I admire my colleagues and friends who have been courageous enough to speak out against the anti-Islam hysteria that tends to surround conversations about the Islamic center being planned for a property that for many is uncomfortably close to ground zero. They have shown themselves to be paragons of religious tolerance, and for this, I commend them.
But in the general category of that age-old question of "Is this good for the Jews?" we might want to examine the words of the man who is behind the center — Feisal Abdul Rauf, the imam of the Masjid al-Farah. A brief perusal of his 2005 book, What's Right With Islam Is What's Right With America, might prove both instructive and sobering.
What does Rauf believe about Israel? He states that the creation of the State of Israel was an unfortunate by-product of the nation-state idea. Jews, he said, lived completely peacefully in the Muslim world for centuries.
"They looked, spoke and ate — even sang — like the rest of the people around them," he wrote, adding that the creation of Israel jump-started a most unfortunate schism between Jews and Muslims, who had previously experienced "a deeply intimate kinship with each other."
Rauf would have us imagine that life in the Middle East was Woodstock until the creation of the nasty little Israel, which came to ruin everyone's good time. We might rightly wonder aloud whether the historic dhimmi status of the Jew in Muslim cultures actually implies the deep intimacy that Rauf imagines. And a subtle but telling point: Is the nation-state as a concept to be condemned (an arguable point), or only if that nation-state happens to be Jewish?
In his imagined history of the Middle East, Rauf writes that because of the Arab-Israeli conflict, Sephardic Jews became "unfortunately victimized" in many Muslim societies. The worst thing about this, he writes, is that it deprived those societies of their rich, deep pluralism.
Rauf lists notable dates in Islamic history — among them 1924, when the Ottoman Caliphate ended; 1947, when India was split into Pakistan and India; and 1948, when Israel was "created as a homogenous Jewish nation-state within the geographical envelope of the Muslim world."
Rauf acknowledges that a number of conflicts exist today in the Muslim world, but he drastically understates those numbers. And he clearly believes that America is at the root of the problem in the Mideast — and not, for example, the fact that Arab leaders themselves cheated the Palestinians out of their land, as Ephraim Karsh argues in his book, Palestine Betrayed.
For the record: I believe that a Palestinian state is necessary — not out of any sentimental admiration of Palestinian nationalism, but because of a belief in Zionism, the idea that we might truly be "a free people in our land," a people free to continue to craft our own national narrative, complete with our national values.
Is there room for that narrative in Rauf's worldview?
On Sept. 12, 2001, I heard the baristas at the Starbucks in Manhasset, N.Y., whispering about the cars that remained overnight in the railroad-station parking lot — cars that would never be claimed because their drivers had disappeared. Since that moment, I have worked at combating Islamophobia and criticizing those who are ready to brand all manifestations of Islam as a dangerous religion and a terrorist operation. Maimonides, a victim of Muslim radicalism, had every reason to hate Islam — and yet didn't.
But if Rauf is the religious leader of the controversial mosque, then you might understand why Jews are permitted to worry. This says nothing about the rights of that institution to exist. It says nothing about privileging the feelings of the bereaved families of Sept. 11 over other American values of pluralism, which itself is debatable.
But we should not expect a "kumbaya-fest" with this gentleman. I would rejoice at the possibility that I am wrong. I would rejoice in hearing, from his lips, an affirmation of the right of the Jewish state to exist, even in what he believes to be his Middle Eastern 'hood.
And so, I would hope that as the board of the Islamic center starts to prepare the guest list for the inevitable opening event that they might invite Israel's ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, to speak.
Now that would be a grand gesture that would help many Jews — and many Americans — sleep better at night.
Jeffrey K. Salkin is the rabbi of Temple Israel in Columbus, Ga., and the president of Kol Echad: Making Judaism Matter. He is also the editor of A Dream of Zion: American Jews Reflect on Why Israel Matters to Them.