08/07/2010 08:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Embodying The Values We Cherish Most

By Rabbi David Saperstein
Religion News Service

(RNS) The most effective response America can give to the 9/11 terrorist attacks is to affirm our nation's core values of freedom and liberty for all--including the religious tolerance, freedom, and equality that the perpetrators so vividly repudiated.

The debate surrounding a planned Muslim community center and mosque, known as Cordoba House, two blocks from ground zero has been plagued by fear, intolerance and politics, reshaping it into something ugly.

The religious community--including the Jewish community, which isn't of one mind on the matter--has a special stake in putting forward this vision.

I am proud that most Jewish organizations have supported the right of this mosque to be built near the site of ground zero. We Jews, as the victims of religious extermination and persecution, know all too well the pain that comes from being told that our community and our houses of worship will be treated differently than others.

The Jewish commitment to the right of Muslims to build at this site reflects the admonition of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. that injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere. If any group can be subject to discrimination, then no religious group is safe.

The minority of opponents, however, should not be lumped together. They range from those who are driven by animus to Islam, to groups like the Anti-Defamation League (who have long been champions of religious liberty and consistent opponents of anti-Muslim bias), to those who oppose the location out of sensitivity to the 9/11 victims and their families.

Indeed, we all must respect the sensitivities of the survivors and the families of victims, but even they have been sharply divided in their views.

However well-intentioned, the opposition of some has been manipulated as a political wedge issue. To be sure, there are growing numbers who seek political gain by stirring up fear about Islam: Tennessee Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey characterized Islam as a cult; a church in Gainesville, Fla., plans to host a Quran burning on the 9/11 anniversary; Sarah Palin and some New York politicians are using Cordoba House to further their political ambitions.

Such critics inflame interfaith tensions and seek to reduce Muslims to the most extreme and violent expressions of Islam. In the process, they inculcate the false impression that this project is a monument to the radicals who attacked us on 9/11.

Accusations also have been made about Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, who heads the Cordoba House project. Rauf has worked to promote interfaith harmony and has collaborated with religious leaders and community members in creating a peaceful society.

It is incumbent on mainstream religious groups to portray this mosque and community center for what it really is: a home for those who seek insight, solace and peace. It is a symbol to the radicals within Islam (and other religions) that they will not be allowed to dictate the policies or values of America.

Cooperation is difficult unless we address each other's fears as well as our respective dreams and aspirations.

Three years ago, the Union for Reform Judaism and the Islamic Society of North America launched a dialogue initiative among local mosques and synagogues called Children of Abraham to help overcome such tensions. Our joint effort has built bridges, spurred cooperative endeavors, strengthened trust and enhanced understanding. Cordoba House creates a national symbol of those same values.

The entire religious community has worked together for 20 years to write and pass laws that enshrine the principle of free exercise of religion, and to ensure the right of EVERY religious community--including Muslims--to locate and build houses of worship where they see fit unless there is a truly compelling reason to prevent it. We do not abandon that right, or that fight, when emotions run high.

Our nation is strengthened by the faith of its citizens and their houses of worship. Cordoba House should rightfully join the countless churches, synagogues, mosques and temples that populate our landscape and enrich the spiritual lives of their congregants--and of our nation.

(Rabbi David Saperstein in the director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington, D.C. He is also a professor of First Amendment/church-state law at Georgetown University Law School.)