The Anti-Defamation League continued to weather harsh public reaction to its position against the Islamic cultural center to be built near the site of the 9/11 attack this week.
CNN host and Newsweek columnist Fareed Zakaria, citing the group’s mosque position returned the Hubert H. Humphrey First Amendment Freedoms Prize that was bestowed on him by the ADL in 2005, along with the $10,000 prize, saying “I cannot in good conscience hold onto the award or the honorarium that came with it and am returning both.”
In another development, the leader of the Cordoba Initiative, which is planning the center, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf has been selected by the U.S. State Department to travel to Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates to discuss the perception of Islam in America. The State Department said he will be prohibited from fundraising during the trip.
But two Republican lawyers blasted the government’s funding of the trip. “It is unacceptable that US taxpayers are being forced to fund Feisal Abdul Rauf’s trip to the Middle East,” said Reps. leana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida and Peter King of Long Island in a joint statement on Tuesday. “This radical is a terrible choice to be one of the faces or our country overseas."
Imam Rauf has been criticized for declining to characterize Hamas as a terrorist group when asked during a radio interview. His wife, Daisy Khan, last week told the Wall Street Journal that the group commits “atrocious acts of terror.” The imam has also been criticized for saying after 9-11 in a TV interview that because of American foreign policy, "“n the most direct sense, Osama bin Laden is made in the USA."
The ADL said on its website on July 30 that building the cultural center at the site purchased by the Cordoba Initiative on Park Place two blocks from Ground Zero would be “counterproductive to the healing process” and that it would be in the best interests of New York City for an alternative location to be found.
The statement did not call for action to stop the center, but said, “There are understandably strong passions and keen sensitivities surrounding the World Trade Center site. We are ever mindful of the tragedy which befell our nation there, the pain we all still feel ”
In response to the ADL, a group of 51 diverse Jews, including cantors, filmmakers, lawyers, authors and musicians, posted an open letter in the Huffington Post . In a New York Times interview, ADL national director Abraham Foxman had said that the sensitivities of families of 9/11 victims should take precedence because “Their anguish entitles them to positions that others would categorize as irrational or bigoted.”
“We can relate to these ‘irrational feelings,” wrote the authors on Aug. 3. “Many of our families lost members to the Holocaust. And yet we believe that your position on the Cordoba House is wrong and that it goes against the ADL’s description of itself as an organization that fights “all forms of bigotry.” Signers included filmmakers Sandi Dubowsky and Julie Hermelin, Rabbi David Adelson of the East Side Temple, and authors Charles London and Stephen Elliot.
New York City cleared the way for the $100 million center, which is to have meeting, educational and athletic facilities in addition to a mosque, last week when the Landmarks Preservation Commission declined to protect the 152-year-old building. Mayor Michael Bloomberg has ardently defended the Cordoba Initiative’s right to build the center on grounds of religious freedom.
The American Jewish Committee and the Jewish Community Relations Council each issued statements last week supporting the center but calling on the organizers to make a clear statement against terrorism and to be transparent about the project’s funding sources.
But the executive director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance in Manhattan, Rabbi Meyer May said on Thursday it was "insensitive" to build the center near the site of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
“Religious freedom does not mean being insensitive … or an idiot,” Rabbi May told Crain’s New York Business, which reported the organization’s position on Friday. “Religion is supposed to be beautiful. Why create pain in the name of religion?”
Rabbi May said the view of The Simon Wiesenthal Center is not necessarily that of the Museum of Tolerance.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center told The Jewish Week Tuesday the center’s position is that the victims’ families should be given “paramount” consideration.
“The decision should be based on a consensus of the families of victims of what was obviously the site of the worst killing field in America,” said Rabbi Cooper. “Their feelings should be paramount in everybody’s mind The families should be the ones who inform us, not the other way around.”
In a statement sent to The Jewish Week, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf expressed gratitude to members of the Jewish community who have supported the center. The imam, who has participated in interfaith programs with Jewish groups, cited a “history” of cooperation between Jews and Muslims.
“I express my heartfelt appreciation for the gestures of goodwill and support from our Jewish friends and colleagues,” read the statement.
“Your support is a reflection of the great history of mutual cooperation and understanding that Jewish and Muslim civilizations have shared in the past, and remains a testament to the enduring success of our continuing dialogue.”
In his letter to the ADL, Zakaria, a Muslim born in Mumbai, India, said he hoped his rejection of the Humphrey prize “might add to the many voices that have urged you to reconsider and reverse your position on this issue.
“Whether or not the center is built, what is at stake here is the integrity of the ADL and its fidelity to its mission.”
In response, Foxman released an open letter to Zakaria saying “I am not only saddened but stunned and somewhat speechless by your decision … We did not oppose the right for an Islamic Center or a mosque to be built. What we did was to make an appeal based solely on the issues of location and sensitivity.
Foxman added, “ADL has and will continue to stand up for Muslims and others where they are targets of racism and bigotry.
JTA contributed to this report.