"You've got to be kidding me," I thought to myself when I heard that the ADL had come out against the location of Cordoba House. An organization dedicated to fighting bias is telling Americans who happen to pray in Arabic that it's "not right" to build an institution focused on interfaith cooperation in their own neighborhood?
I gave my wife an earful that morning. Why didn't the ADL oppose the Off-Track Betting parlors and strip joints in the neighborhood if they are so concerned about the sacredness of Ground Zero? Why didn't they oppose churches near the site of the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, where Eric Rudolph -- a terrorist who claimed inspiration from Christianity -- set off a bomb?
And then when I heard Abe Foxman, the ADL's outspoken National Director, say, "If you want to heal us, don't do it in our cemetery," I had to close my eyes and take a few deep breaths. American Muslims are part of the us. It is our cemetery, too. The terrorists attacked us, too.
So when I got a phone call from Abe Foxman inviting me to join a new committee that the ADL has put together to fight protests against mosques in America, I could barely suppress the urge to say "take a hike." But, in the Ramadan spirit of patience and forbearance, I decided to have a conversation instead of hang up the phone.
I told him I disagreed with his position on Cordoba House, and then I asked him a few questions. "I see the anti-mosque protests as a symptom of a far larger issue, the problem of an increasingly mainstream anti-Muslim bigotry. Are you willing to talk about that?"
"This anti-Muslim bigotry didn't drop from the sky; it's been manufactured and advanced by what I call the industry of Islamophobia. Will you call them out?"
"The ADL has significant political capital, a century-long history of fighting bias and a staff of 350 people all over the country. Will fighting anti-Muslim bigotry become a real priority for your institution?"
He said yes.
In fact, he'd already started.
In a recent Huffington Post piece, Foxman quoted Franklin Graham's ugly comments about Islam at length and said, "This kind of bigotry and stereotyping against a great world religion is contrary to everything that America stands for."
He went on to say, "The Rev. Graham's remarks just scratch the surface of a deeply entrenched problem in our society of anti-Muslim scapegoating."
And more importantly, he pointed the finger at the appropriate perpetrators: "Several groups with extreme anti-Muslim agendas have launched public campaigns that have both sheltered and fueled this bigotry."
He also told the Washington Post exactly what he thought about Dutch Islamophobe Geert Wilders' presence at the anti-Cordoba House rally to be held on 9/11 :
[Wilders] is a bigot, he's an anti-Muslim bigot, and one of the demonstrations being called for is being headed by someone who has an anti-Muslim agenda, often under the guise of fighting "radical Islam." The group vilifies Islamic faith and is engaged in [claiming] there's a conspiracy to destroy American values, which is nonsense.
I might have added a few curse words for emphasis, but otherwise it's hard to improve on those comments.
The ADL, of course, is far more than Foxman's statements. It's a huge organization with massive programmatic impact. I spoke with the ADL Chicago leadership -- people I know, like and have worked with for years -- and they assured me that their programs were going to include far more direct material on anti-Muslim bigotry.
Anti-Muslim bigotry is becoming a national crisis. This is an all-hands-on-deck moment. The ADL has a major platform, an important constituency and serious institutional capacity.
When considering whether I would join the task force, I asked myself a simple question: Will I have more impact on reducing anti-Muslim bigotry and building American pluralism by accepting this invitation? In my view, the answer to that is an unequivocal yes.
Here's a question I'm likely to get: Is my presence helping the ADL burnish its reputation after it was tainted through the Cordoba House position? Let me respond with a story.
My first job out of college was teaching urban minority high school dropouts in an alternative education program in inner city Chicago. Back then, the Chicago ADL ran a day-long anti-bias conference for high school students. Somehow, they found out about our program, invited my students and comped their registration. The conference focused on the problem of bigotry broadly, inclusive of groups ranging from gays and lesbians; to African-Americans, Latinos and Indians; to Muslims and Jews. My students loved it; they appreciated how stereotypes about urban minorities were called out, and they learned from the discussions about bias towards groups they knew little about.
"This organization is for everybody," one of my students told me at the end of the day.
Muslims need an ADL that's for everybody. Jews need an ADL that's for everybody. America needs an ADL that's for everybody. My work on this committee will be in the service of that vision.