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August 1st, 2010
06:30 AM ET

My Take: How the Anti-Defamation League lost the moral high ground

Editor's Note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

You would think that most Jewish leaders in America would have a special sensitivity to the vitriol pouring out against Muslims concerning the proposed Islamic community center and mosque near ground zero.

You would think they would hear eerie echoes of 1930s Germany in the shouting down and silencing of an eleven-year-old girl at one of the hearings of the commission charged with determining whether the building in question deserved landmark status.  You would think they would rush to the defense of a minority religion attacked for, among other things, conspiring to take over their country through the imposition of religious law.

If so, you would be wrong.

Although some local Jewish leaders in New York City have come out in support of this project, the national Jewish community has largely kept its own counsel.  On Friday, however, the Anti-Defamation League, an organization committed according to its own website to counteracting “hatred, prejudice and bigotry,” weighed in, opposing the project with a tortured logic that betrays its confusion over what is shaping up as one of the defining issues in the 2010 political campaign.

After admitting that the owners of the site have every legal right to build an Islamic center there, and that the bigoted attacks on them are wrong, the ADL argued nonetheless that the Islamic center should not be built because it “will cause some victims more pain–unnecessarily–and that is not right.”

Apparently the ADL forgets that some of those victims—dozens of them—were Muslims. It also neglects the fact that the ADL’s decision to lend its plummeting moral force to the pseudo patriots here will cause some American Muslims pain. But apparently some people’s pain matters more than others. And some people’s defamation.

Happily, however, the ADL’s statement, and later remarks by national director Abraham H. Foxman that the anguish of those who lost loved ones on 9/11 “entitles them to positions that others would categorize as irrational or bigoted,” has brought other national Jewish groups into the debate.

After evoking New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s argument that a proposal for a church or synagogue at that site would have raised no objections, J Street, a Jewish organization that bills itself as "pro-Israel, pro-peace," wrote on Friday on its web site:

The Muslim community has an equal right to build a community center wherever it is legal to do so. We would hope the American Jewish community would be at the forefront of standing up for the freedom and equality of a religious minority looking to exercise its legal rights in the United States, rather than casting aspersions on its funders and giving in to the fear-mongerers and pandering politicians urging it to relocate.

J Street's president, Jeremy Ben-Ami, then went on to make a point that has been almost entirely overlooked in this debate—that opposition to this community center, and the hateful spirit in which much of it is advanced, only aids and abets our enemies overseas:

What better ammunition to feed the Osama bin Ladens of the world and their claim of anti-Muslim bias in the United States as they seek to whip up global jihad than to hold this proposal for a Muslim religious center to a different and tougher standard than other religious institutions would be.

It should be obvious how this proposal for a Islamic community center near ground zero has escalated from a local land use dispute into a national referendum on the scope of religious liberty and the meanings and ends of Islam. 

First, local Tea Party populists nationwide cynically decided to exploit anti-Islamic nativism for political gain.  Then national Republican leaders such as Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich decided to jump in to pump up their reputations as 100% Americans.

Why the ADL decided to spend down its moral capital by coming to the defense of the defamers in this dispute is harder to figure. But, at least for me, Foxman and the ADL no longer occupy a moral high ground.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: 'Ground zero mosque' • Culture wars • Islam • Mosque • New York • Opinion • Politics • United States

soundoff (65 Responses)
  1. Guest65

    I say:
    Tear down a Jewish synogogue and build a Muslim Mosque right here in America in New York City in it's place.
    That way: everyone is happy.
    Or we could even do Muslims one better and elect a Muslim president. Nobody will ever see that one coming!

    June 4, 2011 at 6:03 pm |
  2. rider_83

    One big difference between the muslims and the people of the jewish religion is the muslims are not pretending they are a culture! Jewish is a religion and that is all it is or has ever been!!! The Muslims are less of a threat to America then the people of the jewish religion are! At least the muslims do not interfere in our political system and dont use us to murder others so they can steal their land and possessions because of a book they wrote!! Israel has not right to exist unless you give a country to every other religious group on earth! The people of the jewish religion just use America for our money and power! They are willing to sacrifice American lives to ensure they get what they want no matter how many of our children die in the process!!!

    September 7, 2010 at 4:45 pm |
  3. Miraj

    Thank you sir for some sanity and clear-thinking on the issue. The bias becoming evident against Muslims these days is quite obvious to Muslims and those willing to looking at things without a blind-fold. Unfortunately, it seems like at least half of the U.S. population has chosen blind-folds.

    August 7, 2010 at 5:01 pm |
  4. Kira

    Sometimes an artist paints a self-portrait. In that light, let's hear from you, Stephen, regarding not others, which appears to be your livelihood – aiming at, criticizing and shooting other's arguments out of the sky, but rating yourself, on how and whether you take the 'moral high ground', ok?

    August 3, 2010 at 12:11 am |
  5. USER

    I for one cannot understand bloomberg turning pus-y. If he is for a mosque commemoration the muhamid ali birthday why doesn't he start prayers five times a day in ramadan. There should be 100% moratorium on mosque building in the total US. Should the muslims not like this, then they should pack it in and head out to the mid east and get ready for Armegedon where 660 million of their s-ses will be scorched. Any Christian or Jewish person would be happy to remove their a–es from this earth. Which I am sure God will give blessing to this blight removal.

    August 2, 2010 at 7:52 pm |
  6. Tom Medzer

    Are you kidding me, 'What better ammunition to feed the Osama bin Ladens of the world and their claim of anti-Muslim bias in the United States', as if that makes any difference? Does anyone think the Muslim world is not aware of the pervasive anti-Muslim bias in the entire Judeo-Christian world? The fact is that Islam, as a whole, must take some responsibility for allowing radical fundamentalism to flourish and create a generation of violent haters. It must also take responsibility for the preponderance of Islamic states that do not tolerate Judaism, Christianity and western values. Yet Islam expects open arms from the west? I know it isn't fair but WTF does Islam expect? It seems to me at this point, the west is guilty of hating 'back'. And though unfair, this is why their is significant opposition to a mosque near ground zero, it is to say enough is enough!

    August 2, 2010 at 5:33 pm |
  7. Mark from Middle River

    Funny how both of your hatreds are so deep seeded that now both you Reality and you Quest are now throwing grenades at each other.

    Some of those of us who are of faith are cracking up at both of you now. So much running for high ground that you both are willing to trip each other up. Sorta sound like some Christians and Muslims....

    August 2, 2010 at 12:37 pm |
    • Reality

      Mark, Mark, Mark,

      Throwing grenades?? Give us a break!!!! Some of us have been liberated from the Christian/Islamic/Jewish/Mormon/Hindu/Buddhist cons, others are still searching for a way out.

      And once again since apparently you continue to miss the following comments on the topic:

      What drove the attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon? The koran, Mohammed's book of death for all infidels and Muslim domination of the world by any means. Muslims must clean up this book removing said passages admitting that they are based on the Gabriel myth and therefore obviously the hallucinations and/or lies of Mohammed. Then we can talk about the location of mosques and what is taught therein. Until then, no male Muslim can be trusted anytime or anywhere.

      August 3, 2010 at 12:00 am |
  8. JohnQuest

    typo correction "I do know that I have served with some outstanding Marines and a few of them were Muslims, " = I have served with some outstanding Marines and a few of them were Muslims,

    August 2, 2010 at 11:26 am |
    • Reality

      JohnQuest,

      Scroll up the page and read the commentary on the "significant stupidity of it all" aka the foundations of religion.

      August 2, 2010 at 11:58 am |
    • CatholicMom

      Thank you for all you have done as a Marine in the name of Freedom and Peace for our home.

      It seems we are all so filled with stress over so many problems in our country....depressed markets, homes in foreclosure, joblessness, abortions, divorce, crime, natural disasters, hunger, wastefulness, and the list could go on and on....making one wonder what is the glue that holds us all together…is it ‘love of self’, is it love of neighbor, is it love of God and His Mercy? So many people are down on religion and are not focused on God, our source of all that is Good, so I tend think it is just by His Mercy that we are managing to keep our heads above water. We are praying for our troops and their safety and an end to wars and fighting.

      But, I thank you for taking part of your life and giving it to us in the manner that you did. I hope you only feel love coming back at you.

      August 2, 2010 at 1:30 pm |
  9. sulaymanf

    More than just "dozens," there were thousands of Muslims working in the towers and the Pentagon, hundreds are listed among the victims. Hack, the Patriot Act cites Salman Hamdani as one of the 9/11 victims who lost his life trying to save people inside the WTC.

    August 2, 2010 at 3:08 am |
    • Reality

      Just another example of Muslims killing other Muslims. (and please give references to support "there were thousands of Muslims working in the Towers and Pentagon). And another example of Muslims killing other Muslims is the current Sunni-Shiite civil war in Iraq where over 100,000 civilians have been killed to date.

      August 2, 2010 at 8:20 am |
    • JohnQuest

      Reality, me old friend I see you are still at it, trying to convenes us that Muslims are the problem and not religion in general. I really don't know how many Muslims died in those attach and I don't think it is important which religion they belonged to, they were American and they died in an attach against our home. I do know that I have served with some outstanding Marines and a few of them were Muslims, at any given time there are as many as 20,000 Muslims serving our great military. "http://www.defense.gov/news/newsarticle.aspx?id=44689". My the way Christians kill other Christian and Christian also kill a lot of Muslims. If that is your example to not tolerating them, then we should also not tolerate Christians either.

      August 2, 2010 at 11:25 am |
  10. DangerMouse

    No.
    We are waking up.

    August 2, 2010 at 3:02 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.