Editor’s Note: Jonathan A. Greenblatt is CEO and National Director of ADL (the Anti-Defamation League). The views expressed here are his. Read more opinion on CNN.
Around the world Jews are celebrating the High Holy Days. During this time, Jews focus on the need for Teshuvah, or self-examination and repentance. But self-examination need not be limited to individuals.
Institutions, especially century-old institutions like ADL, also can commit to the practice of self-examination and Teshuvah. And it is in this spirit that I have been reflecting on a stance ADL took 11 years ago when we opposed the location of the then-proposed Park51 Islamic Community Center & Mosque near Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan. Originally known as Cordoba House, and modeled after institutions such as the JCC in Manhattan, now known as the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan, and the 92nd Street Y, the project planned to include community and cultural spaces with the goal of fostering interfaith dialogue and promoting peace and understanding. I believe the stance we took is one for which we owe the Muslim community an apology.
Further, amidst ADL’s reflection, and approaching the 20th anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks, our nation’s sudden and disastrously planned withdrawal from Afghanistan is heartbreaking. For me personally, and ADL as a whole, this catastrophe made our Teshuvah all the more urgent.
Today one can see how the Cordoba House could have helped to heal our country as we nursed the wounds from the horror of 9/11. As we near the 20th anniversary of that tragic day, the need for healing remains. Arguably, it has attained an increased urgency after the tumult of recent years and especially now as we prepare to welcome refugees from Afghanistan, including many who supported our troops and our ideals, and now flee the onslaught of the Taliban. Sadly, rather than heal, we have seen Islamophobia persist in ugly ways.
As the leading anti-hate organization in the US, with experts tracking extremism of all sorts, ADL is committed to help our Muslim allies counter Islamophobia. Indeed, we have been doing so for many decades. And this is exactly why, as a dear Muslim friend told me recently, ADL’s stance on the Cordoba House project was “a punch in the gut to the Muslim community.” I hope that by righting this wrong, we can be better allies in the fight against the rise in anti-Muslim hate that is coming – and it is coming.
I say this, because as most Americans were praying for the Afghan people, generously donating funds and preparing to welcome some number of Afghan civilians into our great nation, some so-called “experts” began spreading alarmist and Islamophobic disinformation in shameless attempts to block these brutalized civilians from coming to the United States. Adding to the alarm, these insidious conspiracy theories are coming during a time that the FBI is reporting the highest level of hate crimes in over a decade.
And that is likely just the opening chorus of anti-Muslim sentiment that I fear will swell in the weeks, months and years ahead.
We’ve seen it before.
We saw it in the aftermath of the September 11th terrorist attacks. The FBI tracked a massive spike in anti-Muslim hate crimes in 2001, compared to 2000: a jump from 28 incidents to 481. Muslims were profiled, attacked and killed, mosques were desecrated, slander flowed in the media and even members of the Sikh community were attacked simply because they wore turbans.
And we saw it again in 2010, when a media storm rose up around Cordoba House. While the country was in many ways less polarized in 2010 than in our present moment, it was still a fraught time. A time when you could almost see the lines that divide us today being drawn.
When Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and Daisy Khan envisioned the creation of Cordoba House, they intended to foster better relations between the Islamic world and America, and to serve as a public rejection of extremism.
Sadly, it was portrayed very differently. Some polemicists immediately pounced. The media dubbed it the “Ground Zero Mosque,” an unfair name that instantly cast the project in a negative light. Mayor Michael Bloomberg argued for it. Former Speaker Newt Gingrich railed against it. The impassioned families of victims could be heard on both sides of the debate. Other public figures piled on, virtually climbing over each other to be heard. The tension reached a boiling point as local community boards repeatedly voted in favor of the project amidst continued protests and counter protests.
Then ADL weighed in. Although before my tenure, I know that ADL struggled with the decision, trying to balance a genuine desire to support a noble endeavor but also to support the victims and families of the 9/11 terrorist attack who voiced opposition. And so, ADL decided not to oppose the project outright, but instead tried to take a nuanced position, advocating for a location change that the organization felt would help lead to the type of reconciliation the project itself was meant to represent.
There are likely other ways ADL’s voice could have improved rather than impaired the conversation. For instance, as some of the organizers later reflected, more engagement early on with victims’ families could have gone a long way in achieving the ultimate goal of fostering reconciliation and peace. Daisy Kahn once explained how the goal of Cordoba House was to “repair the breach and be at the front and center to start the healing.” Perhaps ADL should have helped facilitate such a discussion.
And yet, we chose to weigh in differently. And through deep reflection and conversation with many friends within the Muslim community, the real lesson is a simple one: we were wrong, plain and simple.
Ultimately, the project as envisioned never came to be – with the development primarily becoming another familiar condominium tower.
We can’t change the past. But we accept responsibility for our unwise stance on Cordoba House, apologize without caveat and commit to doing our utmost going forward to use our expertise to fight anti-Muslim bias as allies.
As we see the signs of another surge in anti-Muslim hate, it is imperative that the collective we – civil society, the business community, elected officials and the American citizenry writ large – embrace the idea and intent of Cordoba House and work together to foster peace.
We have seen Muslims demonized in recent years in ways that make the heart ache – from the early talk of a “Muslim registry” in days after the 2016 election to the travel ban imposed the following year on Muslim-majority countries to the unfounded conspiratorial claims of Muslims invading the US that still show up in the rantings of some prime-time cable news personalities. This is in addition to the all-too frequent use of slander and stereotypes of Islam on social media platforms. ADL’s most recent survey of online hate and harassment found that Muslim respondents regularly experience identity-based harassment. This kind of ugliness seems to be on a permanent loop.
It’s clear that some of the wild charges lodged against Cordoba House – that it was organized by “radical Islamists” and “terrorist sympathizers” – were part of this pattern. And we must not allow this pattern to continue, especially as Afghans seek refuge in the promise of America.
This must start with the Biden administration stepping up to ensure Afghan refugees do not face burdensome roadblocks or are unjustly denied entry to our nation. This is why over 300 organizations, including ADL, signed a recent letter to President Joe Biden expressing “our support for a robust humanitarian response from the United States and our commitment to assist Afghans in danger” while also imploring the administration to “expand opportunities for Afghans to seek refuge.”
But the work doesn’t stop there. It is on all of us to fight back against the Islamophobic attempts to prevent refugees from gaining asylum. Again, we already see the disturbing “invasion” claim being thrown around again in direct reference to Afghan refugees. Some have tried to rationalize their hate by invoking the White supremacist “Great Replacement” theory. All of it is wrong.
We are better than this. We actively can choose not only to reject hate, but to embrace those in need. ADL’s stance on Cordoba House was an error that pales alongside the abrupt abandonment of our Afghan allies, but all of us should draw upon our better angels and welcome those poor and huddled masses who today seek our support.
Note: An earlier version of this article incompletely described the models for Cordoba House.