An epidemic of intolerance is a test for America

An epidemic of intolerance is a test for America

Jews are particularly sensitive to the burning of books, especially religious tomes. “Where they burn books, they will also ultimately burn people.” So wrote Heinrich Heine, the famous 19th-century German-Jewish poet and essayist who hoped to gain acceptance through baptism, a decision he later regretted.

Heine was referring to the burning of the Koran during the Spanish Inquisition. Ironically, Heine’s books were among the thousands of Jewish books burned by the Nazis in 1933, a harbinger of the Holocaust.

Heine clearly knew that fear and hatred of a religion often translate into persecution of that religion’s adherents.

We, similarly, cannot be silent or dismissive when an American church announces plans to burn a Koran on 9/11, even if that church — in Gainesville, Fla. — has only a handful of congregants. It is a blatant attempt to foster hate at a particularly sensitive time in America, when the building of mosques is facing opposition in diverse locales across the country. Let’s hope that Pastor Terry Jones’ 15 minutes of fame are almost over, but also realize that he is emblematic of a wider problem that requires our collective attention.

In the days, months, and years after 9/11, America generally — and proudly — avoided the base appeals of anti-Islamic bigotry. American Muslims did not need to go into hiding lest the pent-up wrath of ordinary Americans at the Islamist terrorists be directed at them.

President George W. Bush went out of his way to lead by example when he visited the Islamic Center of Washington on Sept. 17, 2001, and said, “The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam.’’ Muslims “need to be treated with respect. In our anger and emotion, our fellow Americans must treat each other with respect.’’

It seemed that we would be able to wage a war on Islamist terror without waging war on Islam and Muslims.

But hatred is a disease difficult to conquer. It apparently was merely in remission. Park51 — the proposed Muslim community center and mosque two blocks from Ground Zero — has propelled the hatred disease from dormant to contagious.

It may indeed be a cynical election season that has unleashed a torrent of incendiary comments by public leaders who should know better. Among the most egregious may be the words of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who compared the so-called Ground Zero mosque to the placement of a swastika at the site of Washington’s U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Regardless of the provocateurs’ motivations, history has taught that silence is complicity. Responsible religious and political leaders need to fill the vacuum and refuse to yield the playing field to the verbal extremists among us. Words that incite hate are painfully wrong and dangerous. They can lead to violence, as seen in the stabbing of a Muslim taxi driver in New York and the arson attack and gunshots at a Tennessee mosque.

All of us have a responsibility to call out those who have stoked the fires, condemn those who have hurt others in their hate of Islam, and stand with those who have been made vulnerable.

Jews have a particular responsibility to help alter the current climate. After all, we know better than most how stereotypes, discrimination, bias, and violence have challenged our long journey.

Muslims should not be collectively judged by the 9/11 terrorists who, in their perversion of Islam, killed thousands, including Muslims. The terrorists were not purveyors of religion, but of sacrilege.

Of course, as we speak up and reach out to our Muslim countrymen, we — and they — dare not be naive. There are Islamist extremists in our midst who are looking for the opportunity to take advantage of American openness and harm indiscriminately in the name of Islam. There are ongoing internal battles within Islam between extremists and moderates. Powerful forces within the faith have resisted reconciling some of its ancient principles with modern sensibilities, a process that was essential for Christianity and Judaism to flourish in a modern age.

But in the current climate American principles of equality, pluralism, and religious freedom are threatened. It is essential to state clearly that anti-Muslim bigotry is no more acceptable in the United States than racism and anti-Semitism.

Our country will always be judged by the way it cares for the most vulnerable in its society. American Muslims are vulnerable now, and this is a test for America.

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