09/08/2010 06:30 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Math and Aftermath of Ground Zero

After criticizing the ADL's opposition to Cordoba House, Eboo Patel received a phone call from its director Abe Foxman, inviting him to join forces with the powerful organization. Will I get a phone call as well from Abe Foxman?

What is the distance between point A and point B such that the freedom of religion and sensitivity to the families of the victims of 9/11 are optimally balanced?

Point A is Ground Zero. Point B is Cordoba House, a mosque and Muslim community center. Today, Point B is planned to be constructed within two blocks from Point A.

Textbooks have different variations of that problem. As I can't solve them all, I follow the version of the Anti-Defamation League in their official statement.

Freedom of religion is a cornerstone of the American democracy, and that freedom must include the right of all Americans -- Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and other faiths -- to build community centers and houses of worship.

That's easy. We're in favor of freedom of religion, hence Cordoba House can be as close as possible to Ground Zero.

Of course, as in any maximization problem, you'd find a "however," to be followed by:

there are understandably strong passions and keen sensitivities surrounding the World Trade Center site ... and especially the anguish of the families and friends of those who were killed on September 11, 2001.

The sensitivity consideration tells us to distance point B from point A.

In well-behaved maximization problems, the solution is usually a compromise of sort. The parties meet halfway. I explored the map of Manhattan: Cordoba House should be located halfway between Ground Zero and the ADL national headquarters in the United Nations Plaza -- probably somewhere in Chelsea.

Indeed, the ADL advises:

Therefore, under these unique circumstances, we believe the City of New York would be better served if an alternative location could be found.

But how did they reach that conclusion from the premises?

The key to the riddle was unveiled near the bottom of the statement:

But ultimately this is not a question of rights, but a question of what is right. In our judgment, building an Islamic Center in the shadow of the World Trade Center will cause some victims more pain -- unnecessarily -- and that is not right.

The ADL prioritizes "what is right" over "a question of rights."

I closed my math books in despair. They will not tell me when "the question of rights" is too disturbing to be overruled.

I tried to look for guidance from the ADL to be able to learn from their experience in how to discern when "what is right" comes before "a question of rights."

In January 20, the ADL released a statement after a synagogue in Greece was attacked twice. Abraham Foxman, ADL national director, said:

The political and law enforcement responses to this anti-Semitic crime on the Jewish Sabbath must be unequivocal and assure Greek Jews that their rights will be protected. Should the government fail to act, it will send a message that attacks against the Jewish community are acceptable and will not be taken seriously.

He added:

We express solidarity with the Jewish community of Crete and to the Greek Jewish community, and echo the concerns of Moses Constantinis, President of the Central Board, who said: "We are worried about the security of the Jewish community and the violation of freedom of religion".

So perhaps I've been misreading the Cordoba problem entirely. The ADL's concern is not primarily the surrounding community but rather the community within Cordoba House. Indeed, ADL has consistently voiced its concern for the safety of mosques. The last statement was made on April 14, after a West Bank mosque was vandalized.

We are outraged by the vandalism at the mosque in Hawara. We join with Israeli officials in condemning this act of hate. We continue to be greatly concerned that these violent acts are believed to be perpetrated by Israeli Jewish extremists. It should be clear that violence and hate are unacceptable ways to express political opposition.

I'm not competent in political calculus, I guess. I should give up. I'm in no position to judge the sensitivity and evaluate the pain the families of the victims of 9/11. After all, I was not in New York on that horrid day, but thousands of miles away. When a friend called me with the news that a plane crashed into the World Trade Center, I was standing near the Western Wall in Jerusalem. I was an officer in the Israeli army then, and participated that day in a seminar that I initiated, which offered religious education to interested soldiers. On the bus from Jerusalem to our ending point in Tel Aviv, we heard about the second plane crashing into the Twins. A fellow soldier said, in a bitter content, that now the Americans would know what it feels like to live with terrorism.

Almost ten years afterwards that statement is part of my memory of 9/11. It was a stupid, childish expression, that wouldn't have likely be maintained after that soldier watched TV that evening. But it taught me a lesson about the limitations and importance of understanding the pain of the other.

And this is where the ADL and I differ. They recommend a distance -- "the controversy which has emerged regarding the building of an Islamic Center at this location is counterproductive to the healing process" -- while I'm so naive to believe that the healing process rather requires bringing two points together.