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Anger in America — erev Rosh Hashanah

September 08, 2010

Four months ago, I was driving down Broad Street on my way into town, when I noticed the driver in the car to my right trying to get my attention by gesturing at me with rapid hand motions. Once he caught my eye, he momentarily took his hands off the steering wheel and emphatically showed me the gesture of the Audubon Society: he gave me the bird. He was expressing anger about my “Obama” bumper sticker. Since then, something similar has happened on two other occasions, each angry outburst punctuated by a hand gesture with a raised finger indicating the person’s IQ. Welcome to America 2010: land of the outraged.

The terrorist attack on September 11, 2001 – nine years ago this Saturday – and especially the ways that the Bush administration interpreted and used that event, ushered in a combination of fear and anger that have become ingrained in our society. It is said that vengeance is a kind of lazy mourning, and our nation’s grief quickly turned to hatred for anyone defined as ‘the other.’ Our ability to tolerate ambiguity and uncertainty has diminished, replaced by authoritarianism and self-righteousness. There has been a significant shift to the right in the ways we view truth, authority, the meaning of difference, and the value of critical analysis. {1} Intolerance trumps acceptance, and character assassination has drowned out civility. Political dialogue has descended to partisan diatribe, and the ability to respect positions that differ from one’s own has receded like the tide. In Des Moines, Iowa, the North Iowa Tea Party purchased billboard space on which the words ‘Radical Leaders Prey on the Fearful and Naïve’ appeared in large, capital letters. Above that message, under the words ‘National Socialism,’ was a large photograph of Adolph Hitler. On the right, under the words ‘Marxist Socialism,’ was a large photograph of Vladimir Lenin. In the middle, under the words ‘Democratic Socialism’ was an even larger photograph of President Obama. In the eyes of rightwing America, this is the unholy trinity: Hitler, Lenin, Obama.

So toxic has political chatter become that Pew Research Center polls {released on August 19, 2010} show that over the past year and a half {since March 2009} one-out-of-five {18 percent} Americans believe President Obama to be Muslim, and that number is up from 11 percent who believed it when he was inaugurated. He is, in fact, Christian, though the percentage who believe that declined from 48% to 34%. One-out-of- four {27 percent} Americans do not believe that he was born in the United States. This is fueled by the anger of political discord: “The view that the President is a Muslim is highest among his political opponents, with more than a third of conservative Republicans now say[ing] that Obama is a Muslim, nearly double the percentage saying so early last year.” {2} These beliefs are sustained despite incontrovertible evidence to the contrary, and they are becoming more entrenched.

Religion is not immune from intolerance either. There is a rise in fundamentalisms of all sorts, defined by: authoritarian, literalist patterns of belief; a sense of divinely ordained, urgent mission; an intolerance of dissent; and an increased reliance on the vocabulary of the apocalypse. {3}Religious movements have become more self-righteous. The Vatican, besieged by accusations and convictions of priests on charges of pedophilia, has once again lost its moral compass by proclaiming pedophilia to be as reprehensible as is the consideration of ordaining women. The mission of militant Islam is to eradicate infidels, a level of intolerance that is difficult to fathom but too evident to deny. On an admittedly different plane, but still distressing, the Chief Rabbinate in Israel, through the proposed Rotem Conversion Bill, wants to centralize conversion under the Orthodox umbrella to ensure that it alone can sanction what conversions are legitimate.

However, we live at intersecting traditions of faiths informed by other beliefs, and our goal is to choose ways of living that fit with our understanding of the good. Admittedly, defining “the good” is informed by one’s politics, faith, gender, race, ethnicity, social status, citizenship and other variables, but most of us would say that differences of opinion are acceptable unless they advocate an undifferentiated intolerance or blanket discrimination. The recent debate over the site for the construction of the Cordoba Center near ‘ground zero’ of the World Trade Center is a case in point. Modeled after programs offered at New York’s 92nd Street YM-YWHA, it is to be replete with a theater, educational programs, a swimming pool, restaurant, mosque and 9/11 memorial. Yet the name Cordoba – a city in southern Spain that was the capital of an Islamic caliphate in the Middle Ages – has become so odious to many Americans that it is now being referred to as ‘Park51,’ a name so denuded of any reference to the Muslim community center, that it is both startling and depressing.

Opponents raised the emotional stakes of the debate by initially referring to the proposed site as “the Ground Zero mosque” – it is not – “at” the Trade Center, whereas it will be just north of it. Many argue that two blocks is too proximate to the site of our national disaster and grief, but others ask, “How close is too close?” In a New York Times poll released this past Friday {September 3, 2010}, twenty percent of New York City residents said it has to be at least 10 blocks away, and another twenty percent said at least 20 blocks. Seventy-five percent of Republicans are opposed to the center at its intended site, while Democrats are split. How is support and opposition defined along religious lines? Protestants are evenly divided, while most Catholic and Jewish New Yorkers oppose the center.

Some commentators refer to Ground Zero as “holy ground” and perhaps it is, but there is nothing sacred about the area in which Cordoba House is intended to stand. It is a commercial zone that is home to bars, banks, beauty salons, shoe stores, walk-in pizza places and a “gentleman’s club.” There is no doubt that emotions were rubbed raw as the debate intensified, and my heart goes out to relatives and loved ones of those who died on impact, in flames or in the Towers’ meltdown. Some opponents of the community center refer to it as a “victory mosque,” as if its very existence will grant its perpetrators and their enablers a tangible trophy of their horrific deed. The fact is that militant Islam has already claimed its trophies: the destruction of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center; America’s withdrawal from Iraq, leaving the country leaderless and rudderless, a sad reminder of the line that “freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose”; America is reeling in Afghanistan; and we appear to be an eagle shorn of its talons as we threaten Iran in its quest for nuclear capability. On the matter of the mosque, it is not militant Islam that should be our focus, it is moderate Islam. Muslims throughout the world are watching as this story unfolds to see how this nation that sent soldiers to die in Iraq so that Muslims might vote will protect the rights and wishes of Muslims in America who abide by the law. Those whose loved ones died in the Lockerbie bombing of Pan Am flight 103 in 1988, caution against labeling every Muslim with the broad brush of indictment, and worry about deepening the divide that already exists between us and those who many label as “the other.” It is a deep divide indeed: twenty percent of New York City residents acknowledge animosity toward Muslims. All Muslims. Everywhere.

The Anti-Defamation League weighed in with its opposition to the center, to the surprise and consternation of many, including me. When Abraham Foxman, its national director, said that survivors of the Holocaust and families of victims of September 11th are entitled to “positions that others would categorize as irrational or bigoted,” it did not seem to logically conclude that the ADL should be opposed to the center. It would have been better had Foxman acknowledged the depth of pain and anger felt by relatives of those who died, and then expressed the hope that it might be channeled as a rallying cry against hatred. The ADL should have made its support of the center contingent upon a close review of its financial supporters – its developers have said that donations will be vetted by federal and state authorities – and the composition of its board – its developers intend to recruit a board of business and civic leaders who are Christian, Jewish and Muslim. Instead, the ADL opposed it with the status of a national Jewish organization that earned its reputation for standing up against discrimination when far too many people were standing down, but in this instance the ADL capitulated to one of the worst human tendencies: enabling hatred to smother hope.

Tomorrow morning we will read one of our most challenging Torah Portions: the Akedah – ‘the binding of Isaac.’ We do so every Rosh Hashanah to remind ourselves about the pain and separation that families experience and society suffers. However, ‘the binding of Isaac’ is the continuation of an incident in the immediately preceding chapter of Genesis. That theme is about ‘the other.’ Sarah could no longer tolerate the sight of Isaac playing with Ishmael – Isaac, the child of her union with Abraham; Ishmael, the son of Abraham and Hagar – and so Sarah demanded of Abraham, “Banish that slave woman [she could not even say Hagar’s name] and her son, for the son of that slave shall not share in the inheritance with my son, Isaac” {Genesis 21:10}. To his credit, we read that “Abraham was distressed over the [matter]” {Genesis 21:11}, though not enough to lead him to advocate on Ishmael’s behalf. God’s assurance that Abraham should “[do] whatever Sarah tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be continued for you, [and] I will make a nation out of the children of the slave’s son as well, for he is also your seed” {Genesis 21:12} was enough to render Abraham mute. So “early the next morning,” the text informs us, “Abraham put bread in Hagar’s hands and a flask of water on her shoulder, and cast her out, wandering aimlessly in the wilderness of Beersheba. When the water was all gone, she placed the child under a bush, walked away, sat down on the other side at the distance of [the flight of an arrow], thinking, ‘Let me not see the child’s death,’ and she wept grievously” {Genesis 21:14-16}. Then God said to Hagar, “Get up, lift the boy, take him by the hand, for I am going to make of him a great nation…and she saw a well, filled the flask with water and gave it to her son to drink” {Genesis 21:18-19}.

See yourself as Ishmael: curled up in the scant shade that a bush offered from the blazing heat of the day; mouth parched; strength ebbing; absent father; and a grieving mother nowhere to be seen. God told Abraham and Hagar, independent of the other, that Ishmael would be the progenitor of a great nation, but I imagine that was of scant consolation to his parents, who immediately knew that the family, once whole, was now shattered.

In the very next chapter, the Akedah narrative, God said to Abraham, “Take your son, your only one, the one you love, Isaac, to the land of Moriah and offer him there as a burnt-offering” {Genesis 22:2}. Abraham understood the message within the message: ‘Having cast aside one son, only one remains. Having claimed to love each, you will lose both. Having banished Ishmael from your sight, prepare to sever Isaac from your life.’ The reason that we read the Akedah narrative every year at this time is to force ourselves ask these questions: How am I like Abraham? Who do I include? Who do I exclude? Who do I bless? Who do I banish?

This past month, Muslims throughout the world observed Ramadan. It is the most sacred month of the Muslim year: a time when forgiveness is asked for past sins, and purification is sought through the performance of good deeds and self-restraint. Food and drink are prohibited during daylight hours for the entire month, and a significant amount of time is spent in prayer. The Islamic calendar, like the Jewish calendar, is calibrated by the lunar year, and so holy days can shift days or weeks from one year to the other. Last year, erev Rosh Hashanah was a week and a half later than this year. This year, Ramadan commenced on August 11th and will end tomorrow, September 9th. That it is so close to America’s commemoration of September 11th, 2001 is cause for concern to many Muslims who are our fellow citizens, and the sharp debates about the Islamic center and mosque have heightened their understandable anxiety.

On that horrible day of our nation’s great grief, Haroon Moghul was president of New York University’s Islamic Center. He wrote an Op-Ed piece just three weeks ago, during Ramadan, and I want to share some of his words with you:

“I have spent most of the last twelve years in Manhattan. That includes September 11th, 2001. I was a senior in college, walking to class on an unbelievably clear day, when the towers were struck and then fell, and we saw clouds of debris fill the sky. The World Trade Center was there and then it wasn’t.

I saw some of the hurt firsthand. I felt some of the anguish. I received some of the hate and I knew, immediately, how far across the world the effects of that vile attack would reach. I remember police sirens screaming, panicked rumors, overwhelmed faces, taxicabs turned into ambulances, the sinking feeling of powerlessness…We couldn’t imagine this was happening, that thousands had just perished in the Towers we’d seen every day from campus, filling the sky to the south…There was just smoke, and it stole more and more of the sky, overcoming that beautiful September morning with a sick smell.

Many [members of our] congregations were hurt that day, either personally or through the loss of loved ones. Many good friends of mine rushed to ground zero to give and spend hours, even days, doing what they could for the victims and for the brave first responders who were badly wounded. Some of those going to give help got hurt themselves. Others have relatives now working on the site, rebuilding the World Trade Center.

How do I, as an American and a Muslim, deal with what people claim my religion did to us – New Yorkers, Americans, human beings? How do I explain that I was scared because my city was attacked, but I was also scared because people might blame me? I tried to rush down to help, but by the time I got further downtown there was too much smoke to go any further. People rushing in the opposite direction, coming from out of the smoke, screamed – maybe at me – where are you going?

At a loss for what to do, I thought I should go to the Muslim prayer room on campus, where students, anxious and afraid, might gather for help. The subways were closed, and cell phone service had gone out. I had no other idea how to find my friends, no idea where else to go. At the very least, I thought I had a responsibility to the Muslim students on campus. I really had no idea what to do. I just thought I had to do something, anything to help. Walking into our prayer space, which was located inside a Catholic church, I saw a friend of mine, an observant Jewish student, by himself. Turns out he had wanted to help, too.

‘What are you doing here?’ I asked. {He was, of course, not exactly who I expected to see}. He said, ‘I figured that some Muslims might feel uncomfortable walking home’ – people had already begun to blame any number of extremist Muslim groups – ‘and that, if I walked home with them {he wore a yarmulkeh} maybe people would think twice before trying anything.’” {4}

I read Haroon Moghul’s words two or three times to get in closer touch with his pride of being an American and his fear of being a Muslim in America. His words, “I was scared because people might blame me” touched a place deep in my soul. Our history in America is scorched with the flames of hysteria and hate. Its pages are singed by General Order Number 11, issued by General Ulysses S. Grant in December 1862, expelling all Jews from Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi in response to the raging black market in southern cotton on the part of unlicensed traders, including some Jews. That it was “some” and not many or most was of little matter to Grant, labeling what he called “the Israelites” as “an intolerable nuisance.” A then-modern day exodus took place from those three states, and it stopped only when President Lincoln, deeming the defamation of an entire religion despicable and intolerable, rescinded it weeks later.

The clarion call to justice was issued by our first President, George Washington, in a letter written in 1790 in which he assured the Jewish citizens of Newport, Rhode Island, “Happily, the Government of the United States, gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, [and] requires only that they who live under its protection should [conduct] themselves as good citizens.” What does it mean to be a “good citizen”? Does it refer only to the need to abide by the law? Is that the baseline? Shouldn’t “good citizenship” demand more? Good citizens are involved in their community. Or even more: that we accept – a word that is more emphatic than ‘tolerate’ – our fellow citizens of different persuasions, faiths, races and countries of origin. As challenging as this might be in the best of times, it is all the more difficult during trying times when there is a tendency to descend to our worst instincts and succumb to the restless, murmuring, angry crowd instead of listening to our conscience.

When Moghul found his Jewish friend standing in a Muslim place of prayer with the offer to accompany Muslim worshippers home to help shield them from being attacked or verbally abused, it spoke powerfully to me because that sentiment and sense of urgency comes from the core of our tradition that demands that we stand together. No sooner had we left Egypt than God commanded us, “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him” {Exodus 22:20} and then, to drive the point home, just a chapter later the verse is repeated and amplified: “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt” {Exodus 23:9}. In Deuteronomy we read tzedek, tzedek tirdofe/”justice, justice you shall pursue” {Deut. 16:20}. The Talmud teaches that this verse in our Holiness Code – “You shall love your neighbor who, like you, is also created in the Divine image” {Leviticus 19:18} – “is the major principle of the Torah” {Talmud Nedarim 9:4}.

In November of last year, we offered a month-long course at our synagogue called ‘Exploring the Qur’an.’ It was taught by an Islamic scholar. We offered it as a way for us to learn more about a significant faith, to understand more about traditions that inform Islamic belief and behavior, and in the hope that we might lower the intensity of emotional diatribes. We took some flak for doing so. A letter to the director of the Kehillah of Old York Road from someone in the Jewish community read in part, “How is it possible that the Kehillah [of Old York Road] or the [Jewish] Federation is promoting an Islamic proselytizing function? I am outraged by this, will refuse to spend any more Super Sundays fundraising [for the Jewish community]…and am considering withholding any future contributions to the [Jewish] Federation as well…For an organization to promote the study of another religion’s texts…fills me with disgust.” I wrote to that person, saying, “I assure you that neither the Kehillah nor the Jewish Federation is ‘promoting an Islamic proselytizing function,’ nor is my congregation. It [is] an opportunity for members of the larger community to attend the class, ask questions and learn…We offer many Jewish text classes throughout the year and I thought it important to explore the texts of another religious tradition with which few of us are familiar.” A member of our congregation asked me, “How many Muslims ask that a course about the Torah be taught to them by a rabbi or scholar?” I replied that I don’t know, but I believe that we should open doors in our minds and hearts in the quest for knowledge rather than cater to lower expectations. Here is what happened: Jews, Christians and Muslims came together under our roof to study and engage each other in dialogue.

Reuven Kimelman, professor of classical rabbinic literature at Brandeis University, says something very insightful: “We do not usually think of other people as being as good as us because we judge ourselves by our intentions, and we judge other people by their deeds.” However, sometimes we judge people not on the basis of what they have done, but on the presumption of what they might do because of what others of their faith or race have done that has harmed us. That presumption leads to undisciplined, and sometimes hurtful, behavior.

When many of us use the word “religious,” we tend to do so in reference to ritual observance – Shabbat, kashrut, and prayer – but it leads to the impression that ethics are a kind of extra-curricular activity. When we do think about Jewish ethics, tzedakah – providing help for people who are in physical or emotional distress – and lashon hara – literally “an evil tongue” by which we mean the consequences of harmful speech – often come to mind. We need to apply those concepts to those whom we think of as ‘the other.’ It is easier to love those closest to us than to care about those we perceive to be different from us, but that does not absolve us from the responsibility of trying to “love our neighbor.” The Cordoba Center on Park Place might, in time, become a place where hope grows in the shadow of hate.

Rabbi Elliot J. Holin