Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League is on the defensive. He has written an op-ed for the Huntington Post and given an interview to National Public Radio to clarify his organization's position on the proposed Islamic Community Center to be built near the Twin Towers site in New York City, popularly known as the "Ground Zero Mosque." The ADL, dedicated to combating anti-Semitism in particular and defending religious freedom in general, called on the planners of the community center to back off. Since that statement appeared last week, Foxman has had to answer charges that the ADL has joined in a general Islamophobic hysteria that amounts to exactly the sort of bigotry the organization is supposed to oppose.
Foxman is on fairly secure ground when he tries to absolve the ADL of general Islamophobia. In the op-ed, he points out that his group has frequently denounced outbreaks of more obvious anti-Islamic bigotry in the U.S., and has protested the French government's ban on traditional Muslim dress. Things get trickier when he insists on deference to the sensitivity of New Yorkers, especially " the feelings of the families who lost loved ones at Ground Zero." Foxman holds that an Islamic center or mosque at the controversial site "would unnecessarily cause some victims more pain." That's reason enough, in his view, for the Cordoba Institute and other mosque planners, as well as their ally Mayor Bloomberg, to back off.
In the op-ed and on the radio this morning, Foxman proposed an analogy between the Ground Zero controversy and a dispute that broke out between Jews and Catholics in Poland during the 1990s over the establishment of a convent at the site of the Auschwitz concentration camp. "[W]e thought then that well-meaning efforts by Carmelite nuns to build a Catholic structure were insensitive and counterproductive to reconciliation," Foxman explains, noting that many Jewish groups considered a Catholic religious structure at the death camp "an affront and a terrible disservice to the memory of millions of Jews who died at the hands of the Nazis in the Holocaust." In this case, the Pope himself deferred to Jewish sensitivity and ordered the Carmelites to move their convent.
For Foxman, sensitivity trumps all other considerations. Whether the Carmelite convent could objectively be considered an affront to the Jewish victims of Nazism is strongly debatable, but because many Jews felt strongly that it was an affront, backing off was the right thing for the Catholics to do. Auschwitz is a site of mourning and pain, and as that pain was sacred in a way that made the convent sacrilegious, so the pain of the victims and survivors of September 11, 2001, is deemed sacrosanct by Foxman. Whether that pain expresses itself in fair or reasonable ways is not a proper subject for inquiry; it must be respected unconditionally.
The problem with Foxman's insistence on sensitivity to the pain of certain New Yorkers (the mayor's pain, apparently, is not so raw) is that it has taken a plainly irrational form in opposition to the mosque. It is entirely based on the assumption that the religion of Islam is, in some way, an enemy of the United States and the essential perpetrator of the 2001 attacks. It is based in spite, on the assumption that the erection of a mosque would give satisfaction to the actual Muslim enemies of this country and should be prevented to deny them that pleasure. On another level, it's a petty, childish way to stick it to Muslims everywhere, to make them back off from something they want they way the western world supposedly always backs off whenever Muslims take violent offense at our free expressions. Any way you look at it, it's unreasonable. Foxman might well agree with me, but would still insist that we respect the raw emotions of those most disturbed by the mosque project. In other words, if prudence dictates deference to the irrational sensitivities of Muslims, it also dictates deference to the irrational sensitivities of New Yorkers and sympathetic Islamophobes elsewhere, in whose eyes the mosque "stabs hearts." But if it's un-American to defer to the superstitious sensitivity of many easily-inflamed Muslims, it's just as un-American to defer unconditionally to irrational sensitivity of any sort.
Applying the same principle, Jewish people like Foxman would be obliged to respect the sincere psychic pain (whatever its actual source) felt by anti-Semites who sincerely believe that "the Jews" killed Jesus, betrayed Muhammad, etc. They might also have to apologize, to say the least, for establishing a Jewish state in territory that many Muslims (and quite a few Christians) consider to be part of their sacred patrimony. But sensitivity has its limits, doesn't it? And if we believe that sensitivity has an objective limit, then we have to address all appeals to sensitivity on an objective, unemotional basis. Anything else is demagoguery. Foxman writes that it's demagogic to accuse people like him of opposing religious freedom or practicing bigotry, but if Foxman is not a bigot he is a demagogue on this issue.