Collective responsibility. One of the most accomplished Jewish terrorists of our time, Baruch Goldstein, came from the Jewish universe in which I was raised. When he committed his crime, there were a few former and present citizens of that universe, a revered rabbi of mine among them, who demanded a stringent communal introspection; but the critics were denounced as slanderers who tarred all of religious Zionism, or all of “Modern Orthodox” Judaism, or all of Judaism, with the same treasonous brush. The killer, we were angrily instructed, was an aberration, and any generalization from his action was an unwarranted imputation of collective responsibility. I disagreed. Baruch Goldstein murdered in the name of Judaism, with an interpretation of Judaism, from a social and intellectual position within Judaism. The same was later true of Yigal Amir. They did not represent the entirety of Judaism, or of the Jewish institutions that formed them—but the massacre in Hebron and the assassination in Tel Aviv were among their effects. If the standpoint of broadly collective responsibility was the wrong way to explain the atrocities, so too was the standpoint of purely individual responsibility. There were currents of culture behind the killers. Their ideas were not only their own. I am reminded of those complications when I hear that Islam is a religion of peace. I have no quarrel with the construction of Cordoba House, but not because Islam is a religion of peace. It is not. Like Christianity and like Judaism, Islam is a religion of peace and a religion of war. All the religions have all the tendencies within them, and in varying historical circumstances varying beliefs and practices have come to the fore. It is absurd to describe the perpetrators of September 11 as “murderers calling themselves Muslims,” as Karen Hughes recently did. They did not call themselves Muslims. They were Muslims. America was not attacked by Islam, but it was also not attacked by Jainism. Mohammed Atta and his band (as well as the growing number of “homegrown” Islamist killers and plotters) represent a real and burgeoning development within Islam, an actualization of one of Islam’s possibilities, an indigenous transnational movement of apocalyptic violence that has brought misery to Muslim societies, and to us. It is not Islamophobic to say so. Quite the contrary: it is to side with Muslims who are struggling against the same poison as we are. Apologetic definitions of Islam will not avail anybody in this struggle.
Sacred space. Nationalism has always arrogated to itself a hallowing power, and the sanctification of Ground Zero is the natural expression of the memory of a nation. But this is a secular sanctity. I see no justification for establishing a mosque, a church, or a synagogue at Ground Zero, even though Muslims, Christians, and Jews died there. (Irreligious people also died there.) Yet nobody is proposing to establish a mosque at Ground Zero. Sacralization is an act of demarcation: its force is owed to its precision. Outside the line is outside the line. Park Place is outside the line, in the “profane” realm. Or has the right finally found a penumbra in which it can believe? On September 13, 2001, a construction worker at Ground Zero discovered two large steel beams in the shape of a cross. Given the design of the towers, the likelihood of such perpendicularity was high—when I visited the unimaginable place a short while later there were smoldering right angles everywhere—but the discovery of this cross was deemed a miracle, and it was raised on a concrete base, and there was talk of incorporating it into the memorial at the site. (It now stands a block away, at a church on Barclay Street.) I was always discomfited by the sight of it. Christianity was not attacked on September 11. America was attacked. They are not the same thing. The image of the Ground Zero cross now appears in TV ads excoriating the “Ground Zero mosque.” The people behind those ads do not deplore a religious war, they welcome one.
Insensitivities. There are families of the victims who oppose Cordoba House and there are families of the victims who support it. Every side in this debate can invoke the authority of the pain. But how much authority should it have? I do not see that sentiment about the families should abrogate considerations of principle. It is odd to see conservatives suddenly espouse the moral superiority of victimhood, as it is odd to see them suddenly find an exception to their expansive view of religious freedom. Everybody has their preferred insensitivities. In matters of principle, moreover, polling is beside the point, or an alibi for the tyranny of the majority, or an invitation to demagogues to make divisiveness into a strategy, so that their targets come to seem like they are the ones standing in the way of social peace, and the “decent” thing is for them to fold. Why doesn’t Rauf just move the mosque? That would bring the ugliness to an end. But why don’t Palin and Gingrich just shut up? That, too, would bring the ugliness to an end. Certainly the diabolization of Rauf, an imam who has publicly recited the Shema as an act of solidarity and argued that the Declaration of Independence “embodies and restates the core values of the Abrahamic, and thus also the Islamic, ethic,” must cease. In a time when an alarming number of Muslims wish to imitate Osama bin Laden, here is a Muslim who wishes to imitate Mordecai Kaplan. Turn away, from him? But he may be replaced at his center by less moderate clerics, it is said. To which I would reply with a list of synagogues whose establishment should be regretted because of the fanatical views of their current leaders. I also hear that there should be no mosque on Park Place until there are churches and synagogues in Saudi Arabia. I get it. Until they are like us, we will be like them.
A night at the J. At the JCC on Q Street a few weeks ago, there was a family night for “kibbutz camp.” As the children sang “Zum Gali Gali,” an old anthem of the Zionist pioneers, I noticed among the jolly parents a Muslim woman swaddled in black. Her child was among those children! Her presence had no bearing on the question of our security, but it was the image of what we are protecting. No American heart could be unmoved by it. So: Cordoba House in New York and a Predator war in Pakistan—graciousness here and viciousness there—this should be our position. For those who come in peace, peace; for those who come in war, war.
Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic. This article ran in the September 23, 2010 issue of the magazine.