In The New Republic, Yossi Klein Halevi has a heartfelt letter addressed to “his friend” Imam Rauf. The objective behind the letter is twofold: first, to establish that he does consider Rauf to be an important figure in interfaith dialogue (“If you are not a worthy dialogue partner for the Jewish community, then there is almost no one in Islam with whom we can speak.”), and second, to urge the Imam to change the plans for the Park 51 center. Instead of turning it into a Muslim community center:
Instead, I urge you to consider turning the site into a center for interfaith encounter. Build the mosque—but do so together with a church and a synagogue and a center for common reflection for all three faiths and for those with no faith. Do this, Imam Feisal, not to surrender to your critics but to honor their pain, and, in the process, to honor Islam.
In the abstract, such a center would be a wonderful idea. Is it “better” (from the standpoint of interfaith healing? From the a general social utility view?) than the current blueprints? It’s hard to say, though I suspect that, under whatever standard that labels such a center superior to Park 51, that same center would be a “better” usage for nearly any parcel of land publicly or privately developed in New York City (those strip clubs spring immediately to mind). And I maintain that, if the purpose of the community center is to serve the Muslim community in Southern Manhattan, it kind of misses the point to relocate the center to
the other end of the borough Staten Island Queens.
But even if such an idea was meritorious, it can’t happen anymore. The stakes have changed. We’ve moved beyond that.
One of the more ridiculous memes surrounding the Park 51 center is that it constitutes a “victory Mosque”. The center organizers certainly never cast it that way, so we’re forced to speculate that Islamists world-wide are slapping high-fives over the creation of a Islamic center headed by a man who has said he is a “supporter of Israel”, and who gave such a stirring sermon on the occasion of Daniel Pearls brutal murder by those same Islamic extremists. The “victory Mosque” supposition stretches beyond implausible — it is the stuff of pure paranoid bigoted fantasy.
On the other hand, we need no speculation to know who would claim victory at forcing the abandonment of the Park 51 plan. Changing the Park 51 plans — moving it one inch, changing its mandate one iota — would hand a victory to Pam Geller and her crowd of fascists who are responsible for ginning up this controversy and have never minced any bones about their objectives. They absolutely would declare victory. And they’d be right.
This is why, even granting the most “nuanced” interpretation of their position on this controversy, I still find the ADL’s stance to be an outrageous capitulation of their core agenda. The arguments being put forth by Pam Geller and her bandmates represent a dire threat to the entire American constitutional vision. Their principles are toxic to the ideals of religious liberty that the ADL had sworn to protect. That was the critical issue that the Park 51 controversy raised. Everything else is a sideshow. The ADL either didn’t recognize that, or it didn’t have its priorities in order. Either way, it’s no longer worth the time of folks genuinely concerned with preserving freedom in this nation.
America has seen these moments before. We had the Know-Nothings. We had Father Coughlin. We had the John Birch Society. All of these repellent groups counted hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of Americans, among their adherents. But that did not render these movements American, and ultimately, we the people were faced with a choice. To affirm American values of religious freedom, of pluralism, of tolerance; or to cede ground to the nativists, the ultra-nationalists, the reactionary purveyors of hatred. Today, we have Pam Geller. She is a representative of an ancient evil, one that slumbers but seemingly is never killed. And we have that same choice faced by our predecessors. The time for clever midway solutions is over. You’re either on the side of American values, or you’re with Pam Geller. No more middle ground.