Before it became a cause célèbre for Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich and other rank opportunists, before the Anti-Defamation League sullied a once-noble reputation by siding against religious liberty, before the tweets and satellite trucks spun this all out of control, the plan to turn an eyesore of an empty building two blocks from Ground Zero into a mosque and Islamic center was embraced as a sign of true healing.
The mayor’s office was supportive, as were local community boards, the “town halls” of New York civic life. Prominent rabbis spoke in favor of Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the cleric leading the project, whose wife has been associated with the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, which also lent its public support. Rauf had skillfully positioned himself as a voice of moderate Islam; even the FBI called upon him to reach out to Muslims after the terrorist attacks.
This is not to lionize the man, whose prolonged silence (he’s out of the country) has worked against him as the controversy grows, allowing the bigots and bloviaters to fill a dangerous vacuum. For everyone’s sake, Rauf ought to be more transparent about who is funding the $100 million costs of the center. Saudi Arabia, after all, has a long track record of troubling overseas contributions.
But the character assassination now undertaken by those purporting to represent the Jewish community is distressing and unacceptable. In one breath, the ADL’s Abraham Foxman said he’d “stand up” for Rauf, while in the next breath, he hints of ties with terrorism. And while their positions on the placement of the center are more reasonable, the American Jewish Committee and New York’s Jewish Community Relations Council have also stooped to slander-by-innuendo.
What is going on here? These are organizations pledged to promote freedom of religion, protection for minorities, interfaith dialogue and a harmonious civic community — all stated goals of the new Islamic center. “We want to push back against the extremists,” Rauf told The New York Times last December. Isn’t that what we all want?
As we’ve said before on this page, the sensitivities of family members of 9/11 victims must be acknowledged and honored, without judgment or equivocation. Foxman contends that the majority of victims’ family members is against the project, but he has no proof for that claim, and it is contradicted by one of the largest organizations representing the 9/11 families.
Without demeaning those feelings in any way, a tolerant democracy must rise above them. Private pain alone should not dictate public policy, nor should it provide an excuse for individuals or organizations to stoke prejudice and fear.
The ADL’s position has outraged many of its friends and supporters, to the degree that the reaction surprised even Foxman, a veteran hardened by controversy. There’s a message: American Jews wish to rise above our own understandable fears and sensitivities to reclaim the optimism and excitement that interfaith relations promise. That’s the true voice of community.