ADL and the mosque: Conversation vs. confrontation

ADL and the mosque: Conversation vs. confrontation

I don’t envy the Anti-Defamation League, which by its own design and the expectations of others must hand down its judgments like papal bulls. Anti-Semitic or not? Pro-Israel or anti-? Unlike folks like me, the ADL can’t get away with “on the one hand, on the other hand” arguments.

Although sometimes I wish they would try. In coming out last week against the proposed Islamic center near Ground Zero, the organization helped turn an emotional zoning dispute into a battle between faiths, and blew an opportunity to lead an important dialogue about sensitivity and tolerance.

In a statement last week and in a follow-up op-ed, ADL national director Abraham Foxman says his opposition to the 14-story Cordoba House, to be constructed two blocks north of the World Trade Center site, is about sensitivity to 9/11’s victims, survivors, and families. “[U]ltimately this is not a question of rights, but a question of what is right,” according to the statement. “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.”

Immediately, critics of the ADL accused it of giving in to bigotry, a charge Foxman vehemently denied, although he didn’t help matters in comments he made to The New York Times. Asked why the families’ feelings weigh so heavily, Foxman, himself a Holocaust survivor, replied, “Survivors of the Holocaust are entitled to feelings that are irrational.” As for the loved ones of 9/11 victims, “Their anguish entitles them to positions that others would categorize as irrational or bigoted.”

I can think of about 10 other ways to say this without painting Holocaust victims and Sept. 11 families as bigots and the ADL as apologists for bigotry. The unfortunate phrasing obscured his broader (and well-taken) point, which is that traumatized people’s feelings need to be considered in certain situations.

But which people’s feelings, and to what extent? ADL might have deflected criticism by explaining the process that led to its decision. Which families, groups, or individuals did it consult? One group opposing the mosque, 9/11 Families for a Safe & Strong America, seems to ally itself almost exclusively with right-wing, and often Islamophobic, websites. Another, September 11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, actually supports the Islamic center in the interest of reconciliation. And one of the largest groups, Families of September 11, has as far as I can tell (and unlike the ADL) declined to take a position on the center.

Foxman also compares the building of the mosque at Ground Zero to the Carmelite convent once planned near the gates of Auschwitz. “Just as we thought then that well-meaning efforts by Carmelite nuns to build a Catholic structure were insensitive and counterproductive to reconciliation, so too we believe it will be with building a mosque so close to Ground Zero,” writes Foxman.

But there are differences. Auschwitz served one purpose and one purpose only: The slaughter of millions of people, mostly Jews. It is kept intact as a memorial to those victims, a reminder of the Nazi atrocity, and a place of pilgrimage for survivors and descendants.

Lower New York is the site of the 9/11 atrocity, but also a living, thriving downtown, a crossroads of commerce and culture layered with history going back to the city’s founding. It will be an important memorial site, but it will also be a place where people of many backgrounds live and work, and it will never be an exclusive sacral zone like Auschwitz.

In addition, Auschwitz is a symbol of the Nazis’ war on the Jews, which the convent would have served the purpose of denying or obscuring. What is Ground Zero a symbol of? I think Foxman would reject the notion that it is a symbol of “Islam’s war on Western civilization.” He might accept that it is a symbol of Al-Qaida’s war on the West, or perhaps radical Islam’s. But by opposing a mosque, any mosque, so close to the site, he has made such distinctions meaningless.

I also see a difference in context: Poland is a Catholic country, wrestling with (and sometimes denying) its passivity and complicity in the destruction of its Jews, of which Auschwitz is a potent reminder. The nuns sought to transform the entire meaning of the site, by imposing a conspicuous Christian presence at its stark perimeter.

The Islamic center, by contrast, will be just one more element in the New York streetscape of offices, apartments, storefronts, and parks. Even at its proposed size it will not impose its message (whether good or bad) on the site two blocks away, unless its opponents let it.

I also think it is a fatal tactical error that Foxman writes against “building a mosque so close to Ground Zero,” as opposed to, perhaps, “an Islamic center of this size and scope so close to Ground Zero.” What he is really saying to Muslims is this: “Members of your religious faith perpetrated these attacks. The idea of that faith being practiced so close to the site in any form is offensive to many of the survivors and their families. As a result, we support a buffer zone of indeterminate size within which no Muslim house of worship will be erected.”

Would the ADL support such a zoning law? Can it really defend how the effect of such a position is not a denial of religious liberty, or endorsement of religious discrimination?

I believe Foxman when he says he wasn’t motivated by bigotry. And I think it is important for the victims and families to be heard on this.

At the same time, it is also appropriate to consider the positive impact of a moderate Muslim presence near the site of a fanatical Muslim atrocity, and to listen to the individuals, including Jews, who have worked with the Cordoba Initiative and vouch for its moderation and sincerity.

The ADL would have played a far more useful role by creating a conversation around these issues rather than positioning itself on one side of the controversy.

Maybe that would have come off as wishy-washy, but sometimes ’tis nobler and wiser to admit a degree of ambivalence.

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