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A Muslim Community Center? Why Not?

Why Should Jews Care?

by Robin Podolsky with Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak,, September 7, 2010

(Page 4 of 8) Print version

Unlike Jews in most non-Jewish countries, the last three generations of Jewish Americans have, for the most part, thrown off centuries of pressure that schooled us to avoid making trouble—to either live very obviously apart in ghettos where people from the dominant cultures are in no danger of mistaking us for one of them or else to assimilate as completely as possible, to avoid standing out. As Jews who are fully integrated into society, we have reclaimed our yarmulkes, our chai pendants and our ancestor's surnames; when we are asked to work on Shabbat, we speak up. Jewish Americans are rediscovering the richness of Jewish study and communal life, and we do continue to shape our country as we continue to let it shape us. Now that bagels are as American as apple pie and egg rolls and a first run movie is called Dinner for Shmucks--more profoundly, now that we boast Ginsbergs among our Supreme Court Justices and treasured national poets, has our nation fallen apart? Or is it a richer, more interesting place for everyone?

Why would we want anything less for our Muslim compatriots? Just as Ginsberg has become an American name, so will Ahmed. Just as yarmulkes are American articles of clothing, so will be hijab. Just as employers are learning to accommodate Saturday Shabbat, so they will become aware of Friday Jum'uah. Just as our foodie friends have embraced Kashrut, so will they discover Halal.

Pipes argues that Sharia is more problematic than Halachah because it is more decentralized. There is no Muslim Shulchan Aruch or Mishnah Bruria to consult for a quick ruling. Imams, like traditional ravs, (rabbis) rule in the particular case for their own communities. In other words, Islam is, in interesting ways, much like Judaism has been for great portions of its history; before the pressures of accommodating to state structures for recognizing "legitimate" religions, such as that in Germany, pushed Ashkenazi Jews to create the sort of denominations that our Christian neighbors would understand. This is actually an argument for why Islam is both strong and supple enough to develop forms and interpretations that reflect the cultural particularities of this country as it has done in other places.

Pipes, who has coined the phrase "soft Jihad" has already been instrumental in campaigns against two American women, Debbie Almontaser, who was forced to resign her position as principal of an Arabic-language charter school, and Nadia Abu el-Haj, a professor of Archeology at Columbia's Barnard College who has written a book analyzing the role of archeology in crafting the Israeli national narrative. Because Almontaser had served on the board of an arts organization at which some very young women had printed t-shirts reading "Jihad NYC" and because she had condemned the 9/11 terrorists by saying that, as far as she is concerned, they are not Muslims (disinformation!), Pipes launched a campaign in New York painting this educator as a stealth infiltrator. Almontaser has been defended by New York rabbis and other Jews, including Larry Cohler-Esses of the Forward, who compare this extremely idiosyncratic interpretation of her words and actions to the machinations of Joseph McCarthy against people he accused of being Communists, including, of course many Jews—and reminds us that nothing protected actual Communists from scrutiny like the utter unlovlieness of the McCarthyites.

The McCarthyite pattern of closely monitoring the speech of target groups, cherry-picking disturbing quotes and then mounting aggressive campaigns to get them to explain themselves in order to prove that they are "responsible elements", the "good" members of their group and so forth is one with which Jews have become familiar throughout our history. The very creation of an atmosphere in which simply being a member of the target group is considered legitimate grounds for suspicion represents an attack on that group's civil rights and social standing. The very exercise legitimizes the right of the accuser to pass judgment. Jews in America have put our collective foot down. We are not the sort to start standing on Jew stools and swearing oaths in pointed hats. No--now we are being wooed and recruited and encouraged to put Muslims in a similar position.

Painful truths
We have been told that Islam is dangerous because it is a proselytizing religion, one that distinguishes qualitatively between believers and others and that has been spread through empire. There is no way to engage this issue without acknowledging some difficult truths.

Because we do live in a plural society, people of various religions, and denominations within those faiths, have found ways to work together. Often, those ways demand that we put certain differences—of theology and of historical perception--aside. Jews and Christians, in particular, have had to live with the facts that Christianity is a proselytizing religion, that Christian doctrine asserts the impossibility of salvation without submission to the divinity of Jesus Christ and that in every part of the world colonized violently by Christian nations, Christianity was not only preached but, to some extent and at some time, imposed.

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This story begins with the Holy Roman Empire, as it was bolstered by Augustinian politico-theology and extends to the European colonies in Africa, Asia and the Americas. For centuries, Western Europe, known as Christendom, was defended at its borders by such brutal despots as Vlad the Impaler, the reputed model for the Dracula stories.

In this country, American Indian children were forcibly taken from their parents and kept in boarding schools where they had no choice but to learn Christianity and to disparage their native languages and religions. Jews faced pressure to convert. To this day, the American Armed Forces have been riven with controversy over the overt Evangelical agenda of some high commanders, including those with responsibilities connected to the Middle East. Today, there are small, but potentially deadly, groups of white supremacist militias in the US, arming themselves for race war, sustained by their idiosyncratic Christian Identity theology, which combines white racism with Christian triumphalism. Even the majority of Evangelical Christians who would never throw in with militias, who are truly horrified at them, say openly that their goal—for the good of humankind—is the worldwide spread of Christianity. Some of them utilize the metaphors of conflict, calling themselves prayer warriors. Shall we call Christianity dangerous then?

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