Last week I wrote an op-ed piece for Ha’aretz on the mosque, or center, or both (depends who you ask) near Ground Zero in Manhattan. The theme of the article was that in free and open societies where all weird and strange religions are allowed to flourish and compete on the market, one cannot and indeed should not try to prevent anyone expressing himself or herself through law-abiding and nonviolent places of worship and gathering. But by the same token religious organizations need to be sensitive to some of the anxieties, even insecurities, of others. The trouble is that there is a tendency to try too hard to push one’s point of view into other people’s faces under the pretext of freedom of expression, and I called for sensitivity on both sides.
Judaism, thank (my) God, is not a proselytizing religion, so our pushy, in-your-face evangelicals tend to confine themselves to asking passersby if they are Jewish first. Even so I must say I am not comfortable with some Chasidim insisting on overt displays. But throughout history all the major religions have built huge show-off monuments of worship, converted each other’s to theirs, and battled away, literally, for the hearts and minds of their own constituencies and any others they thought they could conquer or win over. But it does not have to be this way.
I happen to be an apostle of good contacts and relations between religions wherever possible, and there is more good stuff going on than most people give credit for. If I resent evangelical Christian ideology that suggests that I cannot get to Heaven (wherever that is) unless I do it their way, I react with amusement rather than anger when, say, Jews for Jesus tries to convert me. My brother David is as good an example you can find of someone who is an excellent diplomat and model of Orthodox sensitivity. He is on very good terms with almost everyone and admired the world over for his work, and that includes many of the notoriously difficult to please ultra-Orthodox community too.
I said in my piece that I knew some of the people involved in the Cordoba Initiative to be good and tolerant human beings, the sort who give Islam a good name and try their best to show that it is not composed entirely of throat-slitting suicide bombers. I supported their idea of establishing a Muslim center rather like the Jewish 92nd Street Y or the JCCs which are open to everyone and, although funded and run as Jewish, are not ultra-Orthodox and not necessarily ‘halacha compliant’! But then, of course, I have said Judaism is not evangelical.
I also pointed out that all new immigrant populations face resistance to their religious projects, and indeed to this day in many parts of the country Orthodox Jews face resistance and objection to their building plans. Most of the opposition I have read about recently has come from other Jews. We Jews had asked the previous pope to pressurize the Carmelite nuns at Auschwitz to remove a very public cross because of our sensitivities, and I suggested that the Cordoba Institute might consider amicably finding a location just a little further away from Ground Zero. My piece also brought up, as a side note, the insensitivities in Jerusalem on both sides–but then anything in Jerusalem is fraught with political confrontation and agendas.
It is now obvious to me that the Ground Zero whatever-it-is has become a political football, as everything in the USA has a tendency to become, with both sides exaggerating and looking for votes. I regret this.
But since my article I have had conversations with people, insiders and others, who have been at various public and private meetings, and I can tell you it is not exactly at it seems. There are two conflicting interests involved in this project and that, as much as any other factor, is why the project is sometimes called a mosque and sometimes a center. The Cordoba Initiative is headed Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, whom I believe to be absolutely sincere and transparent about what he wants to build and achieve. He has my support. But here’s the interesting information I have: He regrets the ruckus and wants to do what he can to defuse the situation. If the current location is a problem, whether rational or not, he is prepared to consider another one. The same cannot be said for others who are now using this as a political football, kicking from both ends of the playing field.
But, ladies and gentlemen, isn’t it strange that there is another website? I am reliably informed the developer has another agenda. He is, after all, a real estate man as well as a born-again Muslim. His view is that this is a going to be a Muslim statement. Now if that is the case, by all means make a Muslim statement as loud as you like, but do not make it where you know a lot of people would not welcome it. The 9/11 jihadists were also making a statement. And I get worried by statements, because then it is all about posturing. Freedom of religion and making statements are two very different things.
I have sneaking suspicion this is also about real estate, a great opportunity landing on someone’s desk. But I wonder if Cordoba has not got into bed with the wrong guy. My solution is to buy the fellow out or offer him a swap, and then I really do believe everyone will be a winner. We and he will have a Muslim mosque and center which will be what it will be. The incongruity of the present location will no longer be an issue. Imam Feisal will be seen as the figure of understanding and moderation that he really is. And I suspect he will garner much more support from many more people, business and ecclesiastical, to build the vision he really has and we need.