Last Shabbat started out so well. Services had gone well, as had Torah study. We had done a baby naming for a lovely 3-month old girl, and everyone was flying high. Friends from my former congregation had come down to visit. As I said, everything was going really well. Then I was speaking with a couple from my congregation at a luncheon for a baby naming. I had not met them before; they were charming, erudite, and seemed perfectly pleasant. Until they asked me the question that’s been on everyone’s mind.
‘So, what do you think about the ground zero mosque’.
I don’t like to talk politics. Or rather, I don’t like to talk politics in the synagogue. It’s not that I don’t engage politically: I’ve always been active, since my teens, both locally and nationally. I very much agree with Thomas Mann’s assessment back in the 30s that everything today is measured in political terms. But in the synagogue, I’d much rather talk about such things not in political terms but from a perspective of community engagement and social justice. The question for me is: what are our sacred and civic obligations to each other, rather than what is my obligation to the state and vice-versa.
At first, I tried to use humor to disengage through humor. “well you know it’s not actually at ground zero.” I said “And anyway, they’re building a strip club and a mcdonalds at ground zero. Isn’t that tackier than a house of worship? And besides that, they don’t even have the money to build!”
“That’s commerce” they replied. And it quickly became apparent that they weren’t interested in rapier wit. They were against the idea of a mosque near the site of the former World Trade Center, a place where thousands—including many arabs and muslims—died. And it became quickly apparent that they weren’t interested in any contrary thoughts on the matter. They challenged the idea that muslims died on 9/11, or any in great enough number. They were unimpressed with the idea that the Park51 Islamic Community Center might have a memorial to all those who died on that terrible day in 2001, as if somehow the attempt was cheapened by putting it in a muslim house of worship. A mosque near the site of ‘Ground Zero’ was an affront to Western Civilization, a way to mock the victims of that attack. “We side with the firefighters and policemen” they said, apparently in solidarity with those who were protesting against the construction.
Well, this got my blood boiling. I should have known better, I shouldn’t have engaged, but I did, and I let my temper get the better of me. No, no one got hurt and no yelling happened, but that perfectly charming Shabbat Morning was going quickly to the dogs.
I came back with arguments of the rights of all enshrined in the constitution of our country, that to allow a mosque to be built near that sacred ground was in fact a validation of our values, not a mockery of them. It was a way to honor the memory of those who died the best way we could, by not letting those extremists force us to surrender our values, but not sinking to their level of depravity and disregard of human life. As Jews, I argued, we knew better, and remember a time not so long ago when we were not allowed in many places in this country and even right here in Wilmington to build houses of worship, to live in certain neighborhoods, to build our synagogues the way we want. Did we want to return to that, to set that precedent?
They insisted that it was still true today that Jews couldn’t build anywhere they like; I’m hard pressed to come up with a single instance—except in areas where one wouldn’t be allowed to build ANYTHING, like a Superfund cleanup site—where a community prevented the building of a synagogue, Temple, Jewish Community Center, or the like.
Another congregant, who was overhearing our now heated engagement, joined in with a question: “Didn’t the Imam behind the project, after Daniel Pearl died, say that he too was a Jew, as an act of solidarity?”
The couple looked at this individual incredulously. They were sure no such thing had occurred. I professed that I didn’t know.
So I did some digging. In fact, Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf, the fellow behind the Cordoba Initiative, did say those words. In 2003, at a memorial service for Pearl at B’nai Jeshurun, a congregation in New York City, this Imam—a moderate, even liberal forward leading leader of the Muslim community—stood before a group of Jews and said the following:
We are here to assert the Islamic conviction of the moral equivalency of our Abrahamic faiths. If to be a Jew means to say with all one's heart, mind and soul Shma` Yisrael, Adonai Elohenu Adonai Ahad; hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One, not only today I am a Jew, I have always been one, Mr. Pearl.
We are here especially to seek your forgiveness and of your family for what has
been done in the name of Islam.
Our conversations must continue where many end. Some of us may be suspicious
of the religious voices and believe that these voices ought to be kept out of public
discussion and policy. Others may fear that entering into constructive dialogue and
common ground with the “other side” must be wrong, sinful or at best useless and
naïve. We disagree.
Where once many of us may not have cared to speak, much less listened, to others,
now we must. We shall find ourselves with good people, of deep faith, and we shall
locate many important, shared values: justice, compassion, service, faithfulness,
and love. Though many of us may have come skeptically, we have all come seeking
to leave with hope and expectation of Your guidance, O Lord, and with a
determination to encourage others to embark on this kind of fruitful exploration. For
ourselves, and in different ways, we want to continue to convey the message not
only among us, but also in the communities and arenas of service to which we shall
be returning, that we are all create…in the image of God.
We intercede with You that You place us on the path of righteousness and direct us
towards actions done in fulfillment of the commandment taught by Your Great
Prophets and Messengers Moses, the Messiah Jesus son of Mary, and
Muhammad, which is to love our fellow humans as we love ourselves. Help us O
Lord, in courage and commitment, in reducing ethnic and religious hatred, strife and
violence, to build the kingdom of heaven on earth.
The skeptical among us might see duplicity here, saying one thing to a Jewish audience and another to a Muslim one. But I agree with Atlantic writer Jeffery Goldberg: that for this Muslim cleric to speak to Jews, never mind say these words, in our post-9/11 world, is to invite criticism and hostility and even violence from those most extreme members of the Islamic world. And to not only speak them in that moment but to repeat those values of dialogue, of acceptance, of cooperation and collaboration and REPENTANCE again and again, to Muslim as well as non-Muslim audiences, to American and foreign audiences, and to hope that building a center for dialogue and peace near a place of great violence might be a source of healing rather than hostility takes immeasurable courage and conviction. As a people, as Americans, we would be wise to learn from it.
I know these words won’t convince many; perhaps they will offend some, or seem like dreamy hippy nonsense to others. But these words are essential; for peace and justice must come in equal measure, and they don’t happen without hard work and the willingness to give something of one’s self. And the less we’re willing to listen, the more we’re willing to end conversations where they should begin, the longer that place in lower Manhattan will weep and fester as an open wound, and regardless of what building is erected, we will fail the memories of those who died that terrible morning nine years ago.
If you want more of the Reform Movement's perspective, go here.