We are a month into welcoming Ditha to our home. She’s a bright-eyed, energetic, delightful 17-year-old exchange student from Indonesia. She attends public high school with my daughter Sadie in St. Paul. Everything about America, Minnesota and St. Paul seems to be novel and interesting to her.
She told me she chose to come to America because of the history, the freedom and the diversity here and to help bridge the cultural gap between her country and ours. She asks a lot of great questions and we try to explain the answers as best we can.
But the one answer I’m struggling to provide her is why so many of my fellow Americans don’t want a cultural center and mosque built in New York City, two blocks from the site of the 9-11 attacks. Ditha is Muslim and comes from the country with the world’s largest Muslim population. She seems to understand the emotional response to the mosque by some of the families of the 9-11 victims. But she keeps asking if there is something illegal about the cultural center and mosque that would cause such opposition. When I tell her that even opponents concede that the people who want to build the center have a constitutional and legal right, she just seems confused.
Ditha is the kind of person Americans ought to be reaching out to. She is devoted to her faith and observant of its practices, but she seeks friendship and understanding of people who are different from her, who practice different faiths. Like ours. Just last week, she attended Yom Kippur services with us at Mt. Zion Synagogue. It was the first year I didn’t complain about fasting for a day because Ditha had just finished a month of sunup to sundown fasts in honor of Ramadan. While my kids and their friends were restless about the length of the service, Ditha sat patiently trying to learn as much as she could and drawing historical comparisons with Islam. And she asked a lot of questions.
She is not angry about the flap over the cultural center. I would say more hurt and confused. The men who flew the planes into the towers that day were not representatives of Islam, she says, just as the men who set off the bombs in Bali in her country in 2002 killing more than 200 people, including Australians, Americans and fellow Indonesians, were not.
She sees the cultural center as a way to reach out, to learn about each other and to provide prayer spaces not only for Muslims but for Jews and Christians as well.
It’s hard to disagree with her. The America I learned about growing up and the America I love and respect, despite all its flaws and disagreements, is the one that extends open arms to people of all faiths and ethnic backgrounds. How can we, in good conscience, deny religious freedom to a group that is attempting to cross cultural barriers? How can we treat Muslims different from other faiths? And how can we be so closed-minded as to not see the message this stand sends around the world? This is particularly true of some of our political leaders who have made opposition to the cultural center a cause célèbre.
Lawrence Wright says it best in the Sept. 20th New Yorker magazine: http://www.newyorker.com/talk/comment/2010/09/20/100920taco_talk_wright  “The best ally in the struggle against violent Islamism is moderate Islam. The unfounded attacks on the backers of Park51 (the name of the cultural center project) and others, along with such side shows as a pastor calling for the burning of Korans, give substance to the Al Qaeda argument that the U.S. is waging a war against Islam, rather than against the terrorists’ misshapen effigy of that religion. Those stirring the pot in this debate are casting a spell that is far more dangerous than they may imagine.”
As an American Jew, I feel particularly strongly about this case. Jews know all too well the ugly face of bigotry. And yes, Jews and Muslims have serious disagreements over the Israeli-Palestinian relationship, which to me is even more reason to build bridges. That is why I was heartened when my Rabbi made a comment on Yom Kippur about fighting bigotry against Muslims. .
And that is why I was gratified by recent comments by Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the umbrella group of Reform congregations around the country. At the end of a detailed discussion about the debate over the cultural center/mosque, he concluded: http://blogs.rj.org/reform/2010/09/cordoba-house.html
“As Reform Jews, we need to oppose this bigotry with all of our might. We need to affirm that we will not tolerate efforts to keep Muslims out of our neighborhoods—because we know better than anyone that everywhere is somebody’s neighborhood. If we were silent here, a century of work for interfaith relations would be for naught. If we were silent here, we would be casting aside those fundamental values of tolerance, compassion, understanding, and religious freedom that we have affirmed again and again from our earliest days as Reform Jews…As Jews we sympathize with the victims of terror, and we fight religious fanaticism wherever it is found, but we remember, now and always, both the lessons of our own history and what this great country is all about.”
Ditha and I agreed that was a powerful and important statement.


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