The Anti-Defamation League has opposed the construction of a $100-million Islamic community center, including a prayer room, two blocks from ground zero in Manhattan. The L.A.-based Simon Wiesenthal Center has taken the position that families of the nearly 3,000 victims of the 9/11 attacks should be allowed to decide whether the center should be built near “the greatest killing grounds in American history,” because they suffered most directly from the Al Qaeda strike. Understandably, this is a difficult issue for Jewish organizations committed to the memory of the Holocaust, but their positions do not serve the causes of tolerance and anti-discrimination for which both groups claim to stand.
This page has supported construction of the center, whose name, Cordoba House, is taken from the Spanish city that stood for interfaith tolerance in the Middle Ages and whose stated mission is “promoting positive interaction between the Muslim world and the West.” ADL leader Abraham H. Foxman and Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Wiesenthal Center, however, argue that building an Islamic center so close to ground zero would be insensitive to the victims of violence committed in the name of Islam. “If after World War II, the German government had created a German cultural center across the street from Auschwitz, it would have been vehemently opposed by families of victims because it would be too much to bear,” Wiesenthal told The Times. But the examples are not parallel. The Nazi government of Germany carried out the Holocaust. The 9/11 attacks were committed by religious fanatics with a political agenda; not all Muslims were complicit, nor should they be held responsible as a group for the atrocities.
Certainly the victims’ families — Christians, Jews and Muslims alike — should be heard and their feelings considered, but theirs are not the only voices to be taken into account. America has an interest in religious freedom, in fighting bigotry of all kinds and in seeking relationships with adherents of Islam who are committed to peace and interfaith dialogue, as the group behind the center appears to be. The center, which has been denigrated as the “ground zero mosque,” would include an auditorium, art exhibition space and bookstore, all of which present opportunities for interfaith discussions and activities.
Finally, the Wiesenthal Center should take care not to be seen as hypocritical for opposing an Islamic community center on grounds of insensitivity while moving forward with the construction of a deeply controversial new Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem, located on an old Islamic burial ground. Sensitivity, like opposition to bigotry, must run both ways.