The ADL's decision to oppose the building of a 13-story Muslim center two blocks from Ground Zero is inconsistent with its mission. The ADL has a long and distinguished history of opposing bigotry, supporting multiculturalism and advocating tolerance. Though it began as an organization dedicated to combating anti-Semitism, it has become one of the most potent forces against all forms of religious, ethnic and racial bigotry. Following the mass murders perpetrated on 9/11 by Islamic extremists, the ADL was in the forefront of standing up against those who would use this hateful attack to generalize hatred against all Muslims or all Arabs.
In light of this history, I would have expected the ADL to support the building of this Muslim community center, which would include a mosque, a performing arts center, a pool and a restaurant. At the very least I would have expected it to remain silent and not to lend its powerful and distinguished voice to an opposition that includes many bigots along with many decent people who have expressed legitimate concerns about the structure.
Reasonable people can disagree about the merits of building a Muslim center so close to the sight of a horrendous crime committed in the name of Islam by extremists who do not represent their religion. Many Jews were deeply offended when a Roman Catholic covenant was built adjacent to Auschwitz.
Supporters argue that the proximity of the mosque to the site of this crime sends a powerful message that there are many Muslims in the world who identify with the victims rather than the perpetrators. The most influential opposition comes from families of many of the victims who were killed at Ground Zero, though some families favor the project and others have remained silent.
Let the debate continue, but let the ADL not lend its imprimatur of tolerance to those who stand in opposition. Inevitably, this has become a political debate, with rightwing Republicans such as Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich leading the political campaign against it, while Mayor Michael Bloomberg has strongly supported the project on grounds of religious freedom, arguing that government should have no role in dictating where a mosque can be situated. As Bloomberg put it, "what is great about America, and particularly New York, is we welcome everybody, and if we are so afraid of something like this, what does that say about us? Democracy is stronger than this..."
The ADL's decision to join this debate on the side of those who oppose the mosque was exacerbated by the reason given by Abe Foxman, a friend and a man who I admire, for why the opposition of some families was an important part of why the ADL came down against the project. Mr. Foxman, who himself survived the Holocaust, was quoted in The New York Times as follows:
"Survivors of the Holocaust are entitled to feelings that are irrational," he said. Referring to the loved ones of the 9/11 victims, he said, "Their anguish entitles them to a position that others would categorize as irrational or bigoted."
This is a dangerous argument that has implications totally inconsistent with the mission of the ADL. Bigotry is often a result of victimization, perceived or real. Many Germans felt victimized following World War I, and some blamed the Jews. Although their position was "irrational or bigoted," they were not entitled to act on it. Nor are Palestinians who feel victimized by Israel entitled to be bigoted against Jews. There is simply is no excuse for bigotry, and the ADL ought to know that better than any other organization.
The ADL was founded as the result of irrational bigotry directed against a Jew named Leo Frank by a Ku Klux Klan type organization calling itself the Knights of Mary Phagan. They lynched Leo Frank in the name of an alleged victim of rape and murder. The fact that Frank was totally innocent didn't matter to them. Their anguish over her victimization did not entitle them to their irrationality and bigotry. The ADL should know better than to provide an "abuse excuse" to bigots based on perceived victimization.
The vast majority of those who oppose the mosque at Ground Zero are neither bigoted nor irrational. Some are. So are some who favor it. That is not the issue. The issue is whether a great human rights organization should oppose the building of a Muslim center near Ground Zero. I have heard no rational reason from the ADL why it should stand in opposition to this project.
I hope that Abe Foxman was misquoted or misspoke and that he will withdraw both his opposition to the mosque and most especially the argument he offered for it. The ADL should continue with its noble mission of siding with the victims of bigotry rather than making excuses for those who engage in bigotry.