Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Ground Zero Mosque and the Convent at Auschwitz

See a discussion packet from my discussion at services related to the question of collective guilt, Jewish tradition and the Cordoba center - here.

This coming Tuesday, August 24th, at 6:30 p.m., there will be an Interfaith Prayer Vigil in support of Muslim communities in Fairfield County, on the grounds of First Congregational Church, 1 Walton Place, Bedford Street, Stamford. All are welcome to gather peacefully with members of our Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Sikh communities - and people of other religions who choose to join in - to lift voices in prayer for peace and mutual respect. The need for this vigil arises out of the Lower Manhattan mosque controversy, as well as one involving a group of Evangelical Christians protesting outside a Bridgeport mosque. I plan to attend this vigil because promoting mutual respect is aways a good thing.

After much consideration, I also support the decision to allow the Islamic Center to be built a short distance from Ground Zero.

Some relevant articles on the subject:

Why Jews Should Support Mosque near Ground Zero, by Robert Levine and David Ellenson, and from Newsweek and Rabbi Mark R. Cohen, Americans Must Transcend Ignorance on Mosque at Ground Zero. Also see - Bret Stephens: The Mosque at Ground Zero - WSJ.com
and, since I've long been a Bret Stephens fan, see this week's Our 'Moderate Muslim' Problem - WSJ.com.

See also: Jewish Groups Support Cordoba Project

And by all means look at the Cordoba Initiative - FAQs on Lower Manhattan Project .


I've been struggling mightily with this issue, especially in light of the ADL's decision to recommend moving the proposed mosque to a less sensitive site. My instinct is always to support freedom of religious expression, especially when moderate Muslim leaders step to the fore, as has happened here. But I was so shocked at the response by the very organization devoted to teaching tolerance that I took a second look.

Second look taken, and, while I am supportive of the organization's call for transparency in the funding of the new center, it still looks like the ADL made a big mistake, albeit one that is almost understandable, in part because this situation seems analogous to the case of the Convent at Auschwitz. Charles Krauthammer recently made that comparison (see Sacrilege at Ground Zero), which seems to me to be an unspoken assumption of the ADL position.

The New York Sun website was more specific in connecting the two in an editorial:

“We don’t want to make any inappropriate comparisons in respect of the Holocaust, which is unique in history. But what settled that crisis with the Carmelites was the grit of a few courageous protesters, like Rabbi Avi Weiss, and the seichel of John Paul II, who grasped that the demand for forbearance was not hostility toward his religion and that understanding was not weakness.”

By picking another site, the editorial said, The Cordoba Initiative can “show its capacity for respect, understanding, and forbearance.”

The analogy, however, falls apart for several important reasons.

Carmelite nuns opened a convent in 1984, at a site near where Pope John Paul had conducted a mass in 1979 and where a cross had been erected. The cross may well have offended Jews even more than the convent itself. The cross has been for Jews a symbol of persecution, and one cannot ignore the long history of Christian anti-Semitism that, one can easily argue, culminated in the Holocaust. There are also significant questions as to the activities of Pope Pius XII during the period of World War II. Plus, there was a great concern that the Poles were trying to downplay the Jewish nature of the mass murder that took place there. (See more background on the "War of the Crosses.")

In the late '80s, after much controversy, the convent was eventually moved to a less offensive location - and productive dialogue resumed between Jews and Catholics, over the meaning - and in particular the uniquely Jewish nature - of the Holocaust. The convent is now across the street from the barbed wire fence of Birkenau. I saw it last Spring, and I sensed no encroachment or intrusiveness. If there is a cross on the building, it was not easily noticeable. Although there have been flareups, the controversy is now behind us. And, at its current location, this convent is closer to Birkenau than the proposed mosque would be to Ground Zero.

Having seen the many Christian groups that reached out to Jews on the March of the Living - and the Polish (Catholic) school groups who left lovely notes and flowers on the Auschwitz ovens themselves, I find myself actually being glad that a convent is there now. Pope John Paul showed his love for the Jewish people by visiting Israel and Yad Vashem and recognizing the Jewish state at long last, so maybe now there is room for a Christian expression of solidarity and love for Jews, even near the hallowed ground of Auschwitz. It seems that the goal of minimizing Jewish victimhood has been abandoned by a very different Polish government than the one that existed in 1984. The cross still brings pain, but maybe this pit of death is precisely the place from where understanding and mutual respect might, pardon the pun, germinate.

Maybe that can happen at Ground Zero too.

In 1984, there was a strong consensus among Jews, even those who normally promote dialogue, opposing the convent. This is what I think Abe Foxman is recalling. But this was at a time when the communist government of Poland was using the church to downplay the victimization of the Jews. This is hardly the case in Manhattan, where no one is attempting to distort the immensity of the crime.

Also, downtown Manhattan is nothing like the countryside near the Auschwitz. Aside from the death camp and a few gift shops and fast food places, and the town of Oswiecim down the road, there's nothing else there. In Manhattan, where the proposed center and Ground Zero are not even in the same zip code, a block or two of distance can be enormous. Just saunter from Ground Zero to the Lower East Side, as I recall doing pre 9.11 while in rabbinical school, and a short walk can take you from the 21st century to the 19th, and from ultra-modern U.S. to the Polish shtetl, by way of Chinatown.

But most of all, while the perpetrators of 9/11 claimed to be Muslim, they did not speak in the name of all Muslims. The Pope speaks for Catholicism, so if the construction of a convent were somehow offensive, the buck stops in Rome. The Pope also must deal with historical stains like the Inquisition and Crusades, as well as anti-Semitism that led to the Holocaust. But to cast aspersions on a group of moderate Muslims because of the deeds of their radical co-religionists is patently unfair, unless they endorsed those acts. Rauf is no more representative of Bin Laden for Muslims as Bob Dylan is representative of Meir Kahane for Jews.


To lump all Muslims together, or people of any background, is an affront to the values espoused by Judaism. It is to turn them into Amalek, a subject of this week's Torah portion, Ki Tetze.

The portion calls upon us to destroy Amalek, which I take as a commandment to destroy evil. But even if that mitzvah is calling for the destruction of a particular nation, Maimonides reminds us that Amalek no longer exists. The Torah also mentions other nations to be dispossessed, the Canaanites, Jebusites, etc., none of whom exists anymore. So the implication is that we should no longer be in the business of destroying entire nations, or, by extension, painting each member of a given nation or group with the same broad brush. Further, this week's portion tells us that children should not be punished for the sins of their parents and vice versa. Each individual should be judged on his own merits.

Let moderate Muslims not be punished for the sins of people whom they have themselves condemned. Imam Rauf said in an interview, "Fanaticism and terrorism have no place in Islam." That's pretty clear and unequivocal. Read a profile of him, and his even more interesting wife, here. I may not agree with every ounce of his politics, including support of Hamas, but he is not a terrorist. I know a lot of Presbyterians who sympathize with Hamas, and I wouldn't call them terrorists either, nor would I deny them a chance to build a church in Lower Manhattan. Plus...
  • The Cordoba Initiative, which Rauf espouses, is a most worthy gateway to interfaith dialogue.
  • He is a Sufi. Sufis are among the Islamic groups with closest ties to the Western religious (and especially mystical) traditions. Read about sufism here. Rumi's love poetry is some of the finest ever written.
  • His wife (Indian born) is a recipient of the Interfaith Center Award for Promoting Peace and Interfaith Understanding. (Can Sufism defuse terrorism?) In an interview with the Wall Street Journal his wife, Daisy Khan, said the facility would include a memorial to the 9/11 victims, and declared that “Hamas commits atrocious acts of terror.” Khan, executive director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement, added that her husband “has outright condemned all forms of terrorism.”

Perhaps not every mosque would belong in Lower Manhattan. But that one does.


RonnieVFein said...

Well thought out and well said. Bravo!
No one would (or should) have raised any question about this, as there is already a mosque in lower Manhattan and, as you said this proposed cultural center is NOT at Ground Zero -- but for midterm elections in November. How convenient for those who wish to make political points by raising fear levels and being irresponsible in their rhetoric. Have you seen the photos on some right wing websites of photos of Al Aqsa, implying that there will be a huge mosque with a gold dome in lower Manhattan? We Jews, of all people, should be especially sensitive to what it means for politicians to stir people into a hatred frenzy for absolutely no other reason than for political gain. This is precisely how more and more Germans learned to hate Jews in the 1930s.

Unknown said...

1. I am somewhat surprised that you directly support blames that Christians are responsible for the Holocaust. It is historically incorrect and misleading. The National Socialistic Movement was not rooted in the Christian Religion and fascists actually persecuted many Christian Leaders. This whole topic is beyond our discussion here but has an important historical significance as related to the relationship between Judaism and Christianity as well as relationships between totalitarian regimes and religion. Though Christians were not responsible for the Holocaust, the building of the convent was eventually moved out of respect to Jewish feelings. A more adequate comparison than the covenant would be an erection of the National Socialist German Workers' Party Cultural center near Auschwitz. Some researchers are saying that not all members of The National Socialist Party were bad and only about 8% of Germans in Nazi Germany were radical. It is always the radical minority that leads the way and Germans were historically blamed for silently supporting the radical minority and not actively fighting against it. Sounds familiar, does not it?
2. The building of the Ground Zero Mosque has nothing to do with the freedom of religious expression. Nobody argues against the Muslims right to pray. The question is why it should be erected on that exact spot and not 10 blocks away. As I read on the Cordoba Initiative FAQs it did not seem that there is a satisfactory explanation for the motive to build on that specific spot. By publishing them on our website without comments, we are making our website an instrument for their propaganda. There is one piece of information that I found useful though: the current mosque location is 12 blocks away from Ground Zero. Why should the new location be closer?
3. I am sure you are aware of the fact that St. Nicolas Greek Church was destroyed on 09/11. The Church was trying to get permission from the Port Authority and the City of New York to rebuild the fallen building and has not yet gotten permission.

Eugene Rosenberg