The controversial Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero cleared a significant hurdle Tuesday when the city Landmarks Preservation Commission unanimously declined to protect the 152-year-old building site on historic grounds.
But the Anti-Defamation League’s call for the center to be built elsewhere has touched off a controversy of its own, prompting criticism that the civil rights group is siding with bigotry and setting it apart from much of the organized Jewish community.
On Monday, three days after ADL’s statement, the American Jewish Committee said the Cordoba Initiative and American Society for Muslim Advancement had a right to build the center, but need to “urgently address concerns about funding and support for terrorism.”
The Jewish Community Relations Council of New York on Tuesday also backed the center, with similar reservations.
Opponents say the location of the proposed 13-floor center — which would include a mosque as well as a pool, restaurant, meeting rooms and other facilities — two blocks from the site of the former World Trade Center where almost 3,000 people died at the hands of fanatical Muslims is an affront to the victims and their families.
Complicating matters, planners of the facility have said they will accept money from foreign governments to build the center, and the Cordoba Initiative’s leader, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, who has taken part in interfaith programs with Jewish leaders, declined to say in a radio interview if he agreed with the State Department’s designation of Hamas as a terrorist group.
“I’m not a politician,” the imam told interviewer Aaron Klein on WABC, according to published reports. “I try to avoid the issues. The issue of terrorism is a very complex question. … I’m a bridge builder. I define my work as a bridge builder … I will not allow anybody to put me in a position where I am seen by any party in the world as an adversary or as an enemy.”
But in an interview with the Wall Street Journal published Tuesday, the same day the Landmarks Commission was to clear the final hurdle for the center, Imam Rauf’s wife, Daisy Khan, said the facility would include a memorial to the 9/11 victims, and declared that “Hamas commits atrocious acts of terror.” Khan, executive director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement, added that her husband “has outright condemned all forms of terrorism.”
Khan did not respond to an e-mail request for an interview on Tuesday by press time. Imam Rauf’s office said he was traveling abroad and could not be reached for comment.
In an interview with a Jewish Week correspondent last month, Khan said “We understand the tragedy [9/11] was done in the name of our religion, and we have to separate the terrorists who committed this act from the religion of Islam.”
The ADL’s 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 — and especially the anguish of the families and friends of those who were killed on September 11, 2001.
“The controversy which has emerged regarding the building of an Islamic Center at this location is counterproductive to the healing process. Therefore, under these unique circumstances, we believe the City of New York would be better served if an alternative location could be found.” The ADL statement also acknowledged concerns about the funding of and motivation behind the center.
In an interview Monday, ADL National Director Abraham Foxman said ADL’s staff and lay leaders decided to post its statement on its website Friday — without issuing a press release — because the organization had been repeatedly asked its opinion on the matter.
“ADL has a position that we don’t duck issues,” said Foxman. “People were asking where we are. We didn’t drumbeat this as an issue.”
In the ensuing days, Foxman said the organization has been drawn into a “political” debate between opposing sides of the issue — leading elected officials, including Mayor Michael Bloomberg, support the center, while Republicans such as gubernatorial candidate Rick Lazio and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin have opposed it.
The issue has gained national prominence in the ongoing debate on balancing post-9/11 suspicion of organized Islam in America with religious tolerance.
“It took on a life of its own,” Foxman said. “I don’t remember being on the front page of The New York Times [before] in the 45 years I’ve been with the ADL.”
Foxman said a key concern for ADL was consistency. The organization opposed the location of a convent of Carmelite nuns near the grounds of Auschwitz until Pope John Paul II relocated the center one mile away in 1984, and sees this as a comparable situation.
“We found ourselves [then] in a similar position as the [9/11] families. We wanted the world to understand our position” during the convent issue, “and so we stood with theirs [on the mosque],” he said.
He said the position does not align ADL with anti-Islamic critics of the mosque, noting that the organization took out a full-page ad in the Times after 9/11 warning against answering hate with hate. “Just because bigots agree with positions you hold, does that make you a bigot?” Foxman asked.
But at least one board member of the ADL, Tom Goldblatt, publicly disagreed with the position, saying on his Facebook status: “I am disappointed in the decision of my group the Anti Defamation League (ADL), of which I am a board member, has taken a public position opposing the building of the Islamic center at ground zero. Depending on what I learn in this discussion I plan on taking an active role in trying to get the group to change their position.” Goldblatt, who works at a venture capital firm in Chicago, did not return a call for comment.
Rabbi Irwin Kula, president of the Center for Learning and Leadership (Clal) told The Times, “The ADL should be ashamed of itself.” Other Jewish voices condemning the group included Atlantic columnist Jeffrey Goldberg and the Daily Beast’s Peter Beinart.
“[W]hat the terrorists seek is a clash of civilizations,” wrote Goldberg. “If we as a society punish Muslims of good faith, Muslims of good faith will join the other side. It’s not that hard to understand. I’m disappointed that the ADL doesn’t understand this.”
The vice president for communications at the left-wing lobbying group J Street, Isaac Luria, announced last week that he would present a petition in favor of the center to the Landmarks Preservation Commission on Tuesday.
“The rhetoric being tossed around is not only offensive and wrong; it’s a propaganda gift to Islamic extremists globally who hope to whip up anger over the treatment of Muslims and threaten both Israel and the United States with violence,” said Luria in a letter to J Street supporters and the media.
In a statement, the president of the Interfaith Alliance, a Washington-based anti-extremist group, Rev. Welton Gaddy, said ADL’s position was inconsistent with its history of supporting religious freedom.
“Those who claim to defend religious freedom cannot turn their back on it when faced with controversy,” he said. “It is unfair to prejudge the impact this center can have on reconciliation before it is even built. And we must remember that just because someone prays in a mosque, that does not make them any less of a citizen than you or I.”
In defense of the ADL, the New York Sun website invoked the Carmelite controversy in an editorial. “We don’t want to make any inappropriate comparisons in respect of the Holocaust, which is unique in history. But what settled that crisis with the Carmelites was the grit of a few courageous protesters, like Rabbi Avi Weiss, and the seichel of John Paul II, who grasped that the demand for forbearance was not hostility toward his religion and that understanding was not weakness.” By picking another site, the editorial said, The Cordoba Initiative can “show its capacity for respect, understanding, and forbearance.”
A similar sentiment was expressed by Jerusalem Talmudic scholar Adin Steinsaltz in a Washington Post online forum. “From the outside, one can see it as a question of sense and sensibility. In the context of the recent past, building a mosque in this place is just a lack of tact,” wrote the rabbi.
Local Jewish leaders have been perplexed in recent years in trying to build Muslim-Jewish ties because so many prominent leaders have ties to organizations like the Council on American Islamic Relations that themselves are tied to radical anti-Israel and anti-American groups and figures.
“It’s very problematic,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of American Jewish Organizations. “The most outspoken people who get the media attention are not the most responsible leadership, who are often shunted aside and afraid to speak out publicly. There is always a question of whom to dialogue with?”
“Another question is the funding. You don’t know who is behind some of these organizations and how they can be manipulated.”
But Imam Rauf who explained, “my heartfelt appreciation for the support from our Jewish friends and collegues” in a statement Tuesday, has been a consistent presence in interfaith forums. Foxman said he has appeared at forums with the imam in the past and would have no problem doing so again in the future.
In addition to the AJC’s statement on the mosque issue, the group’s executive director, David Harris, discussed the issue on the Huffington Post blog Monday. “We hope the Cordoba Center will fulfill the lofty mission its founders have articulated. They have set the bar high, describing it as a Muslim-inspired institution similar to the 92nd Street Y … If so, it means a facility truly open to the entire community — and to a wide spectrum of ideas based on peace and coexistence.
“Once up and running, it won’t be long before we know if the founders have delivered on their promise. If so, New York and America will be enriched. If not, the center should be shunned.”
Jewish Week correspondent Doug Chandler and JTA contributed to this report.