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RHR2010: Breakfast Briefing: Park51 + The Crisis of Islamophobia

I'm blogging from Human Rights Under Fire: A Jewish Call to Action, Rabbis for Human Rights - North America's third conference on Judaism and human rights.

I co-led shacharit this morning with Rabbi Oren Postrel (thanks, Oren!), so I arrived a bit breathless to the Breakfast Briefing: Park51 + The Crisis of Islamophobia. The session featured Rabbi Joy Levitt, The Jewish Community Center in Manhattan; Reverend Chloe Breyer, Interfaith Center of New York; Daisy Khan, American Society for Muslim Advancement; and Rabbi Gerry Serotta, Clergy Beyond Borders.

Rabbi Gerry Serotta begins by talking about the history of Jews in Cordoba (which I wrote about at some length a while ago) and reminds us that the right to gather and worship and think is not only a civil right but also a human right. He reads us excerpts from the international declaration of human rights and argues that those who are acting to prevent the Park 51 project are acting against article 30 in that declaration.

"When I came to America at the age of sixteen I landed in a Jewish neighborhood," says Daisy Khan. She lived there for seven years; she babysat neighborhood kids; she learned, she says, how to make tunafish the Jewish way and she knows a good rugelach from a bad one! (The room laughs.)

My worldview has been shaped by my childhood, where I grew up in Kashmir, India, where I was living a multireligious life. My teachers were Hindu, I was sent to Catholic school, I played with Sikh girls... and we were always told we were from the tenth lost tribe of Israel. So I am honored to have had that kind of worldview at a very young age, and this is why I am committed to interfaith dialogue and to the commonalities that all religions share.

Voices of moderation and tolerance, she tells us, have recently come under assault. "As the plans for the proposed community center sparked Islamophobia around the nation, we found ourselves squarely at the center of a heated debate," she says. "We hope that our message resonates with your own experience of struggling for justice." Many Jewish leaders have said to the Park 51 organizers, "this has happened to us; this has happened to Catholics; it is just a moment, and this too will pass." We can reclaim our vision from the detractors and help it come to fruition, she says; "we call on you, and all like-minded people, to help us to safeguard and preserve religious freedom, especially in this very precious country."

"Our vision came at a time when the American public is struggling to come to terms with a post-9/11 American Muslim experience." The US is at war with two Muslim countries, and it is an imperative to understand and relate to Muslims in this country, she says; and understanding is at the heart of the work the Cordoba Initiative wants to do. The American community will benefit from the diverse Muslim community, as it has benefited from the diverse Jewish community! "There is not a nation which is not represented here [in the American Muslim community]."

America has a choice: we can embrace religious tolerance, which is our country's legacy, or we can embrace extremism. She challenges us to put differences aside and to work to build a shared future. "The pressure of responding to an onslaught of new, more vicious attacks could have drained us -- had it not been for our supporters," and she counts Jews among them. She mentions the Stop the Islamization of America movement (and asks, "can you imagine a 'Stop the Jewification of America' movement?!"), the claims that Park 51's intention is to bring shari'a law to America, the voices yelling about worshipping Islam's monkey-God. But the critics, she says, are misguided -- though their anti-Muslim sentiments have become nationalized. "Their efforts have forced us to become formidable social justice organizers," Khan tells us.

"We believe that we have now emerged as a force to alienate the extremists and to give rise and to invite the moderates and progressives of all religions to rise up against the tiny fractions of the minority extremists who wreak havoc on our communities." We couldn't have done this, she says, without your support -- without the support of hundreds of rabbis and ministers and faith-leaders. "You understood our pain," she says; "you have fought for acceptance before us." She thanks the countless conscientious Americans who came to their aid. She thanks the mayor; she thanks the 9/11 families who have rallied around them to help bring healing to the country. She thanks the press; she thanks the law enforcement professionals who trained them on staying safe.

"On a personal note, I actually feel blessed to have gone through this affliction; I have emerged stronger, more committed to the values of American religious freedom and American pluralism, and I know that with certain experiences also come wisdom. I am blessed to have gone through this experience," she repeats. And then she reads us a poem which has long hung over her desk, which begins, "I asked for love, and God gave me people to help..."

Our next speaker is Reverend Chloe Breyer, who tells us that Rabbis for Human Rights has been a beacon of hope in dark times. She wants to speak with us about the right of religious freedom -- "the ability to know us as more than material beings, but as individuals who have a God-given right to experience human flourishing." Looking back at the past year, she sees that this has been impinged-upon in her own city.

She talks about how St. Patrick's, the first Roman Catholic cathedral in the city, was threatened by "anti-Papist mobs who came regularly and offered a real physical threat" because they had heard demagogues and religious leaders saying inflammatory things. Roman Catholicism, those demagogues said, was not really a religion; it was a political entity, and its adherents were loyal to a foreign power which was antithetical to our Constitutional values. "Does that sound familiar?" she asks rhetorically. (Here's an essay she wrote on this subject with her colleague Matthew Weiner: The Faithful Search: A Civics Primer for Real Patriots.)

The anti-Islamic backlash which has been experienced around the country is somthing which hadn't been experienced before. There's been a crossing of the line, with the help of a few bloggers, into outright anti-Islamic sentiment. In Staten Island, the burgeoning Muslim community had been hoping to purchase a building to create a mosque, but when a few people showed up preaching fear at a community meeting, those plans were scuttled. "It just takes good institutions doing nothing, sometimes, to perpetuate a very difficult and violent situation," Breyer tells us. Our institutions may need to act in a less risk-averse way in order to preserve our religious freedoms.

We have responsibilities to give back to our communities. De Toqueville wrote about this; so did Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone. "This is a privilege," Breyer says, "and we need to extend it to everyone in our society." The mission of Park 51, to come from a Muslim standpoint but in the model of the JCC and YMCA aims to serve the wider community, has been lost in the public discourse. "From our vantage point at the Interfaith Center of New York, we've been able to see up close the ways in which Muslim New Yorkers are serving their community, and have been for so long," she says. The silver lining of this summer's awful Islamophobia is that it gives us an opportunity to get the word out about the wonderful work that so many Muslims are already doing in their communities around the USA.

The third panelist is Rabbi Joy Levitt. "Daisy and her colleagues came to us about 5 years ago; said, we're building an MCC, we'd like to know how to do it," she recounts. (Leavitt runs the Jewish Community Center of New York.) For ten years, they'd been using other people's spaces, and had only recently moved into their own building -- so their advice for the Park 51 folks was mostly about owning a building and the challenges thereof! "The JCC seems to have managed to hold disparate parts of the community together under one roof," Levitt remembers Khan saying; "how do you do it?" And Levit tells us that she wanted to talk about practical issues, like strollers. They talked for some years; and nowhere in that process of conversation did anyone imagine the kind of backlash, "the fear, ignorance, and xenophobia" amplified by the 24/7 news cycle, which would be sparked when Park 51 began to come into being.

Levit chastises the media for perpetuating the ugly conversation. She has come to fear that the fear and ignorance may be more widespreadthan she would have imagined. With the notable exception of the mayor, she thinks every leader in the country gets a failing grade on moral courage. "It seems sad to exalt our mayor for doing his job," she says, but that's where we're at. (Mayor Bloomberg's Statement of Support for Cordoba House.)

"My people: this was not our finest moment as a community," Levit says to us. Though Khan thanked us repeatedly, "the fact is that prominent Jewish leaders made this a more complicated story than it needed to be, tarnishing the name of good organizations which can generally be counted-on to speak out against prejudice." (I'm guessing she's talking about the ADL; see A shameful blow to interreligious coexistence in New York.) "Fear and ignorance are out there, and they exist in the Jewish community," Levit says. Our leaders didn't create this fear and ignorance, but they hve authorized its expression, and we should know better.

She praises UJA/Federation for trying to move us in the right place, but on the whole, she says, there wasn't enough noise coming from the mainstream Jewish community. Our community should have been "loud and clear on this," she says. She tells us about meeting with a prominent community member in this city who argued that Islam is not a religion and that because there are Muslims who kill Jews, perhaps American Muslims don't deserve the constitutional right to practice their religion. (I'm horrified.) She tells us about the hate mail she's received, and advises all of us to make sure that we log every piece of hate mail that we get and every nasty phone call that we get. "It was uglier than anything I had seen before, and the tenor of it was deeply disturbing."

(I can confirm that every time I write about Islam, and often when I write about Israel, I get truly vitriolic hate mail from a small number of people. This is the reason why I hand-moderate all comments on this blog -- I don't want that kind of language to appear here, ever.)

Cordoba House had been a partner of the JCC for five years. "At the end of the day, I'm not aware of a single member who left or a single donor who walked" when Levit went public in the New York Times about her support for Cordoba House. (I think she's talking about For Mosque Sponsors, Early Missteps Fueled Storm.) Indeed: when that Times piece went live, several JCC members called her and thanked her for taking the right stand.

We need to educate people about Islam, Levitt says. We need to educate bar and bat mitzvah kids about Islam -- "we have them captive" during their bnai mitzvah training, she quips, and we must educate our kids so that they grow up knowing better! "And those who share our vision of peace and tolerance need to be better allies to us," she says. When Danny Pearl was murdered, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf came to synagogues to speak out about how that act was not congruent with Islam. Our Muslim friends need to keep doing that. "We need better places to talk to one another about what divides us" and what connects us too. "We don't have to agree, but we need opportunities to listen to one another and we need to strengthen the muscles of our community to tolerate our differences."

"We need more courage," Levitt says, citing the story of her father who marched in Selma. That civil rights fight seems clear to us now, but it wasn't clear then; "what it took to move us from lawful bigotry to where we are today was a lot of courage and a lot of sacrifice." And we need leadership, she says -- from our mosques, our churches, our synagogues. We need to be speaking out about the importance of tolerance and religious freedom.