By Robert Levine and David Ellenson
One of the most beautiful stories to emerge from the devastating attacks of 9/11 was told by a Pakistani Muslim, Usman Farman, who was employed at the World Trade Center. Fleeing north as the first tower was collapsing, he was felled by a missile of glass and debris. Stunned, he laid on his back as frightened safety seekers stampeded by him. The pendant he usually wore, inscribed with an Islamic prayer for safety written in Arabic, gleamed through the darkness. Suddenly, a Hasidic Jewish man bent over him, took the pendant in his hand and read the Arabic out loud. With a deep Brooklyn accent he said, “Brother, if you don’t mind, there is a cloud of glass coming at us, grab my hand, and let’s get out of here.”
9/11 is a tragedy that is permanently etched in our nation’s consciousness. Future scholars will pour over the historic record asking not only how we acted in the aftermath of that catastrophe. They will also ask what we have learned from it. We are confident that future historians will want to emphasize that on September 11, 2001 an ultra-orthodox man looked past centuries of religious division, saw a human being in danger, and sought to help even as it was becoming known that extremist Islamic terrorists were wreaking unspeakable horror on the citizens of New York and the United States.
As Jews, we seek any and all such examples of righteousness shown in the face of Nazi horror. The “Garden of the Righteous of All Nations” at the Israeli Holocaust Memorial Museum Yad Vashem recognizes the altruistic and courageous deeds of Gentile rescuers of Jews. We celebrate these men and women for their moral courage even as we wonder why more people could not act in concert with the values they purported to live as these heroes did.
Today we ask whether we will be similarly proud of the fact that large numbers of politicians and others, including Jews, have banded together in an attempt to stop the building of an Islamic Center and Mosque two blocks north of Ground Zero. The reasoning of these critics of this proposed Center is that building such an Islamic Center so close to Ground Zero is an act that desecrates the memory of those who died on 9/11. We also suspect that opposition to the construction of this Center on the part of some is also an act of political opportunism upon which some politicians wish to capitalize in the heat of current and forthcoming political campaigns. While the emotions expressed are understandable, imposing a standard of collective responsibility and guilt upon all Muslims that would block the construction of this center because of the deeds of these terrorists is un-American and should not be tolerated.
As Jews mindful of Jewish history, we are extremely sensitive to incidents in which Jews have been scapegoated for the misdeeds of others and where collective guilt has been projected onto all our people on account of the crimes of a few. A particularly shocking incident from our own American past took place in December 1862 when General Ulysses S. Grant issued his infamous General Order No. 11, an order which expelled all Jews from Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi. The justification for this expulsion was the raging black market in southern cotton on the part of unlicensed traders, including some Jews. In the emotional climate of the war zone, prejudices flourished and Jews became the target of unwarranted and discriminatory regulation. Describing the “Israelites” as “an intolerable nuisance,” Grant issued his order and expelled Jews from these three states.
Weeks later, President Lincoln rescinded Grant’s order, stating his conviction that “to condemn a class is, to say the least, to wrong the good with the bad.” He drew no distinction between Jew and Gentile, and would allow no American to be wronged because of his religious affiliation. Lincoln deemed such proscription of an entire religious class intolerable.
Lincoln’s words still resonate today and powerfully reflect the sentiments of President Washington who, in a 1790 letter, assured the Jewish citizens of Newport, Rhode Island, regarding the fundamental liberty that Jews would enjoy in this country. Our first President wrote, “For happily the Goverment of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens.”
Again, we surely understand the visceral pain expressed by some who lost loved ones in these unspeakable assaults. However, this sentiment does not provide sufficient grounds to prevent the building of this Center. To refuse to allow this project to go forward would suggest that all Muslims are terrorists or covert supporters of terrorism, and that an Islamic House of God cannot preach and practice divinely inspired values of justice, freedom and human dignity for all races and religions. This is patently insulting and unsupportable.
Every year Jews emerge from the Passover Seder table with one indelible message — remember that you were strangers in the land of Egypt, that you were degraded and humiliated for no reason save that you were Jews. As Jews, we therefore must raise our voices and do all in our power to prevent such bigotry from being directed at any other people or faith. The empathy taught by our tradition demands that Jews neither be silent nor forbearing in the face of such injustice.
Since 9/11, many Muslims have felt similar broad brush rejection just because they practice the faith of Islam. No distinctions among Muslims are made by their critics. Blame and derision are unconscionably hurled upon an entire faith. History has well taught us how indecent and immoral it is when an entire faith group is held culpable for the acts of a few.
An Islamic Center and mosque north of Ground Zero will make the powerful statement that persons of all religious faiths can stand together as children of God. Historic memory requires us to behave with simple decency and affirm the proposed plan of our moderate and law-abiding Muslim sisters and brothers to construct this Center. We look forward to the day when we can join together with our colleagues of all faiths in dedicating this religious center which will represent the triumph of love over hate, humanity over insanity.
Rabbi Robert Levine is Senior Rabbi of Congregation Rodeph Sholom in New York City. Rabbi David Ellenson is President of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.