By Abraham Cooper
The debate over the 9/11 ‘Cordoba’ mosque continues to spawn raw emotions and white– hot rhetoric from all corners. For the record, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the Jewish Human Rights NGO I represent, is on record that the feelings of the majority of the families of the 3,000 people mass murdered in America’s largest killing zone should be paramount.
For most Americans the debate isn’t whether this house of worship should be built, but where it should be located.
It happens that the Ground Zero mosque debate is unfolding just weeks before the Jewish New Year and High Holy Day period, a time that demands less talk and more personal introspection.
I found some powerful insights about ‘holiness’ and where it is to be found. The biblical narrative touches on the issue of Holy turf fairly early in the Book of Genesis. Jacob has just left home for the first time, fleeing the fury of his brother Esau over -what else–the birthright. On the very first night away from his parents, Jacob is visited by G-d and ancestral promises are repeated. In the morning a stunned Jacob,
“… AWOKE FROM HIS SLEEP AND SAID: IN TRUTH G-D IS IN THIS PLACE! AND I DID NOT KNOW IT! AND HE WAS AFRAID AND SAID: HOW AWESOME IS THIS PLACE AND I DID NOT KNOW IT…” (GENESIS 28, 16-17).
Commentators ask why did Jacob, who according to both Jewish and Muslim traditions had the power of prophecy, fails to detect that the location he arrived at was indeed “an awesome place”–the site of the future Holy Temple?
Until that fateful day when his mother Rivka shoved him out the back door of the Abrahamic tent, Jacob led a sheltered life, studying at home with spiritual giants of his day, including his father Isaac. As far as Jacob knew, in a world otherwise dominated by idolatry, it was that locale alone that constituted a “holy place”. Venturing from this spiritual safety zone, he assumed, would not only make him homesick, but also diminish his soul.
That night would show Jacob how wrong he was. It’s not only the zip code that sets the stage for spiritual empowerment, but a person’s resolve. Jacob would discover than G-d has gifted to Humanity the potential to partner with the Lord in creating Kedusha, holiness, anywhere any person sojourns.
I recently experienced the portability of such Kedusha in an unlikely venue–California’s Silicon Valley.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center monitors online hate through our Digital Terrorism and Hate Project. Way back in April 1995, on the day of the Oklahoma City Bombing, there was one hate website, Stormfront.org. Fifteen years later, we are monitoring over 12,500 problematic sites, blogs, newsgroups, YouTube videos, FACEBOOK pages, etc.
As millions of young people, businesses, and the Media worldwide embrace social networking, so have bigots, racists, anti-Semites, and Homophobes for whom Internet technologies are like low hanging fruit in an orchard without a fence. Today, terrorists regularly use the Internet for command and control–as was evidenced during the bloody Mumbai attacks and online fundraising–FACEBOOK solicitations by a young, charismatic Islamist leader were used to underwrite the deadly suicide bombing at Jakarta’s Marriott Hotel last year.
These troubling trends have led the Wiesenthal Center to shuttle to Northern California’s Silicon Valley for a series of discussions with FACEBOOK, Google, YouTube, and last week, Yahoo. At every meeting we give the brilliant and (mostly really) young cadres of online meisters a crash course about the subculture of digital hate and terror.
After a lively dialogue with 25 reps on where and how to draw the line on hate speech and thwarting digital terror, we visited Yahoo’s “accessibility laboratory”.
Oh my G-d! After all of the interfaith talk about the need to build bridges, here were true bridge builders, a consortium of software designers, engineers, and brilliant young people who come to work everyday with the goal of creating real time-tools to open up new worlds for 60 million Americans with disabilities and potentially hundreds of millions other handicapped around the world. I was deeply humbled to watch these folks in action–from longtime advocate for the disabled, Alan Brightman, to Victor, a blind maestro, who mined the Internet using voice-enabled tools at what seemed to be the speed of sound.
Though I have no clue as to their religious affiliation, I know I was witness to the mass production of Kedusha, holiness by Yahoo’s “accessibility team”. Theologians may wax eloquently about the concept of Tikun Olam– literally “repairing the world”, but how many clergy can match the output of Victor and friends? Interfaith leaders might do a better job of overcoming their own prejudices by creating “accessibility teams”, based not on words, but good deeds.
While there is no denying the everlasting symbolism of 9/11’s Ground Zero, perhaps by embracing the lesson Jacob learned thousands of years ago, the stage will be set for a house of prayer, built somewhat removed from those hallowed grounds, that will inspire people of all faiths.
**Abraham Cooper is associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and Museum of Tolerance