An Islamic Center at Ground Zero

Few issues illustrate the fractured, contradictory and disputatious nature of the American Jewish community better than the debate over whether to build an Islamic community center at the site of Ground Zero.

This week, a New York City commission ended the landmark status of the site near the World Trade Center, clearing the way for the Islamic center to be built —  and for opponents to amp up the rhetoric against it.

The organizers of Cordoba House, as it will be called, want to build a 13-story, $100 million Islamic center two blocks from the lower Manhattan site of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The center would include a theater, restaurant, sports facilities and a mosque.

Opponents, spurred by the virulent opposition of former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, have called the planned center insensitive to the victims of 9/11, an act of terror perpetrated by Muslim extremists.

But New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has supported the building from the get-go.

“If somebody wants to build a religious house of worship,” he said last month, “they should do it, and we shouldn’t be in the business of picking which religions can and which religions can’t.”

Bloomberg is Jewish — there’s a redundant sentence if ever there was one — and his support echoes that of many Jewish organizations that see this issue as a matter of freedom of religion and a defense against bigotry, in this case Islamophobia.

“The principle at stake in the Cordoba House controversy goes to the heart of American democracy and the value we place on freedom of religion,” J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami weighed in earlier this week.

JStreet used its Internet acumen to gather a group of self-described “next generation Jewish leaders” to defend the community center in an online letter.  A variety of younger Jewish artists, filmmakers, academics and professionals addressed the most common criticism of the center: that it’s insensitive to the victims of terror.

“We agree with you that some victims of 9/11 are entitled to “irrational” feelings as a result of their loss,” read the letter.  “But being less tolerant will not help us heal, and it is not wise for America to alienate millions of its own citizens, let alone the hundreds of millions of Muslims in countries that Americans visit around the world. Remember, there were Muslim victims on 9/11, too, Muslims that worked in the World Trade Center, or were part of the rescue crews that bravely entered the buildings that day.”   

A statement from the Progressive Jewish Alliance quoted from George Washington’s famous speech on religious liberty, then concluded, “Because we believe the Jewish community has a specific responsibility to speak out against stereotyping and bigotry, the Progressive Jewish Alliance urges all Americans, including officials with authority over these projects, to reject these voices of intolerance and division.”

You’d expect as much from the left-leaning Jewish groups. Where this story gets interesting is that the two large mainstream Jewish defense organizations split on the issue. The American Jewish Committee came out in favor of the mosque-community center, providing the organizers are transparent about their funding sources and clear about their opposition to extremism.

“If these concerns can be addressed, we will join in welcoming the Cordoba Center to New York,” AJC Executive Director David Harris said.  “In doing so, we would wish to reaffirm the noble values for which our country stands — the very values so detested by the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 attacks.”

But — go figure — the Anti-Defamation League’s Abe Foxman opposes the building.

“The controversy which has emerged regarding the building of an Islamic Center at this location is counterproductive to the healing process,” a statement from Foxman reads. “Therefore, under these unique circumstances, we believe the City of New York would be better served if an alternative location could be found.”

Foxman is the media’s go-to Jew, the putative voice of official American Jewry (the unofficial voice, FYI, is Jon Stewart). So unless non-Jews did some Internet digging, they’d be left with the idea that Jews, or at least organized Jewry, opposes the Cordoba House. There’s been no scientific poll, but my sense is we’re conflicted — and not just among our organizations, but within ourselves.

On the one hand, we want to be open-minded and accepting, because that’s best for America, for Jews as a minority, and because tolerance, “welcoming the stranger,” is a deeply Jewish value. We know the right thing to do is to support the building of the Islamic Center and to defend the right of American citizens to worship freely.

On the other hand, these people can still scare the crap out of us. They attacked New York, the countries they control scapegoat Israel and Jews, and in European countries where Islam is on the rise, so is anti-Semitism. The entire Jewish population of Malmo, Sweden, has moved away due to anti-Jewish acts. So there’s that.

But perhaps the real reason we find it hard to make peace with Cordoba House is that, as much as it will symbolize tolerance and understanding, it also reminds us of a deeply discomfiting fact of life: Terrorism works. That’s what we can’t quite accept, what we wish weren’t so.

Before 9/11, we were going about our lives, blissfully unaware of Islam. Since 9/11, Islam — hating it, understanding it, teaching it, learning about it — is a central factor of the Western consciousness. Three hijacked airplanes made sure of that. In a bizarre way, terror has also paved the way for greater awareness, understanding and acceptance.

This shouldn’t really surprise us. The Jewish terrorists who blew up the King David Hotel helped drive the British from Palestine. No one cared about the Palestinians until Yasser Arafat started killing children. The Tamil Tigers, the IRA — they have all scored political victories through bombs, kidnappings and slaughter. And now downtown New York will have a state-of-the-art Muslim community, cultural and religious center, thanks to a vicious act of Islamic terror.

It’s the right thing to do, but, man, what a way to learn.