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January 21, 2017 / 23 Tevet, 5777
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Build A ‘Golden Age” Center At Ground Zero

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America is engaged in an intense debate regarding the plan to build a mosque and Muslim community center near Ground Zero, the site of the 9/11 attack on New York. A wave of criticism has been growing against establishing a mosque at this site, the very idea of which elicits overwhelming pain as the horrible crime was committed by followers of extremist Islam via the manipulation of its symbols and the belief that they were acting as messengers of God.

There are those who believe that the America of freedom of worship, liberalism, and human rights should not negate the rights of a religious group, and that those who worship their God through Islam should be allowed to build their sites of worship anywhere, without taking into account the atrocity that took place at that location. They believe this approach could result in greater understanding, friendship, and interfaith dialogue, which would receive inspiration from the establishment of such a center on that pain-saturated location.

I would like to shed some light on this discussion based on our experience here in Israel. We have also learned the lessons of Islamic terrorism, which has brought great tragedy upon our people. Israeli society was also divided about whether to reach out to Islamic fundamentalism and turn the other cheek, or to fight with gritted teeth an enemy that leaves no life in its path.

A great number of mosques have been built in our country. Have they contributed to understanding and dialogue, or have they increased opposition and alienation?

A mosque was build on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, at the location where Solomon’s Temple stood in the eternal capital of the Jewish people. This mosque has not served as a source of cooperation, tolerance, and friendship. On the contrary, to this day Jews are prevented from praying on the Temple Mount. Various Muslim leaders have rejected opportunities for understanding, tolerance, and dialogue. The grand mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin Al-Husseini, was one of the most extreme Israel-haters, befriending the Nazis and supporting the “Final Solution” – the extermination of the Jews.

Even when the Jews returned to Jerusalem, and administration of the Al-Aksa mosque was given to the Muslim Waqf, tolerance did not spring forth. Rather, extremism continued to flourish – including the destruction of archeological gems on the mount and the pileup of refuse outside the walls of the mosque. From time to time Muslims have protested and even rioted against Jews praying at the edge of the Temple Mount, at the Western Wall – protests supported by the mosque’s administration.

It occurs to me that this example may not be appropriate, as Jerusalem serves as a foundation of the monotheistic religions and the specific goals of each perhaps hinder interfaith harmony in the holy city. But a mosque was also erected south of Jerusalem, in Hebron, the burial place of the forefathers and foremothers of the Jewish nation, which was purchased by Abraham 4,000 years ago. This mosque, built at a location holy to the monotheistic religions, has not served as a place of interfaith understanding and cooperation.

In fact, just as in the case of Al-Aksa mosque, the opposite has been true. Jews historically were not allowed to enter this site, and they were only allowed to climb to the seventh step of the entrance and not beyond. Today, this site does not serve as an impetus for unity or tolerance, but for rage and unending clashes.

Perhaps it is tempting to think that the fight over love of the departed father has resulted in an inability to find a compromise. But recall that on the border of Jaffa, the ancient city of 3,000 years which borders on the first modern Hebrew city established 100 years ago, the mosque known as “Hassan Beck” was constructed. This mosque, too, did not result in the building of bridges between religions. Day in and day out, not only would the muezzin climb the mosque’s tower, but also a sniper – who would shoot at the Jewish neighborhoods, killing and injuring innocent citizens.

Throughout our experience, these mosques did not bring us dialogue, tolerance, or understanding. I would, however, like to add a ray of hope to these words. During the Golden Age of ancient Spain, there existed cooperation, understanding and dialogue among representatives of the three religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Possibly, instead of establishing a mosque near the location of the great tragedy of 9/11, a center of the three religions – a “New Golden Age” Center – could be established, which would symbolize both a readiness and a desire to live in peace and friendship side by side with one another.

Perhaps the significant funds that have been raised to establish the Ground Zero mosque could be redirected to fund the establishment of a center of the three religions that will prove believers can live in harmony while making joint efforts against the fundamentalism and extremism that is a danger to all of us.

Dr. David Altman is vice chair of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Strategic Dialogue and senior vice president of Netanya Academic College.

Dr. David Altman

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