THE BLOG
08/02/2010 08:12 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Religious Freedom Doesn't Have a Geographical Contraint

The recent uproar over a mosque/community center being built blocks from the World Trade Center has evoked passionate responses from numerous parties. Many of these voices are from New Yorkers who experienced first hand the horror of 9/11, and still feel the pain of lost loved ones. Unfortunately many of the loudest voices are from politicians not connected to the issue in any way other than a persistent desire to condemn anything that will get them on television. And while I can empathize (albeit disagree) with those who feel that the proximity of said mosque is an affront to the memory of the horrendous acts committed nearly nine years ago, it seems clear that the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has seriously erred in coming out against the building. The principles of equality and religious freedom must not only be brandished for issues we necessarily agree with. We are required to support these principles uniformly so that the misguided will of a majority never supplants the rights of a minority.

The ADL was founded, "to secure justice and fair treatment to all citizens alike and to put an end forever to unjust and unfair discrimination against and ridicule of any sect or body of citizens." How can an organization founded to combat injustice against a minority population not see that trying to stymie construction of a religious (and community) center because the pain is, "too raw, too real," is out of line with their founding principles? I'll say it again, I understand how and why some people might believe this is an unacceptable place for a mosque, but even if those feelings are deeply held - and whipped to frenzy by limelight seeking politicians - we must remain true to our ideals as Americans. Then again, the ADL did try to keep neo-nazis from marching in Skokie, so there is a precedent from the group that some things come before the First Amendment.

Before coming out against the mosque the ADL should have thought about alternate scenarios where the religious center in question was not Islamic, but Jewish, or perhaps Christian? Didn't they ever read Martin Niemöller's First they came ...? Their action is all the more surprising given that they recently chimed into the debate in Arizona, and said, "As a nation of immigrants, we must strive to promote diversity, not punish it." It seems odd that on the one hand they want to promote diversity, while on the other hand saying that it has a limited geographical constraint. In regards to the mosque, it appears to be a situation where the ADL should have heeded my mother's long-standing advice to either say something nice, or don't say anything at all.

Unfortunately the ADL has tossed their hat into the ring with people claiming that the new mosque is an example of, "Islamic Jihad's imperial conquest" and right-wing politicians trying to rile up support prior to an election. William Kristol has argued that because popular opinion is against the mosque, and its creation would, "pit American against American, faith against faith, neighbor against neighbor," it should not be built. (Thank you Bill for an argument that could be straight out of segregationist literature circa 1954.) What happens to these neocons that had been screaming, 'they hate us for our freedoms'; suddenly they aren't so freedom minded when it comes to people with prayer rungs instead of pews.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the ADL's involvement comes from a line in their press release. "... building an Islamic Center in the shadow of the World Trade Center will cause some victims more pain - unnecessarily - and that is not right."

I'll give the ADL credit for issuing a press release that rejects outright bigotry, and positions itself as a protector of the aggrieved of New York. But what is this 'shadow' business? I realize it's not a literal thing, but the broad and imprecise nature of their language leaves me wondering what they would consider too close? If you took the 2.3 mile long shadow that the new 1,776 foot tall World Trade Center will eventually cast (based on the sun at 6:20pm yesterday in NYC), you'd have the length from Ground Zero to 23rd Street! Should there be no mosques below 23rd Street? The suffering and pain that the terrible incidents of 9/11 caused is undeniable, but this Beckish (yes I'm using Mr. Beck as and adjective) frenzy is a very short step off a very steep drop. How can the ADL not see that if they are true to their founding mission statement then they must either support this project in the name of equality, or sit this one out. Mr. Foxman, National Director of the ADL, has argued that their decision was about 'sensitivity', and while I can appreciate that approach, I cannot help but ask if 'sensitivity' supersedes a principled stance on an issue as important as religious freedom? My criticism does not deny Mr. Foxman's highlighted commendable efforts by the ADL in the past, but those do not change the fact that in this instance their stance appears to contradict their organization's stated beliefs.

The game of 'tough on terrorism' that turned this center into a national issue is a nauseous adaptation of the old 'tough on crime' routine that's plagued us since Len Bias died in 1986. Thankfully just this last week the 100-1 disparity against crack-cocaine that emerged as a result of his death has begun to be reformed, but I certainly hope that the ADL doesn't take nearly 25 years to realize that there are principles greater than those dictated by the passionate, the intolerant, and the aggrieved. Please ADL, you've done good before and will do so again, but you need to 'refudiate' your stance on this one.