ADL takes heat for opposing Islamic center near ground zero

Last week the ADL said “no” to a planned Islamic center near ground zero. This week, more than two dozen rabbis and other Jewish leaders said “yes.”

An Aug. 3 letter from the Shalom Center, signed by 31 leaders and rabbis, criticized the ADL statement, saying it “undermined those very adherents of Islam who uphold the Quran’s teachings of peace, who condemn terrorism, and who share with some Jews, some Christians, and some others a commitment to peaceful dialogue… And it risks encouraging hatred for all of Islam by Jews and others in American society.”

One of the signers, Rabbi Roberto Graetz of Lafayette’s Temple Isaiah, says it’s a “no-brainer” that the center –– called the Cordoba House after the Spanish city that was a beacon of interfaith tolerance during the Middle Ages ––  should be built, especially considering the group behind the project, the Cordoba Initiative, is a moderate Muslim organization with a history of promoting interfaith dialogue.

“We Jews should be in favor [of the center],” Graetz added. “We take these people seriously when they say they want to create something that will emulate the 92nd Street Y. Who are we to recommend different locations? Either we promote freedom for religious expression or we don’t.”

Another statement from Jewish activists critical of the ADL’s position, released Aug. 3, said the opposition to the Cordoba House “goes against the ADL’s description of itself as an organization that fights ‘all forms of bigotry.’ ”

It continued, “We agree with you that some victims of 9/11 are entitled to ‘irrational’ feelings as a result of their loss. But being less tolerant will not help us heal, and it is not wise for America to alienate millions of its own citizens, let alone the hundreds of millions of Muslims in countries that Americans visit around the world … Tolerance for one means tolerance for all, or else we slip down a dangerous slope.”

The statement was signed by a diverse group of young Jews, including environmental activists, actors and filmmakers.

The controversy erupted after the ADL came out against construction of the proposed $100 million Islamic center and mosque two blocks from the site of the former World Trade Center, destroyed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

In that statement, the ADL said, “The controversy which has emerged regarding the building of an Islamic Center at this location is counterproductive to the healing process. Therefore, under these unique circumstances, we believe the City of New York would be better served if an alternative location could be found.”

On Aug. 3, the project cleared its final hurdle before construction could begin, winning unanimous approval from New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Committee.

The ADL stance was a rare instance of the organization explicitly opposing a Muslim project or distancing itself from its traditional role of upholding liberties for all.

More typical is the sort of ambivalence reflected in a statement by the American Jewish Committee, which expressed support for the Cordoba House — albeit with caveats and demands.

The AJC “urged the leaders of the proposed center to fully reveal their sources of funding and to unconditionally condemn terrorism inspired by Islamist ideology,” the statement read. “If these concerns can be addressed, we will join in welcoming the Cordoba Center to New York. In doing so, we would wish to reaffirm the noble values for which our country stands — the very values so detested by the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 attacks.”

Defenders of the proposed mosque suggested that such calls are insulting, noting that the Cordoba Initiative and its directors, Feisal Abdul Rauf and his wife, Daisy Kahn, have a long history of pressing for a moderate, engaged Islam.

“One of the ways to prevent future Ground Zeroes is to encourage moderation within Islam, and to treat Muslim moderates differently than we treat Muslim extremists,” the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg wrote on his blog. “The campaign against this mosque treats all Muslims as perpetrators.”

Abraham Foxman, the ADL’s national director, said he rejected the bigotry of some of the critics of the mosque but that the sensibilities of the families of the Sept. 11 victims should be paramount.

Foxman likened the sensibilities regarding the mosque project to those that led the Jewish establishment to oppose a Carmelite nunnery at Auschwitz in the 1980s. The nuns had good intentions, but Auschwitz wasn’t the right place for a nunnery. The Vatican ordered the nuns to leave, and they did in 1993.

“We’ve been out there as often as we can, as vociferous as we can, when signs of Islamophobia are on the rise,” Foxman said. “And we’ll continue to be.”