Jonathan Greenblatt apologized. My opposition to the Islamic center remains.


By Gerard Leval

On Sept.4, Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, issued an unexpected apology for the ADL’s opposition in 2010 to the construction of an Islamic Center near Ground Zero of the 9/11 attack in New York. It is, frankly, surprising that, just as we are passing the 20th anniversary of the destruction of the World Trade Center Towers by Muslim extremists, Greenblatt has chosen to apologize for a position that was entirely understandable at the time and remains so today. If the ADL, in whose name he articulated his apology, has actually changed positions, then an explanation would have been appropriate, but an apology seems misplaced and mistimed.

I expressed my own objection to the Ground Zero Islamic Center in an essay in 2010. I stand by my position and do not apologize for the views I expressed in that essay. Indeed, I offer an abbreviated version of that essay today in reaction to Greenblatt’s apology:

Aug. 29, 2010
The Ground Zero Islamic Center controversy has been particularly problematic for the Jewish community. Throughout the ages, no community has suffered more from prohibitions on the right to construct places of worship than Jews. Any attempt to prevent religious people from having the right to worship as they see fit resonates within our community as few issues do.

The natural instinct of the Jewish community, therefore, is to make certain that all religions have the absolute right to be free to engage in their religious activities and to build places of worship as they see fit.

Yet, I have not been prepared to accept the absolute right of a Muslim imam to build his Islamic center so near to the site of the great catastrophe of Sept. 11, 2001.

As a Jew who grew up in post-World War II Paris, and whose family suffered extensively during the war, I hold deeply-seated views about the role of government in its dealings with religious groups. I am a strong advocate of the First Amendment and of the right of all to practice their religion as they determine.

But, early on, I recognized that a part of my negative feelings regarding the placement of the Islamic Center arose from the concern that its construction may not have been entirely religiously motivated, that it may have been intended by some to convey an impression of Muslim triumphalism. Undoubtedly, a good portion of my resistance to the idea of the Islamic Center in that location also had something to do with the virulent opposition of many Muslim Arab states to Israel.

My unrequited sense that the construction of this center was inappropriate has also led me to focus on something quite different: my own unwillingness to travel to Germany and to purchase German manufactured goods — an unwillingness that has been with me throughout my adulthood. This self-imposed travel restriction and purchasing standard results directly from the Holocaust and my personal ties to that event — my grandparents, great-grandparents and other relatives perished in the Holocaust.

Even though the murders of my family members occurred over 60 years ago, I have felt and continue to feel the need to maintain a distance between myself and the homeland of the perpetrators of those heinous acts.

Obviously, I am well aware that not all Germans participated or acquiesced in the events of the Holocaust (indeed, it could fairly be argued that only a very small minority of Germans supported the attempted destruction of the Jewish community of Europe). Yet, in my mind the predominant role of Germany and German fervor in unleashing the Holocaust has forever intricately bound the German nation and its citizens with the horrendous acts of the Holocaust. I, and many in my generation, have needed to create space between ourselves and the locale that nurtured and inspired the perpetrators.

As a general proposition, people who have been victimized, even indirectly, simply may need to create and preserve, for an indefinite period of time, a distance from the perceived source of the crime that caused the victimization.

Our nation and, more specifically, residents of New York City and those who lost family and friends in the attacks of 9/11 are now experiencing the need for distance from the source of the pain of those events (and it is no more possible to deny that the attacks were perpetrated in the name of Islam, even though few Muslims were involved, than it is possible to deny the role of the German nation in the crimes of the Holocaust, even though only some Germans were involved). This is not to say that all Muslims are responsible for the events of 9/11. It is only to say that there is a need to allow those who suffered from the attacks (which includes both those who suffered directly and the many Americans who have suffered only indirectly and vicariously) to have a zone of psychological protection from the actual or announced source of the philosophy that provided an impetus for the attacks.

Hopefully, the members of the Muslim group seeking to build the center can recognize this perspective and can accept the importance of not exercising their legally protected right to build near Ground Zero. Perhaps, they will choose rather to respect the time and space that many Americans, including members of the Jewish community, seem to need in light of the terrible events of 9/11.

Gerard Leval is a partner in a Washington law firm.

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