A few years after its founding, Brandeis University dedicated three
modern inter-denominational chapels circling a common pool. Designed by the architects responsible
for New York’s Lincoln Center, they were the first of their kind built on a US
college campus. While striking,
more than anything else these chapels made a statement. Not merely was this fledgling non-sectarian
Jewish sponsored university open to all; it was welcoming to and nurturing of diverse
religious expression. The chapels quickly
became a tourist attraction and during several summers of my undergraduate
years there I led visitors through them, highlighting the architecture of each
but mostly explaining the powerful message embodied in the diversified whole. Knowing the philosophy of Brandeis’
founders and early faculty, I have no doubt at all that, had the institution
been started today, there would have been four structures around that pool — a
synagogue, two churches and a mosque.
It was with this in mind that I was dismayed to read
that a major Jewish organization has lent its voice in opposition to building
an Islamic center two blocks from the Trade Center (when will they stop calling
it ground zero). There was of course particular irony in
the fact that this opposition comes from the group called The Anti-Defamation
League. More disturbing, and a sign of our times, is that
representatives of my people, victims of blanket character
assassination (and worse) throughout the ages, could engage, spoken or
implied, in similar assassination themselves. The destruction of the Twin Towers, something I witnessed as
a horrified New Yorker in 2001, was not carried out by Islam, but by a group of
terrorists who happened to be Moslems.
Impeding the building of a mosque in downtown Manhattan doesn’t only unfairly
demonize one particular religion; it threatens the very core of our
democracy. Freedom of religious
expression is not a selective or optional concept, nor is it something we can
uphold at one time and not at another. Some will argue that they don’t oppose a mosque per
se, but only it’s proximity.
Well would ten blocks be too close, would fifteen? Forgetting how ridiculous the idea of too close is in as crowded a city as
New York, it’s unlikely that Mr. Foxman of the ADL and his organization would
oppose building a synagogue or church two blocks from the site. They argue that building a mosque there
would be disturbing to families of those killed in the attack. Does that mean that similar families
who lost loved ones in Oklahoma City would object to building a church two
blocks from the Murrah Building site because terrorist Timothy McVeigh was a
Christian? What an absurd analogy you
might say, but is it any more absurd than preventing the building of a mosque
in downtown New York because the terrorists who destroyed buildings there
happened to be Moslems?
The opposition to the proposed Islamic center is in itself troubling,
but more so the larger context.
Somehow with our obsession about terrorists and specifically Islamist
terrorists, we have lost sight of who we are and of the principles upon which
this democracy was founded. Add to
that the ongoing debate about immigration that has more to do with ethnicity
than security and the not so subtle racism raising its ugly head across America
in the era of Obama and you have real trouble. If we continue down this path everyone — you and I included
— will pay a huge price.
When Brandies University built those three chapels around a peaceful
pool, they were making a statement about who and what we are. Building an Islamic center close to
where a group of terrorists besmirched their faith as much as they destroyed
innocent lives would do no less.