The rabidly anti-Obama Web site World Net Daily fumed late last year about plans to build a mosque near Ground Zero, the site of the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center. In a post with the subhead “NEWS OUTRAGE!” — it’s not just a plain old news story — the reporter railed against the idea of creating a mosque two blocks from “where Muslim terrorists murdered 2,751 people in the name of Allah.” The story was accompanied by a photo of the Twin Towers aflame.
As our Page 1 story explains, last week the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) — founded in 1913 “to stop the defamation of the Jewish people and to secure justice and fair treatment to all” — issued a statement opposing the planned Islamic Center near Ground Zero in Manhattan. Here is the heart of the ADL’s argument:
Proponents of the Islamic Center may have every right to build at this site, and may even have chosen the site to send a positive message about Islam. The bigotry some have expressed in attacking them is unfair, and wrong. But ultimately this is not a question of rights, but a question of what is right. In our judgment, building an Islamic Center in the shadow of the World Trade Center will cause some victims more pain — unnecessarily — and that is not right.
The ADL’s position is quite a leap from its tradition of defending religious liberty in the U.S.A. As Uriel Heilman’s story for JTA noted, the ADL’s opposition to the mosque “was a rare instance of a Jewish establishment organization explicitly opposing a Muslim project or distancing itself from its traditional role upholding liberties for all.”
One would think that the ADL would see the tension between the exercise of First Amendment freedoms and the bruising of sensibilities that sometimes occurs when these liberties are exercised, and come down as usual on the side of civil rights. You might recall that the U.S. Supreme Court held that burning the American flag in a political demonstration was protected expressive speech; even though such a symbolic act is sure to kindle outraged feelings in many who witness it. For some inexplicable reason in this case, the organization has elevated the protection of hurt feelings over constitutionally protected rights. It’s the proverbial slippery slope.
Of course, this is not the first time that people have objected to the construction of a mosque — or a synagogue — in their neighborhood. Again, the JTA story mentions that Congress passed the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), in 2000, in order to protect houses of worship and religious schools from discrimination by local zoning authorities. In explaining the background of the RLUIPA enactment, the U.S. Department of Justice noted that “Congress compiled what it termed ‘massive evidence’ of widespread discrimination against religious institutions by state and local officials in land-use decisions. In particular, Congress found that minority religions are disproportionately disadvantaged in the zoning process. For example, Congress found that while Jews make up only 2 percent of the U.S. population, 20 percent of recorded cases involved synagogues. Faith groups constituting 9 percent of the population made up 50 percent of reported court cases involving zoning disputes.”
In the case of the mosque near Ground Zero, questions have been raised about the group, the Cordoba Initiative, and its backers. While expressly condemning the cascade of bigoted statements that have accompanied the issue of the proposed Islamic Center, the ADL expressed reservations about ties the Cordoba Initiative’s “leaders might have with groups whose ideologies stand in contradiction to our shared values.”
The proximity of a new mosque to the site of the 9/11 terrorist attack is going to provoke some emotional responses — and provide fodder for demagogic politicians. In a scenario bearing similarities to the debate over Arizona’s immigration law, facts will be twisted and fears fanned in the interest of partisan advantage.
“Let’s be clear. This is not about the proposed Islamic Center,” wrote Adam Serwer, on his blog for The American Prospect magazine. “There is already a masjid in the neighborhood, and it’s been there for decades. This is about giving political cover to right-wing politicians using anti-Muslim bigotry as a political weapon and a fundraising tool. By doing this, the ADL is increasingly eroding its already weakened credibility as a nonpartisan organization. I learned a very important lesson in Hebrew school that I have retained my entire life. If they can deny freedom to a single individual because of who they are, they can do it to anyone. Someone at the ADL needs to go back to Hebrew School.”
Jews, who have suffered overt and subtle discrimination in the U.S. over recent generations, should acknowledge that there is a potent latent fear of Muslims in this country, especially since 9/11. The late Felix Cohen, an eminent authority on American Indian law, put forth the treatment of Indians by the dominant society as a touchstone for the state of civil rights in this land.
In 1953, the year Cohen died, he wrote: “[T]he Indian plays much the same role in our American society that the Jews played in Germany. Like the miner’s canary, the Indian marks the shifts from fresh air to poison gas in our political atmosphere; and our treatment of Indians, even more than our treatment of other minorities, reflects the rise and fall in our democratic faith.”
In 2010, the treaty rights of American Indians are still an issue; likewise, hatred is an equal opportunity employer, and we have to be vigilant in defending justice for all, including for our Muslim compatriots.
— Mordecai Specktor / email@example.com
(American Jewish World, 8.6.10)
Kol hakavod, Mordecai!