In its basic form, the Ground Zero mosque debate boils down to a conflict
between two competing values – American freedom of religion versus the
sensitivities of the families of the victims of 9/11.
freedom-of-religion argument suggests that if Jews sought to build a synagogue
at Ground Zero (or anywhere else, for that matter), they would be within their
rights. That’s the American way. The opposing view suggests that while not every
Catholic was guilty in the Holocaust, and not every Muslim perpetrated the
crimes of 9/11, sensitivities still matter. Pope John Paul II had the decency to
force the Carmelite nuns out of Auschwitz, and Muslim leaders, too, ought to
relocate their project.
Similarly, the mutual accusations are parallel:
If you are opposed to the mosque, you are an Islamophobic racist. And if
in favor of it, you’re simply insensitive to the pain of those who lost
ones in the attack.
But we Israelis have learned from our experience that
matters are more complicated. One need not be racist or Islamophobic to
concerned about the mosque. For life in our region has taught us that
necessary step to defending yourself is acknowledging that someone else
to destroy you.
In the suburban, well-educated, politically and Jewishly
liberal America in which I grew up, we didn’t use the label “enemy.”
a dirty word, because it implied the immutability of conflict. Yes,
were people who fought us, but only because we hadn’t yet arrived at a
resolution of our conflict. We needed to understand them, so we could
resolve the conflicts that divided us.
I still recall being jarred, when
we made aliya, by the matter-of-factness with which Israelis use the
“enemy.” But it wasn’t a judgment or an accusation. It was simply a
are people out to destroy our state, who seek to kill us and our
as the intifada later amply demonstrated, they did not yearn for our
understanding or our friendship. They wanted our demise.
YEARS AGO, we
took our then teenage daughter to an evening sponsored by the army, at
religious parents could ask questions about what the army would be like
their daughters. Some of the parents were downright hostile, clearly
the prospect of their daughters joining the IDF. At one point, an
angry father stood up, turned to the base commander and asked (or more
accurately hissed), “Do you make the girls work on Shabbat?”
The room was
perfectly silent, for everyone knew the answer. No one moved. Even the
rabbi said nothing. He stood at the podium, leaned into the mike and,
thought, played with his beard.
Suddenly, one of the three soldiers who’d
been brought to address the parents, a young woman with her uniform
buttoned up to her chin, her sleeves extending to her wrists and her
skirt down to her ankles, looked the father right in the eye, and
called on, said to him, “Of course we work on Shabbat.” And then, after a
second’s pause, she added, “Gam
ha’oyev oved beshabbat
” – the enemy also works
It was a game changer. “What?” she essentially asked. “You
think we do this for fun? There are people out there trying to destroy
Either we’re as serious about this conflict as they are, or they’re
I hadn’t thought of that young woman in years, but ever since the
Cordoba Initiative controversy erupted, I’ve remembered her repeatedly.
Israelis do have something to teach Americans, and it’s very similar to
said to that father. It goes something like this: It’s fine to say that
“America is not at war with Islam,” to point out that most Muslims are
terrorists and that many American Muslims are moderates. That’s true, as
But it only goes so far. Because America is at war and its
enemies are Muslims. Politically correct hairsplitting runs the risk of
Americans blinding themselves to that simple but critical fact. It makes
difference what percentage of the world’s Muslims wants to destroy
There are enough of them that US air travel is now abominably unpleasant
more importantly, enough of them that more strikes on America appear
The US got lucky on Christmas Day when the bomber headed to
Detroit failed to detonate his explosives, and was lucky again in Times
in May, but less fortunate at Fort Hood. Yet those may be but the
could, heaven forbid, come to see 9/11 as child’s play.
States’ future is under attack, but Americans resist admitting it.
Barack Obama has sent 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, but he
said that he intends to pull them out by July. Can we imagine FDR
on Germany, but then adding that the war had to be over in a year, or in
would have been laughable. And America would have lost. The US has to
is it committed to destroying those who wish it ill, or is it willing to
destroyed by them? Those, sadly, are its only two alternatives.
parents were teenagers, they watched as evil took hold of Europe. But
saw America turn itself into an unprecedented, enormous military
America’s leaders understood that if the Nazis won, the world as we knew
would be over; we could either destroy Nazism, or have no reason to go
But when my children were teenagers, a different evil took root
across their eastern horizon. This time, though, the world has feigned
impotence. Iran is at the nuclear threshold. Iraq was at best a
“non-failure.” The battle against the Taliban and al-Qaida may take
decades, and may require many lives sacrificed if we are to win. But
grown war-weary. Obama is already planning to bring the troops home; the
“terrorist” is increasingly off-limits in the US because it is
Americans simply want the conflict to be
Its tendency to gentility is part of what has made America great.
But an unwillingness to call an “enemy” an enemy could lead to America’s
For Islam’s radical leaders tell us clearly what they seek: a world
Islam, with America’s sacred freedoms eradicated as a new “morality”
them. What is much less clear is whether Americans are willing to fight –
and to kill – to protect those freedoms.
Whether or not the Ground Zero
mosque ultimately gets built may not matter nearly as much as whether or
Americans are willing to gird themselves for the battles that sadly lie
We Israelis understand the fatigue that comes with war. We, like
would much prefer a world in which we did not have mortal enemies. We,
like Americans, would much prefer that our children went to college at
not to years of military service. But we’ve learned that anything short
absolute clear-sightedness and honesty – coupled with extraordinary
could destroy us.
The same is true for America. The truly important
question that the “Islamophobia” accusation raises is not what will
with a proposed building, but what will happen with a worldview. It
remains to be seen if America will do what it must if it is to guarantee
survival of the very values it is now debating. America can remain the
the free,” but only if it is also the “home of the brave.”
The writer is
senior vice president of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem. He is the
Saving Israel: How the Jewish People Can Win a War that May Never End, which
recently received a 2009 National Jewish Book Award. He blogs at