The Jewish community’s role in this year’s controversy over a planned Islamic center in Lower Manhattan was alternately praised and condemned at a meeting of activist rabbis here this week.
One of the initiators of the Cordoba House thanked the Jewish community for its support, while a prominent New York rabbi argued that the Jewish community had not done enough.
Many members of the Jewish community have offered morale-boosting and practical advice, Daisy Khan, one of the founders of the Islamic center (better-known as Park51) near the site of the former World Trade Center, told the Rabbis for Human Rights’ biennial Conference on Judaism and Human Rights at The Conference Center on the Upper East Side.
“We could not have done this without your support,” Khan, executive director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement, said at a plenary session on “Park 51 and The Crisis on Islamophobia.” She and her husband, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, faced widespread opposition after their plans to erect a building, patterned after a Jewish community center, received wide publicity earlier this year.
“You understood our pain; you fought a struggle for acceptance,” Khan said, singling out Rabbi Joy Levitt, executive director of the JCC in Manhattan, who has served as an informal adviser for Park 51 for five years.
Rabbi Levitt, a panelist at Tuesday’s Park51 session, said most of the organized Jewish community, however, failed to speak up when Khan and Imam Feisal — and Islam itself — came under attack this year.
“This was not our finest moment,” Rabbi Levitt said. Citing prominent Jewish organizations that made public statements against Cordoba House — an allusion to the Anti-Defamation League, which opposed the Islamic center at its proposed site while defending its right to build such a center — she said, adding that she heard comments of “fear, ignorance, xenophobia” from members of the Jewish community when her support for the Cordoba House was publicized.
“Jewish leaders,” Rabbi Levitt said, “made this a more complicated issue than it needed to be. [They] made it very difficult for the rest of the community” — less-prominent individuals who support the Islamic center — “to speak out.”
“There were not enough voices [of support] coming from the mainstream Jewish community,” the rabbi said. “Very few mainstream rabbis,” outside of those affiliated with organizations like RHR, “were able to find their voices. We weren’t vocal enough.”
In the wake of the ADL’s opposition to the center near Ground Zero, the American Jewish Committee and Jewish Community Relations Council of New York lined up to support the center at its proposed site.
Rabbi Levitt recommended that synagogues initiate programs to teach members about Islam, including a curriculum for bar and bat mitzvah students.
Other panelists compared the opposition facing the Cordoba House to problems that early Jewish arrivals in New York City faced in the 17th century and that Catholics faced in the 1800s.
The update on Park 51 merited a session at a rabbinical meeting because of the issus of religious freedom that the ongoing controversy has raised, said Rabbi Ellen Lippmann, co-chair of the North American branch of Rabbis for Human Rights and spiritual leader of Kolot Chayeinu, a congregation in Park Slope, Brooklyn.
A religion “being singled out” for discrimination is a reflection of the Jewish experience in the United States and other countries, Rabbi Lippmann said.
About 250 people, including rabbis, Christian clergy and members of the laity attended the conference, whose theme was “Human Rights Under Fire: A Jewish Call to Action.”
Several sessions of the three-day gathering were devoted to the themes of contemporary slavery/human trafficking, and torture, themes that have biblical roots in the Jewish experience as slaves in Egypt, Rabbi Lippmann said.
The conference was scheduled to coincide with Chanukah, and with this weekend’s Human Rights Shabbat, she said. As a follow-up, educational materials on slavery and torture are being developed to be used at Passover seders next spring, she said.
The RHR’s Raphael Lemkin Human Rights Awards were presented during the conference to Naomi Chazan, president of the New Israel Fund, and Aryeh Neier, president of George Soros’ Open Society Institute, and a petition calling on Cuba to release Alan Gross, an American Jew jailed there for a year because he was helping the Jewish community access the Internet, was circulated at the conference.