From an August 11th article by Jonathan D. Sarna published on The Jewish Daily Forward’s website:
When New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg stood on Governors Island, in sight of the Statue of Liberty, and forcefully defended the right of Muslims to build a community center and mosque two blocks from Ground Zero, he expressly made a point of distancing himself from an earlier leader of the city: Peter Stuyvesant, who understood the relationship between religion and state altogether differently than Bloomberg does.
As governor of what was then called New Amsterdam, from 1647-1664, Stuyvesant worked to enforce Calvinist orthodoxy. He objected to public worship for Lutherans, fought Catholicism and threatened those who harbored Quakers with fines and imprisonment. One might easily imagine how he would have treated Muslims.
When Jewish refugees arrived in his city, in 1654, Stuyvesant was determined to bar them completely. Jews, he complained, were “deceitful,” “very repugnant” and “hateful enemies and blasphemers of the name of Christ.” He wanted them sent elsewhere.
Stuyvesant’s superiors in Holland overruled him, citing economic and political considerations. He continued, however, to restrict Jews to the practice of their religion “in all quietness” and “within their houses.” Being as suspicious of all Jews as some today are of all Muslims, he never allowed them to build a synagogue of their own.
It was not until the early 1700s that Jews won the right to worship in public in New York City. In Connecticut that right was not granted until 1843, and the reaction of The New Haven Register, which “viewed the synagogue as a public defeat for Christendom,” is instructive:
“The Jews…,” the paper thundered, “have outflanked us here, and effected a footing in the very centre of our own fortress. Strange as it may sound, it is nevertheless true that a Jewish synagogue has been established in this city — and their place of worship (in Grand Street, over the store of Heller and Mandelbaum) was dedicated on Friday afternoon. Yale College divinity deserves a Court-martial for bad generalship.”
It took an act of Congress, signed by President Franklin Pierce, for Jews to be able to worship in public in Washington, DC, where some contended that the Religious Corporation Act granted the right to purchase real estate only to Christian churches; and just in case you think that Jews no longer run into such problems in the United States, Sarna cites a case from 1999 in which “opponents of a new Orthodox synagogue seeking to build in New Rochelle, N.Y. [used] warnings [about] ‘rats,’ ‘traffic’ and ‘creeping commercialization’ [to hide their] real fear, [which was] that ‘the identity of the neighborhood would change.'”
Muslims have been worshiping in public near Ground Zero for three decades. The Cordoba House community center will not, in other words, be bringing something entirely new to the area. Rather, it will provide much needed space for a community that already exists there–not to mention the much needed space it will provide for Muslims and people of other faiths to interact. The similarities between much of the rhetoric being employed to argue against the building of Cordoba House and The New Haven Register’s The Jews have outflanked us ought to disturb us all.
Cross posted on It’s All Connected.