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First test in the new year: Thoughts on Park51

Published: September 17, 2010
Section: Opinions


Sitting in Spingold Theater these past couple of days, I commemorated yet another year of observing Rosh Hashanah as a student at Brandeis. However, it was not only the birth date of the world that my fellow doveners and I were contemplating, but also the ninth anniversary of the September 11th attacks that coincide this year with our extended weekend. In the past, I would take this occasion to remember how our country did not break in the face of a malicious act by an enemy who doubted our resolve. Instead, I am deeply perturbed by the fact that September 11, 2010 has been plagued by an undercurrent of intolerance that jeopardizes the very foundations upon which our nation was able to thrive. I am speaking, of course, about the Islamophobia pervading the discourse surrounding the proposed building of the Park51 Islamic Community Center two blocks from Ground Zero in New York.

If “justice and liberty” are what we pursue, and if “out of many, one” is truly our credo, then why are American Muslims being condemned and Islam demonized for the acts of a small group of extremists on the other side of the world? If paying tribute to the victims of 9/11 should be the deciding factor in whether or not to build the Community Center, then how is proving that the Osama bin Ladens of the world are right about our “crusade against Islam” executing justice? When a reverend in Florida announced he was going to burn Qur’ans in protest of Park51, suddenly people expressed fits of indignation. I was not impressed. To them, I inquire, “What did you expect in a society whose complacency to intolerance emboldened bigots to attempt to hijack certain Americans’ religious freedoms in the name of so-called ‘honoring our fallen heroes?’”

Additionally, the Islalophobia parasite that the Park51 controversy exposed irks me in another realm. As the campus president of J Street U, a movement that promotes strong American engagement in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, I am particularly concerned with how anti-Muslim sentiment in our country will undermine America’s credibility as the conflict’s chief mediator. How will we be able to earnestly champion coexistence between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East if we leave xenophobia to fester in our own backyard? Already we have witnessed public outcry in the Arab world over our lack of objectivity in the negotiations. Deepening the fissure between America and Muslims abroad will only precipitate more mistrust of the peace process, inhibiting Palestinian leaders and consequently Israeli politicians from taking bold steps in the pursuit of peace.

Whether or not Qur’ans will be burnt or the Park51 Community Center will be constructed in the near future, it is incumbent upon Brandeis students to take a stand against this anti-Muslim trend. To this end, J Street U and other clubs on campus and around the country will be collecting signatures for a letter affirming our support for religious freedom for all Americans, especially considering many of us come from Jewish extraction, whose people are all too familiar with the yoke of religious persecution. Knowing Brandeis’ culture of defending civil rights, it is my hope that these well-signed letters will rouse obdurate politicians and heads of religious organizations to finally speak out against Islamophobia and banish its rhetoric to the margins of political discourse.

As I finished my silent prayer during Musaf and skipped to the “Reflections” section in English, my eye fell upon a peculiar paragraph that appertained all too well to the topic in question. “‘Love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord’ (Leviticus 19:18). There is a Hassidic interpretation of the last words of this verse: ‘I am the Lord.’…He who loves brings God and the world together” (Mahzor, The Rabbinical Assembly). As we begin the year 5771, it is clear that we are being faced with our first test over how to respond to a new strain of racism in our midst. Shall we remain apathetic as this intolerance menaces to tear the moral fabric of our society apart, or shall we make a genuine effort to confront it, and begin to mend the rifts between our brethren that keep our world divided?