A test of American and Jewish values

A test of American and Jewish values

We fortunate American Jews are living in a golden age. By “golden age” I mean the free and full observance of Judaism coupled with unlimited participation and achievement in a majority non-Jewish society. Anti-Semitic prejudice, thankfully, isn’t a pressing general concern in American Jewish life.
The last time we experienced anything like this was in medieval Baghdad and Iberia, in the middle ages and under Muslim rule.
Our American Jewish golden age didn’t just happen. It took centuries to come to this point. It’s the result of unceasing hard work by American Jews and Jewish communities. We demanded tolerance, if not respect, and we had to learn how to be open as individuals and communities in such a way that non-Jews could become acquainted with us. We had to acquire the confidence to speak up and speak out. In turn, increasing numbers of influential non-Jews spoke up for the full participation of Jews in American life. The Holocaust attached a badge of shame to overt anti-Semitism.
But the most important element, most likely, was ongoing one-to-one contact between Jews and our neighbors. And our trump card was the American Torah — the Declaration of Independence (“all men are created equal”) and the Constitution, with its precious Bill of Rights.
We Jews have not been the only religious group to suffer prejudice in America. Quakers, Catholics and Mormons were burdened, as well; the latter two experienced what can only be described as pogroms. Yet all of us are now enjoying this American golden age.
Another religious group has established itself in America, but only over the last 75 to 80 years.
These are Muslims. They are facing exactly the same prejudices and pressures that we American Jews faced and overcame. And now we find ourselves in the midst of a national debate over the placement of an Islamic center in lower Manhattan.
Muslims are just folks. They are earning their livings, raising families and trying to get ahead.
They love their relatives and they mourn their dead. They attend religious services. They are American citizens, loyal and grateful, and they abhor the travesty of terrorism in the name of Islam. That is why it is vital that expression of non-radical Islam be encouraged.
As relative newcomers in the United States, Muslims have been leery of stirring up controversy.
We Jews know what that’s like. The story of American Jewish outspokenness may go back only to the Civil War, when a delegation of Jews went to Washington to protest General Grant’s infamous Order #11. It took a long time for us to become confident and courageous enough to assert our innate worth and our rights under U.S. law.
American Muslims are repeating this story, with the added difficulty of being blamed for murderous misdeeds that by no means reflect their beliefs, values or wishes. The proposed Park51 Islamic center in Manhattan is an expression of their desire and readiness to enter the American mainstream.
Park51 is two blocks, as the proverbial crow flies, from the World Trade Center. The goal is for it to be an interfaith center with Muslim prayer space included. It is also to house meetings, cultural events, athletic venues and even a restaurant. This should sound familiar to us; the plan is based on Jewish community centers.
Those opposed to Park51 say it is too close to the World Trade Center, a hallowed battleground and the grave of victims of Islamic terrorism. They say that their feelings are inflamed and their values insulted. No matter that there were plenty of Muslim victims in the WTC. No matter that Muslims have been praying at Park51 for over a year. No matter that, in the wake of 9/11, a small masjid was set up in the terrorist-battered Pentagon, itself.
By the way, the complaint that Park51 is “in the shadow of the World Trade Center” is specious.
Neither location can be seen from the other, and it is several blocks’ walk between them.
Opposition to the Park51 Islamic center is a dramatic test of both American and Jewish values, rivaling any that we have witnessed in the last century and more. Here are some of the American values at stake:
• Freedom to worship — government neither favors nor disfavors any religion. Religious liberty has to apply across the board to all Americans.
• Free speech — even to criticize the government. The imam of the proposed Islamic center has made some heated statements that have aroused anger. That is his right.
• Property rights — owners may use their property in any lawful manner.
Ours is a nation of laws. We should be considerate of one another, to be sure, but law is the final arbiter of disputes, not emotion.
Ours is a nation of immigrants. We must all recognize that, ultimately, we came to America from somewhere else. Therefore we have to support each other in becoming full participants in American life.
Our abundant diversity is a strength. This one can be hard to master, but life is so much better — and more interesting — when we learn from each other and solve problems together.
If we can’t love each other, we can at least tolerate each other. Personally, I think that tolerance is only a stopgap. What we’re aiming at is mutual respect.
Many countries in Europe are failing to integrate their Islamic minorities. They are suffering serious social disruption because of this failure. America, on the other hand, has become very good at such integration. It takes a great deal of time to accomplish, but we must see each other involved in this vital task.
And the Jewish values? Over and over, Torah teaches us to attend to the needs of strangers in our communities, “because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Empathy and care are mitzvot.
In our history, we have been denied the right to build synagogues and to worship freely. We Jews may not allow the same persecutions that we suffered to be visited upon our neighbors.
And the Mishnah teaches us that God created only one human so that we could not say to each other, “My father was better, greater than your father.” We are all God’s children.
Just as we rebel at Jewish stereotypes, we must not make the mistake of stereotyping Muslims.
All the 9/11 terrorists were Muslim and claimed to be acting on Islamic principles; but not all Muslims are terrorists and Islamic support for terrorism is the view of a pitifully small minority. Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City eloquently said, “We would betray our values and play into our enemies’ hands if we were to treat Muslims differently than anyone else. In fact, to cave to popular sentiment would be to hand a victory to the terrorists, and we should not stand for that.”
It is my hope and prayer that the effort to build Park51 will succeed, that American Muslims at large will be encouraged to fully enter the American mainstream, that justice and friendship will triumph, and that America will be better because of it.

(Rabbi Paul Tuchman is the spiritual leader of Temple B’nai Israel in White Oak.)