The New York Islamic center controversy — and what some analysts say is the worst surge of nativism and bigotry since the Red Scare of the 1950s — is sharpening longstanding rifts in American Jewish life.

Consider: a prominent Jewish thinker argues that Muslims do not “value life” and do not deserve First Amendment protections (the second statement resulting in an apology and retraction); rabbis sermonizing on Rosh HaShanah both defend the Park51 plan for a cultural center two blocks north of Ground Zero and warn against a rising global tide of jihadism, sometimes in the same sermon. On the Jewish Week Web site, a strong majority of commentators seem to agree with the argument that the problem is Islam itself, not a radical fringe.

In sharp contrast, many major Jewish groups have supported the right of Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf to build the cultural center two blocks from the World Trade Center site. Groups such as the Reform movement, the National Council of Jewish Women and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) have been at the forefront of the nascent effort to combat the anti-Islam eruption.

And the reaction in Jewish communal circles against the proposed Koran burning by an obscure Florida pastor ranged from the negative to the appalled.

Rabbi Steve Gutow, president of JCPA, said suggestions that Islam is somehow outside America’s traditional religious freedom protections represents a seismic shift that could ultimately endanger Jews and every other religious minority.

“But I don’t even want to go there,” he said. “Before talking about that, we should be outraged by what’s happening in America because some of our most fundamental tenets are being challenged.”

Still, portions of the Jewish community clearly reflect the fear and rage sweeping across America — as they have in past surges of hostility to different minority groups.

“We’re more like the rest of America than we’d like to admit,” said a longtime Jewish leader who asked not to be identified.

According to polls, though, Jews remain more liberal than other groups in the country; 55 percent of Jewish New Yorkers oppose the center’s proposed location compared to about 68 percent of Americans in general.

Observers in the community note that Jews are torn between support for Israel – which sometimes morphs into hostility toward Islam – and commitment to civil and religious liberty, seen as key to the success story of Jews in this country.

Earlier this week, the Internet was buzzing with the controversy over an online essay by Martin Peretz, editor and publisher of The New Republic, suggesting that Islam does not deserve the Constitutional protections afforded every other minority.

“Frankly, Muslim life is cheap, most notably to Muslims,” he wrote. “And among those Muslims led by the Imam Rauf there is hardly one who has raised a fuss about the routine and random bloodshed that defines their brotherhood. So, yes, I wonder whether I need honor these people and pretend that they are worthy of the privileges of the First Amendment which I have in my gut the sense that they will abuse.”

James Fallows, editor of The Atlantic, called that “an incredible instance of public bigotry in the American intelligentsia,” a view privately echoed by many Jewish leaders.

Peretz quickly backtracked, saying his comment about the First Amendment “genuinely embarrasses me, and I deeply regret it.”

But his anger reflects national feelings that threaten to leap over traditional barriers against overt bias and discrimination — and to widen longstanding divisions within Jewish life, where the gap between the major organizations and a resentful, outspoken minority is widening by the day.

“A portion of the Jewish community leadership has betrayed Jewish values,” said Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak, founder and director of JewsOnFirst.Com, a web-based First Amendment group. “Jews were accused of killing Christ for 2,000 years; now some of us are supporting those who say all Muslims are responsible for September 11.”

Within the Jewish community, the proliferating view that Islam itself and not a minority of jihadists is the enemy is the result of “a concerted effort” by Jewish neoconservatives and “the Persian Jewish community in Los Angeles,” the rabbi said. He also pointed to the Christian Zionist groups that have been the primary target of his group, “many of which describe Islam in the same terms we heard from the Rev. Terry Jones” (the Florida would-be Koran burner).

Rabbi Beliak was particularly critical of Jewish leaders who have tried to have it both ways — defending the right of Muslims to build mosques anywhere in America while saying the proposed location of the New York Islamic cultural center was insensitive to the September 11 victims and survivors. It is a position that he says “creates the idea there can be Islam-free zones anywhere in America, at local whim,” a position he says further undercuts those Islamic leaders who are genuinely fighting the forces of extremism in their community.

But Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said the situation is more complex than that.

Foxman was an early critic of the Park51 plan, arguing not that Imam Rauf didn’t have the right to locate his community center and mosque there but that the choice of a location reflected an insensitivity to Sept. 11 victims and survivors.

He was quickly taken to task by other Jewish leaders. But the ADL was also an early critic of overt Islamophobia and politicians who tried to cash in on the popular mood of resentment. The group also was behind a just-launched “Interfaith Coalition on Mosques,” which argues that “the best way to uphold America’s democratic values is to ensure that Muslims can exercise the same religious freedom enjoyed by everyone in America.”

The Reform movement’s Rabbi David Saperstein has been a leader in speaking out against discrimination against Muslims. While no Orthodox group has officially issued a statement, Nathan Diament, Washington director for the Orthodox Union, expressed unease about growing bias by local officials against the construction and expansion of mosques. And like a long list of Jewish leaders, Diament expressed outrage at the prospect of a public Koran burning.
“The notion of burning holy texts should not only offend, but send chills down the spine of anybody, especially in the Jewish community, which has seen its own holy texts burned over the centuries,” he told The Jewish Week. “This has no place in the United States.”

But Jewish leaders calling for moderation are flying into an angry headwind being whipped up still further by politicians eager to capitalize on surging anti-Islam sentiment.

That includes Republican former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has described a battle against “Radical Islamists, in both their militant and stealth form. The militant form believes in using military power in one form or another; the stealth form believes in using cultural, intellectual and political … but their end goal is exactly the same.”

Without naming names, the ADL’s Foxman said demagogic politicians “make it more difficult” to find some kind of balance on the issue of Islam in America.
“It’s harder still because some of the politicians who have taken an extreme position on the [New York] mosque are also supporters of Israel,” he said. “So some in the Jewish community find it difficult to be critical of their views because they don’t want to jeopardize their support for Israel.”

The fact that even apparent moderate Islamic leaders — including Rauf — find it hard to condemn anti-Israel terror groups like Hamas adds to Jewish anger about Islam.

But the Israel factor is only one part of the divided response of the Jewish community, and possibly a minor part.

Brandeis historian Jonathan Sarna said it is a mistake to look at Jews as somehow detached from a broader American society that is undergoing one of its periodic spasms of populist fear and scapegoating. And he pointed out that these sentiments are nothing new, citing a period of overt anti-Catholicism of America in the late 1800s.

“I have reminded people: if you go back to that period, you’ll find that some Jews were deeply involved in anti-Catholic activities,” Sarna said. “Their argument was that Catholics have long held Jews in contempt, so why should we want to encourage the growth of Catholicism here?”

In falling in with the national trend, Jews are reflecting the national mood of angst and anger over an ailing economy and an increasingly confusing, threatening international environment, Sarna said.

“Americans are feeling very insecure; it’s a moment of real economic hardship, which always leads to insecurity and fear,” Sarna said. “The nature of America itself is changing, and that’s also part of it. Many look at the changes in Europe [with its rising Muslim minorities] and believe, this is something we need to prevent. That’s something we do see in the Jewish community.”

The American Jewish Committee’s executive director, David Harris, offered a counter argument — that talk about Islamophobia as the “social pathology du jure” may be “slightly exaggerated. After all, according to federal hate crimes statistics the likelier victim of a hate crime today is a Jew. I do see pockets of hatred; I don’t see Islamophobia sweeping the nation.”