idea of a Koran-burning pyre. Injudiciously, too many of us followed suit on both sides of the debate.

The absolute madness on one side is typified by the outrageous claim by an Evangelical Christian leader that “true Islam cannot be practiced here in this country because you cannot beat your wife. You cannot do honor killing if you think your daughter has misbehaved.”

Really! True Islam cannot be practiced in this country for these reasons?  So by that logic, I presume, true Judaism cannot be practiced in this country since we can’t stone a rebellious son as demanded in the Torah.  (5)

The hyperbole on the other side is portrayed by a letter I was asked to sign. A group that had the most honorable of intentions wanted to change the spirit of the discussion around the mosque in order to focus on larger more important issues. The text of their letter read: “for political figures to tell citizens where, when, or how they should pray is a sin and transgression of the worst order.”

Really? A sin and transgression of the worst order?  What about genocide or attacking mosques across the country or the slashing of a NYC cab driver because he was Muslim? These are sins of the highest order, not political polemic as hateful as it may be.

The diatribes on both sides dishonor us. Democracy requires a thick skin. Political differences are within the fabric of this country. Civility needs to adorn both democracy and political differences, especially in the halls of government.

Within Jewish communal life the venom flows as well. The Jewish Week won’t publish half of the letters and comments it receives from readers because of their “ugly tenor.” The Jewish Week’s editor and publisher, Gary Rosenblatt, wrote “while communal diversity is a point of pride, the sad reality is that our community is ever more divided…and now is as bitterly polarized as he has seen…since he began editing the Jewish Week” seventeen years ago.  (6) 

2000 years ago the students of Hillel and the students of Shammai vehemently, and probably disgustedly, disagreed with each other. The Talmud records more than 300 of their disputes. In one three-year long hotly debated case the school of Shammai finally exasperated that the decisions consistently followed the opinions of the opposing school of Hillel challenged the Bat Kol, the Divine Voice, and protested “Why are the rulings always according to Beit Hillel?” The voice from heaven answered “Because the students of Beit Hillel are kind and humble, and because they study arguments on both sides and even mention your opinion before their own.” (7)

This Yom Kippur day compels us to difficult honest reflection. We take account of our arrogance, our silence our prejudice, naming our biases for ourselves even though we can’t speak them out loud to others.

We have been witnesses to the decay of decency and civility in our nation and community.

We have abided horrific attacks on Muslims and vile defamation of their community and faith.

We have been radicalized by this Mosque debate.

We detest blatant hatred of those who are still treated as strangers in our midst and condemn venomous stridency in public and private debate. 

We loathe corrosive innuendos and lies and denounce odious public statements. 

We renounce it all by powerfully reclaiming tolerance as a national vision, as a Jewish virtue and personally as the effective restraint to the urges of our personal prejudice.

We will contribute to the reestablishment of civility in this city from our prophetic calling “to be a light to the nations” by which all the families of the world will be blessed.

Towards that end we will be educating ourselves about Islam and the Muslim community, opportunities about which you will hear in the near future.

We recommit to a challenge I set before us a year after the World Trade Center tragedy - that we will continue to cultivate and purposefully pursue relationships with moderate, peace-seeking Muslims like many in our own neighborhood including the wonderful imam and leadership of the mosque on 55th street, half a block away. And when we sit across the table in discussion, Muslims and Jews need to acknowledge our differences and all the more believe that with decent intentions we can link arms with good people of all faiths as we together pursue peace.

Only then will we salvage decency and kindness for ourselves and all people of our nation. Only then will we restore the sanity of tolerance and be better for it. For that may we be strong. May God help us and bless us in this imperative, essential and oh so compelling venture. Amen.


1 William Dalrymple “The Muslims in the Middle” NY Times August 16, 2010

2 “A Mosque Near Ground Zero” The Jewish Week, July 27, 2010

3 Baba Mezia 59b

4 Sheila Musaji, “Cordoba House- Yes!: Park51-  No Way?” The American Muslim, 9/11/10

5 Deuteronomy 21:18-21

6 Gary Rosenblatt, “When the Dialogue Deteriorates”, The Jewish Week August 25, 2010

7 Eruvin 13b

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