I first read about the ADL’s statement supporting those who would stop the building of Cordoba House, a Muslim community center modeled on the YM/YWHA’s and CA’s you can find all over New York City over at The Debate Link. In reading the statement, I was struck by these two paragraphs:
However, there are understandably strong passions and keen sensitivities surrounding the World Trade Center site. We are ever mindful of the tragedy which befell our nation there, the pain we all still feel – and especially the anguish of the families and friends of those who were killed on September 11, 2001.
The controversy which has emerged regarding the building of an Islamic Center at this location is counterproductive to the healing process. Therefore, under these unique circumstances, we believe the City of New York would be better served if an alternative location could be found.
These words raise, of course, the obvious question: Suppose the building at stake were a Jewish community center and suppose the people opposed it were doing so out of “strong passions and keen sensitivities” that were analogous to what the people who oppose the Cordoba House feel, would the ADL argue that such a building in a such a place was “counterproductive to the healing process” and urge that the center be built elsewhere? More than that, though, I found myself wondering about whose feelings the ADL is being so considerate of here. As Michael Barbaro wrote on July 30th in an article on The New York Times website–the article was on the front page of the July 31st edition of the paper–attributing the point to Oz Sultan, Cordoba House’s programming director, “He said that Muslims had also died on Sept. 11, either because they worked in the twin towers, or responded to the scene.”
Sultan was responding to a statement made by Abraham Foxman, ADL’s national director, to the effect that the people whose feelings his organization feels ought not to be hurt by the building of center at its current location are the families of those who died in the September 11th attacks. Mr. Sultan’s response, of course, is precisely to the point, and I don’t think there isn’t much else to add to that. I do find Foxman’s reasoning, at least as it is quoted in Barbaro’s article, profoundly troubling, though:
Asked why the opposition of the [September 11th victims’] families was so pivotal in the decision, Mr. Foxman, a Holocaust survivor, said they were entitled to their emotions.
“Survivors of the Holocaust are entitled to feelings that are irrational,” he said. Referring to the loved ones of Sept. 11 victims, he said, “Their anguish entitles them to positions that others would categorize as irrational or bigoted.”
It’s hard for me to know where to begin taking this apart. First, though, let me say that I do think Foxman is right about this: people who have been through trauma are entitled to their feelings about things that may force them to return to or relive that trauma, and even when those feelings are irrational, the validity of the feelings themselves should not be questioned, even when those feelings can reasonably be categorized as “bigoted.” The rest of us, however, should not be held hostage to the legitimacy of those feelings. More, precisely because those feelings can be reasonably categorized as bigoted, deferring to them in matters of public policy and discourse can end up perpetuating that bigotry in concrete ways. Witness the ADL’s statement which, even granting the most generous possible reading–and I am not sure what that would be–marginalizes Muslims simply for being Muslim.
Even more than that, though, I think it is cynical beyond belief for Foxman to enlist the moral authority that inevitably attaches to mention of Holocaust survivors, especially because he is himself a survivor, to justify the ADL’s position. It is insulting of my intelligence; trivializing of the Holocaust; it renders Muslims invisible on all kinds of levels by equating the September 11th victims’ families with the Jews; and it is, fundamentally, more about guilt-tripping the people who want to build the Cordoba House and their supporters than it is about a search for healing and that can be nothing but, to use Foxman’s own word, counterproductive.
I have not been following the Cordoba House issue very closely and so I have not read much about the questions that have been raised about some of the sources for its funding, but I would like to say this: even if it turned out that Cordoba House were being funded with money that could be tied back to the same people who perpetrated the September 11th attacks, [ETA in response to Robert’s comment below: the fact of that funding would be the reason to prevent the building of the Cordoba House anywhere; the fact of that funding] would still not justify the ADL’s position. I hope that those questions about funding, if they have been legitimately raised, are resolved positively and that the Cordoba House gets built. The controversy surrounding it convinces me that we really, really need it.
Cross posted on It’s All Connected.