Jewish Americans have generally been more supportive of the Cordoba House project than other Americans. Jews have been denied religious freedom and been the victims of religious discrimination so frequently that their natural sympathies lie with others who now confront these burdens. Nonetheless, even those most firmly committed to building the community center/mosque in lower Manhattan have struggled with the seemingly powerful argument that what happened at Auschwitz in the 1980s is a reason to rethink their position.
This argument goes as follows: A group of Carmelite nuns attempted to establish a convent on the grounds of Auschwitz in the mid-1980s. Pope John Paul II was sensitive to the concerns of Jews, who saw Auschwitz as sacred ground and the convent as an attempt to obscure the memory of the Jewish slaughter that happened there. In 1989, the Pope ordered the Polish nuns off the grounds of Auschwitz to a different location. Therefore, Imam Feisal Rauf should demonstrate similar sensitivity and move the Cordoba House from its current site.
There are two problems with this argument.
The first is that all Holocaust analogies are profoundly suspect. The Holocaust, with Auschwitz as its central symbol, was an endeavor of pure evil, involving a fanatic, obsessive, and single-minded six-year campaign to exterminate an entire people. Words fail us in attempting to describe or explain the Holocaust. We Jews, therefore, rightly discourage others from making comparisons that must ultimately fall short. The Holocaust is analogous to nothing because it is utterly unique.
The second problem is that if there is a lesson to be learned from John Paul's actions, it is exactly the opposite of what Cordoba House opponents are now claiming.
I agree that Ground Zero is a sacred place. It is a mass grave, the site of a terrible atrocity. One can reasonably argue that anything that detracts from the memory and the message of the site is out of place there, and that a mosque -- or any place of worship -- might do that.
But that is where the similarities end. The Jewish community was outraged in the 1980s because the convent was located on the grounds of Auschwitz. At the request of the Pope, the convent was then moved to another building across the street, off the grounds but only 600 yards away. The Jewish community was grateful to the Pope for his actions. Jews saw nothing problematic about the convent being only a third of a mile from Auschwitz. What was important was that it was no longer on the grounds of the camp that had been the place of an unprecedented and unthinkable slaughter of Jews.
The Cordoba House, of course, was never to be located at Ground Zero. It is to be two and a half blocks away -- close by, but still at a respectable distance, as in the case of the convent after the move, and not only that, in a highly congested urban neighborhood where its presence will be barely noticeable. Just as the Jewish community had no problem with a Carmelite convent that was so close to Auschwitz, so too should it have no problem with a community center/mosque that is so close to Ground Zero. If moving the convent a short distance from the death camp was seen as a step to be applauded, why should a community center/mosque a short distance from Ground Zero be seen as troubling?
For Jews, emotions run deep on the Holocaust, which is burned into our consciousness. But we must not let these emotions be exploited. Twenty years ago, by a short move from sacred ground to secular territory, the dispute over the convent at Auschwitz was resolved. Common sense and a spirit of mutual understanding triumphed. In dealing with plans for Cordoba House, to be constructed in a busy and very worldly section of downtown New York, let us hope that they will triumph once again.