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Rabbi Gerald Serotta

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A Dark Day For America

Posted: 03/11/11 01:00 PM ET

Beginning today, (March 10) Representative Peter King of New York will Chair a series of hearings of the Homeland Security Committee on the following theme: "The Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and that Community's Response." Many Americans from diverse religious communities have already protested and will continue to protest these hearings. It is important to understand why.

Some reasonable people suggest that it is only "political correctness" to ignore that "Islamic Radicalism" exists and leads to terrorism in the United States? Some believe that this statement of cause and effect is a perfectly well established proposition. Others feel that framing the issues in this way presents a flawed diagnosis about what surely does threaten our lives and our values as Americans.

But there is something else at stake in these hearings that we dare not lose sight of. The purpose expressed quite literally singles out a particular minority religious community as a whole (Muslim Americans) for investigation, asserts some level of guilt a priori, and then asks that community to admit its guilt and defend its good name. What does it mean to have Congress inquiring specifically into the dynamics within one specific religion?

While there are many instances of religious, racial, and ethnic bigotry in U.S. history, the idea that an entire religious community can be targeted in this way by Congress is a deep danger to what America stands for as an ideal. It also carries a dangerous message within contemporary world affairs. Alongside of preventing Muslim Americans from building mosques in certain locales and the phenomenon of religious haters threatening to burn Islamic religious texts, it is hard to imagine a more powerful symbol of American hostility to the religious beliefs of over one billion Muslims in the world than these hearings.

The xenophobia expressed by this approach has both a pedigree and a parallel in American history. In the very same neighborhood of New York where there is currently a controversy about a plan for an Islamic Cultural Center, Jews were prohibited from creating a cemetery in the 17th century by Peter Stuyvesant. In the nineteenth century Catholics were prevented from building a Cathedral (St. Patrick's) in the same area. The political powers of that day responded to popular sentiment that the "Papists" were in fact not a religion, but were rather a political entity trying to implant their foreign ideas and loyalties on American soil. From Pat Robertson and his ilk we hear the same ignorance: "Islam is not a "real" religion. It is an international conspiracy of conquest."

How distant these values are from the words President George Washington addressed to the first permanent American synagogue, in Rhode Island:

"To bigotry, no sanction. To persecution, no assistance. May the children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. ..."

The stock of Abraham surely refers as clearly in our day to Islam as it did in Washington's day to Judaism. For centuries Jewish theologians of various lands have viewed Christianity and Islam as "daughter" or "sister" religions, part of God's plan to spread morality and justice in the world. Nevertheless, throughout their histories, all three Abrahamic faiths have certainly produced extremists who either misunderstood or violated God's commands and religious teachings. Their co-religionists need to confront and condemn these violations, and when there is criminal or violent behavior all citizens need to be vigilant regardless of background. To assert that Muslim Americans respond differently from other Americans to evil perpetrated falsely in the name of their religion is demonstrably false, even libelous.

The Talmudic sage Hillel proposes an understanding of Jewish religion that would make clear what is wrong with these hearings. In response to an impertinent questioner who asks for a one sentence answer to the question of what is Judaism he responds "What is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor -- that is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary -- now go and learn it."

With this standard we can look at the framing for the King hearings and ask whether American Christians would tolerate a focus on the Christian community and its response to terroristic violence against individuals and government targets by religiously motivated Christians. Would anybody in the Jewish Community have wanted Congressional hearings to be called to blame the Jewish community for the behavior of the Meyer Lansky's and other Jewish mobsters of his era, or of a Bernie Madoff in ours?

These hearings lead our country down a dark and dangerous path of demonization that threatens all of what America stands for, that which has uniquely allowed us to thrive as a minority here. We need to stand with our Muslim sisters and brothers at this time and oppose this misguided and dangerous path.