Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Are we losing our minds over Cordoba House?

Good grief! What is happening to this country? Howard Dean, of all people, says that Cordoba House should be built somewhere else. First Harry Reid and now Howard Dean. Have they lost their minds? This is nothing but the rankest political cynicism on their part. It seems that we have to rely on Republicans like Michael Bloomberg and Ted Olson to uphold any honor for this country. (And remember - Ted Olson lost his wife on the plane that hit the Pentagon on 9/11/01).

For a concurring opinion, see Peter Beinart, America has disgraced itself.

See also Michael Kinsley, Cordoba House, Charles Krauthammer, and the First Amendment.

He writes:
Muslim American citizens have a constitutional right to build a religious and cultural center anywhere in this country that Christians or Jews may build one. This is so clear and obvious that opponents of the planned Muslim center near Ground Zero usually concede or avoid the point. Then they say that the center should not be built at this location anyway. I guess they mean that these Muslims should give up their right voluntarily--or under duress.

And why do they say this? Well, the two obvious possibilities are bigotry and political opportunism. Maybe they associate this Muslim center with the perpetrators of 9/11. That would be bigotry, since the only real connection is that both are Islamic. Or maybe, in the case of Republican politicians and right-wing commentators, it is simply a matter of taking advantage of a political opportunity that has fallen into their laps.

Both of these reasons are fairly unattractive. Is there any reason to oppose the mosque that isn't bigoted, or demagogic, or unconstitutional? None that I've heard or read.

I also heard a good interview today with Irwin Kula at Amy Goodman's Democracy Now! (I am generally not a fan of Amy Goodman, but she sometimes has really good interviews with people the mainstream press doesn't pay attention to). He's a rabbi who is the head of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, also known as Clal. Here are some of his words:
RABBI IRWIN KULA: ....But I actually think the distinction between the right to build and the wisdom to build is a very, very, very dangerous distinction. It actually is pernicious, in a way. And I would have liked the President to say something like this: "I reject the premises of the question, because I know where that question is coming from. That question is coming from already a premise that there are these terrorists and these American Muslims, and they’re equivalent. And therefore, you’re asking me about the wisdom of American Muslims, who have been in New York for a long time in a mosque that was twenty—that was within twelve blocks for the last twenty-seven years. And the very fact of the question of the wisdom is actually to presume suspicion. And so, I reject the question. There’s only two—there’s only one wisdom I care about: the wisdom of the Constitution, I care about, and the wisdom of distinguishing between our genuine enemies and American citizens."

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Rabbi Kula, let me ask you about the statement of the Anti-Defamation League. It published a statement opposing the Park51 project, saying, quote, "Ultimately this is not a question of rights, but a question of what is right. In our judgment," they said, "building an Islamic center in the shadow of the World Trade Center will cause some victims more pain—unnecessarily—and that is not right." The ADL national director Abraham Foxman later defended this position on CNN.

    ABRAHAM FOXMAN: Our position basically was an appeal to the imam and his supporters. If you want to heal, if you want to reconcile, is this the best place to do it? Should you do it in face—in the face of those who are saying to you, most of the victims, families of the victims, the responders, are saying, "Please don’t do it here. Please don’t do it in our cemetery." I believe, on this issue, the voices, the feelings, the emotions of the families of the victims of the responders, I think take precedent maybe over even the Mayor’s.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Abe Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League. Rabbi Kula, your response?

RABBI IRWIN KULA: I mean, I’m just deeply disappointed, and I was, you know, quoted as saying I think the ADL should be ashamed of itself. I think the sad thing here is that Abe Foxman, since 9/11, has been one of the most important advocates to ensure that there was not defamation and not prejudice for Muslims, and the shame here is that he actually knows Daisy and knows Imam Feisal for a long time. And so, what I think what we really have here is tremendous political pressure.

AMY GOODMAN: And Daisy is Daisy Khan, the wife of Imam Feisal—

RABBI IRWIN KULA: And Daisy Khan, I’m sorry, yeah, the wife of Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf. And what we have here is tremendous political pressure. And I’m sure the stories are going to come out in the next months of the kinds of pressures that were put on somebody like Abe. And you can see the torturous kinds of statement that he had to make about the feelings, I mean, which—anguish, and I think we need to say something, that the anguish of people does not automatically translate into public policy. And sometimes anguish and really, really personal suffering needs to be disconnected from public policy, because anguish doesn’t allow us to abandon rationality. Anguish doesn’t allow us to abandon kind of first principles about what our country stands for.

And I had two friends who died in the World Trade Center. I was very involved in this for a long time. And to be able to use the sensitivities of people to really—to really stoke fear, there’s something very cynical about that. And there isn’t such a thing as the sensitivities of 9/11 families. There are a lot of different 9/11 families, and there are not only 9/11 families who lost directly people, but there are 9/11 families who were forced out of their homes for years in the neighborhood. So, what do we mean by the "the feelings of 9/11 families"? These are abstractions used to actually stoke fear in the country.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you about Imam Rauf, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, who is headed, by the way, on a State Department mission for two weeks to the Middle East.... How do you know him?

RABBI IRWIN KULA: Well, kind of in the interfaith work that we’ve been doing over the last decade. I was one of the readers of his book, What’s Right with Islam: A New Vision of Muslims in America. We were in Australia recently, at the World Parliament of World Religions. You know, in the interfaith world, there aren’t that many people working at the cutting edge of interfaith. That is what’s so crazy about this story. Imam Feisal has been at the cutting edge of whatever we mean by "moderate Islam." I mean, those words weren’t even used until very, very recently. This is a guy who, well before 9/11, he had two books that are very, very important—Islam: A Search for Meaning and Islam: A Sacred Law. These are things that people need to read. And it’s so easy to take one comment out of context. Any of us who have been in the media, any one of us who have been interviewed, you can take a statement and turn someone into a radical and turn someone into a terrorist. This guy has been at the highest echelons—State Department, FBI. He has spoken in the Aspen Institute. He’s spoken in Washington Cathedral. This is—I mean, it’s really crazy.

And that’s another part of the story that’s very scary. I mean, the community board, before anything, voted this 15-0. There was an amazing conversation. In fact, there was a request from—of Daisy Khan: Could you put a 9/11 memorial inside of the—of what is now Park51? And he said, "Of course. We’re planning on doing that." And it was—this got stoked by a very small group of people, and then—what I would say is an irresponsible national leadership, whether it’s Gingrich and Palin, and then a certain element of the media. And what’s very scary is, what was a local issue that was—that was a non-issue. This is a group of people, led by Imam Feisal, that has been ten blocks from there for the last twenty-seven years. This is a complete non-issue. And so, what it really says is, what’s going on in America?

Sunday, August 15, 2010

What makes a place holy?

Charles Krauthammer begins his column decrying the building of the Cordoba House Islamic cultural center two blocks from the World Trade Center site in Lower Manhattan with these words:
A place is made sacred by a widespread belief that it was visited by the miraculous or the transcendent (Lourdes, the Temple Mount), by the presence there once of great nobility and sacrifice (Gettysburg), or by the blood of martyrs and the indescribable suffering of the innocent (Auschwitz).
When we speak of Ground Zero as hallowed ground, what we mean is that it belongs to those who suffered and died there -- and that such ownership obliges us, the living, to preserve the dignity and memory of the place, never allowing it to be forgotten, trivialized or misappropriated.
I understand why a place that people believe was "visited by the miraculous or the transcendent" is considered holy - Krauthammer might have given the example of the Ka'ba in Mecca as well - but why does the shedding of blood visit sanctity upon a place? He conflates several different circumstances here.

Gettysburg is the site of a historic battle of the American Civil War - those who died there were soldiers fighting for a cause they believed in. Thousands died in the fighting. For Krauthammer, and probably for many Americans, the place is made holy by the nobility and sacrifice of the soldiers who died there. But are all battlegrounds sacred? What about the battlegrounds of the First World War? Guadalcanal? The Ardennes Forest (where the Battle of the Bulge was fought)? Khe Sanh? Fallujah? The battlegrounds where Iranians and Iraqis fought each other in the 1980s?

Were those who died at Auschwitz martyrs? Emil Fackenheim has argued that before the Nazi assault upon Jews, Jewish martyrdom was something that could be chosen. Jews in the Middle Ages who were confronted with the choice of converting to Christianity or being killed, and chose to die, were in fact martyrs, witnessing to their devotion to God. (The English word martyr, taken from the Greek, originally referred to a witness).

But the Jews who were taken to Auschwitz were not confronted with any kind of a choice - they were killed. Nothing a Jew could do could dissuade the Nazis from killing him or her, since the Nazis thought of Jewishness as a racial, not a religious identity. Jews who had converted to Christianity were killed as Jews at Auschwitz (and other death camps). This is why Edith Stein died there, even though she had converted to Christianity and become a nun. Catholics regard her as a martyr for her faith, but I don't think many Jews would.

Krauthammer also says that Auschwitz was sanctified by the "indescribable suffering of the innocent." I certainly think it is more accurate to call those who died there innocent victims, rather than martyrs, since they had no choice about their fate.

And he also says that the World Trade Center site is "hallowed ground" because of the suffering and death of the victim on September 11, 2001. Again, these people were offered no choice - Osama bin Laden did not appear before them and give them the choice of martyrdom or conversion to Islam. They too were innocent victims.

So Krauthammer, and probably many other people, would consider the Gettysburg battleground, Auschwitz (and other concentration and death camps), and Ground Zero "hallowed ground" because of the deaths that occurred in those places.

But can death sanctify a place? In Jewish tradition, death is the greatest source of impurity. If one touches a dead human body, or enters a house or other enclosed space where there is a body, one becomes impure. In biblical times, this meant that the impure person could not offer a sacrifice in the Temple, or even enter the area of the Temple. According to the Torah, the ashes of the red heifer are needed to purify people from the taint of death. And since we no longer possess those ashes, we are all tainted with the impurity of the dead. There are still vestiges of this belief in Jewish ritual practices. Men who are kohanim generally do not enter graveyards. After visiting a graveyard, people will wash their hands. Jews place graveyards outside cities or other areas where people live. The fact that we are tainted with the impurity of the dead means, to many religious Jews, that we should not set foot on the Temple Mount, in accordance with the purity laws of the Torah, which state that the area is still holy.

Auschwitz, the other death camps, and many other places in Europe once occupied by the Nazis are full of mass graves of Jews and others murdered by the Nazis. Many of these places have, in fact, been forgotten. During the Soviet era, in the USSR, their character was distorted by Soviet memorial practices, which did not mention Jews as victims even when all or a majority were in fact Jews.

If the location of a mass grave has been suppressed or forgotten or distorted, is it still sacred ground? How would we know that it was sacred? Krauthammer says that Ground Zero is "hallowed ground" because it "belongs to those who suffered and died there." In this formulation, a forgotten mass grave somewhere in eastern Europe is hallowed ground because it belongs to those who died there. But how would the rest of us know this, if the memory has been lost?

This is something that has bothered me for a long time. It has always seemed to me that it would be right and proper that such a place - a mass grave, the site of a concentration camp or a massacre, places where great suffering and death have occurred - would announce itself, even if we did not know what happened there, so that when we came upon it we would know that something evil had happened there, that the land itself would be marked by a psychic scar perceptible to human beings who pass by. But this is not true. When people do not know that a particular place was where a massacre happened, or that a mass grave is located there, or that once there stood a concentration camp - the land itself does not cry out to us. Unlike the biblical story of Cain, the voice of our brothers' and sisters' blood does not cry out to us from the ground. A place cries out to us only when we know what happened there and mark it as a site of death.

But does mass death caused by great human evil make a place holy? When I think of what happened at the Skede dunes north of Liepaja, Latvia, along the Baltic Sea, it is hard for me to consider this place holy. For me, it is cursed. (Again, this is a human perception, since the ground itself does not cry out to us). What the Nazis and their collaborators did there (and in many other places) to innocent people are among the most dreadful things that human beings have ever done to other people. As Krauthammer says, the suffering of those who died there is indescribable. How could the wicked actions of the perpetrators or the horrible suffering of the innocent make this place holy?

When I was there a couple of weeks ago, I didn't know exactly where the mass graves are, nor does the monument there specify where they are (unlike the memorial at the Rumbula Forest in Riga). The place itself did not speak to me, only the inherited knowledge of what happened there, which has been preserved in human memory.

So is Ground Zero holy ground? Is it hallowed by the suffering and deaths of the victims of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack? Or is it cursed by the evil of the actions committed by the Al Qaeda hijackers? The answer depends upon one's notion of what makes a place holy. And what should then happen is determined by what one thinks is appropriate to a holy or a cursed place.

For me, the Islamic center that Imam Rauf proposes to build two blocks from the World Trade Center site does not violate the sanctity of Ground Zero - if in fact it is a holy place, sanctified by the deaths of the victims of the attacks. Aside from the constitutional question of whether the government has any right to prevent an Islamic center from being built there (which it does not, as long as it accords with the zoning regulations of New York City), the place that he proposes to build is intended to build bridges among people of different religions, not separate them or incite further hatred. It seems to me that Cordoba House is exactly the kind of center that should be built close to Ground Zero - because what we need to learn is how to live together with each other in peace.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Good news

It's nice to have some good political news, two days in a row - the California anti-gay marriage amendment overturned and Elena Kagan confirmed as Supreme Court Justice.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Let's not have a new Lebanese war

Hopefully this is NOT the beginning of new war: Two Lebanese soldiers killed in clash with IDF on northern border. The report is pretty confusing - it's hard to know what exactly happened.
Israel's northern border erupted on Tuesday as an Israel Defense Forces tank exchanged fire with a Lebanese army position, killing two Lebanese soldiers, in what appeared to be the most serious military confrontation since Israel's month-long war with Hezbollah in 2006.

The Lebanese army confirmed that two of its troops had been killed when Israeli forces fired on a vehicle in which they were traveling, setting it on fire and wounding another.

In Lebanon, security sources said that Israeli shells fired at the southern Lebanese border village of Aadassi hit a house, wounding two - a soldier and a civilian.

Lebanese troops responded with artillery fire, Lebanese press reports said, while eyewitnesses said fire had broken out in two buildings in the village.

"It started when the Israelis wanted to cut a tree down inside Lebanon," one security source in Lebanon said. "The Lebanese army fired warning shots at them and they responded by shelling.
Hebrew article, which seems to be more comprehensive: Exchanges of fire between the IDF and the Lebanese Army.

Ynet has more details:
Fire in the north: A day after rockets were fired at Eilat, loud explosions were reported on the northern border as Israeli and Lebanese forces engaged in massive exchanges of fire.

Security sources and witnesses in Lebanon said three Lebanese soldiers and a local journalist were killed in the clash.

The fire erupted after IDF soldiers performing routine operations in a border-area enclave within Israeli territory came under fire. Northern residents have reportedly been ordered to enter secured rooms and bomb shelters. Many locals informed Ynet of loud explosions heard in the region....

Lebanese sources also reported exchanges of fire between Israeli and Lebanese forces. According to one report, the Lebanese Army fired at an Israel tank.

The IDF fired four rockets that fell near a Lebanese army position in the village of Adaysseh and the Lebanese army fired back," a security official in the area told AFP. According to eyewitnesses, the shells hit a Lebaense house. He said one Lebanese soldier and one civilian were wounded.

A Lebanese army spokesman said the clashes erupted after Israeli soldiers attempted to uproot a tree on the Lebanese side of the border."The Israelis began to fire and we responded," he said....

Notably, the clash erupted after Israeli forces were operating in a border-area enclave in Israeli territory. The army recently said such operations were necessary in order to prevent Hezbollah from taking advantage of vulnerable spots in the region. "If we don't operate within the enclaves on the northern border, we will create a dangerous vacuum that Hezbollah might use," a senior officer at the northern border said recently.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Touring Copenhagen - Resistance Museum

I arrived in Copenhagen Friday afternoon from Tartu, via Riga (which was a little nerve-wracking, because I had left one piece of luggage in the luggage storage room in the airport, and I had to figure out how to get it on as hand luggage without paying an enormous sum of money to Air Baltic, which allows only one piece of checked luggage - but I did get it on without having to pay). I was pretty tired, so I didn't go anywhere once I got here, but I went out yesterday morning. The first challenge was figuring out how to buy a metro ticket at the closest stop - there were directions in English, but they weren't very clear. With the help of several patient Danish people, I bought the ticket and headed for my first destination, the harbor, where I was going to take a harbor tour.

It was really a beautiful day - not too hot, with a nice breeze, and it was great to be out on the water. We sailed into the harbor and on several canals (I hadn't realized before this that Copenhagen has canals), passing lots of other tourist boats doing the same thing.

People relaxing at the water's edge, with the Amalieborg castles behind them.
When we got back, I was hungry and had lunch in an Italian restaurant (of which Copenhagen appears to have an abundance). I then walked over to the Museum of the Danish Resistance (during WWII), which turned out to be quite an affecting museum. It covered the whole period from the German invasion in April 1940 to the liberation in May 1945, including the rescue of the Danish Jews from Nazi deportation. The story is really quite amazing. Almost all were ferried to Sweden by the Danish resistance; only about 450 were captured and sent to Terezin, and of those, about 400 survived.

The museum was divided into several sections, starting with a general introduction to Nazism. While some of the exhibits were photographs or facsimiles, many were authentic artifacts of the time period. One of the first items that I saw, to my shock, was the label below from a canister of Zyklon B, which had been found by a Dane in the hold of a sunken German ship.

The next part of the museum was devoted to the first stage of the Nazi occupation of Denmark – accommodation to the wishes of the occupiers. Germany occupied Denmark on April 9, 1940, and the Danish government quickly capitulated. The Germans ruled Denmark through a Danish government coalition, so that full Nazi policies were not implemented (for example anti-Jewish legislation). This included Denmark furnishing Germany with many of its food needs during the war, as well as favorable trade agreements for Germany. The next item illustrates this trade.

These are toy figures of Hitler and Mussolini, purchased in a Copenhagen store in 1943. It had somehow never occurred to me that little figurines of fascist dictators were made – presumably for children to play with!

This is one of the German ENIGMA code machines, which was used by the German Navy in Esbjerg, Denmark.

  The Communist Party was not outlawed in Denmark until the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. At that point, the Germans told the Danish government to intern the leaders of the Danish communists, which they did. In November 1942 about 250 were sent to the Horseroed camp, which was run by the Danish police, not by the Nazi Gestapo (later on it was taken over by the Nazis).

A drawing from the internment camp by one of the inmates, Knudaage Larsen.

The next part of the museum was devoted to various types of Danish resistance to German rule in the early years of the occupation. An underground press flourished with newspapers produced by various factions of the Danish resistance. The picture above is of the printing press used to print a newspaper called “Frit Danmark,” which was a collaboration between Communists and Conservatives.

The Danish resistance was in close communication with the British by various methods, including illegal telegraph machines. The picture below shows a reconstruction of a room with equipment used by a telegraphist.

The Jews of Denmark were untouched by German persecution until the Danish government resigned in the summer of 1943, in the face of German decrees that they could not accept. This meant that Denmark was now under direct German rule, and they quickly organized for the arrest of the entire Danish Jewish community on October 1-2 (Rosh Hashanah). The Danish underground found out about the German decree, and through quick action, managed to save almost the entire community by ferrying them to Sweden.

On the right is a model of one of the boats used to ferry Jews to Sweden.

About 500 Jews, however, did not manage to get away – they were captured and sent to Terezin. Most of them survived the war without being deported to Auschwitz because of pressure exerted by the Danish government and aid sent by the Danish Red Cross.

(I visited Terezin in the summer of 2005 when I visited Prague - I wrote about it here).

This is a revolting German propaganda poster [from 1942] about Jews being forced to wear the yellow star. The text reads:
The cat cannot change his spots!

The leading English newspaper "Daily Mail" reported:

"The participation of Jews in breaking British wartime economic legislation has caused Judaism and Jewish names to be ostracized in England, said the Chief Rabbi Dr. J. Hertz in a London synagogue."

With these accusations, the rabbi certainly wanted to warn his racial comrades to greater caution in their dark black marketing business, so that the English people would not recognize whose lice are in the fur. His efforts, however, are likely to be in vain. So are the Jews. First they chase the people into war, and while the soldiers of those nations fight and bleed, they make business out of the war, pushing and cheating and filling their filthy pockets at the expense of their host peoples. In Germany the blame was pinned on them. We have separated them from the German national community and they are marked with a yellow Star of David.

Everyone knows: Whoever wears this sign is an enemy of our people.
A jacket belonging to one of the Danish Jews imprisoned in Terezin. 481 Danish Jews were imprisoned in Terezin, of which 51 died there. The rest were sent to Sweden at the end of the war.

When I came out of the museum I was feeling sad at the fate of some of the resistance fighters (who were captured and executed by the Nazis), and sat for a little while thinking and looking out over a stream. I then walked towards what turned out to be a fort, but on the way encountered a statue erected after the war, dedicated to those who had fallen in the war. (It's below).

Our fallen
in Danish and allied war service
Raised by the Danish people

Sacred cats in Copenhagen

I just spent the day visiting museums in Copenhagen, including the ruins underneath the Christansborg castle, the Jewish museum, and the National Museum. At the last museum, I headed up to the third floor to see the Egyptian and classical galleries, and found some attractive displays. There were some charming little cat statues in one of the Egyptian galleries, dedicated to the goddess Bastet.

Sekhmet, sun and war goddess, from ca. 1403-1365, Luxor, Egypt
These two images are the enormous head and foot of a lion found at Hama, Syria - they guarded the royal citadel (ca. 900-720 BCE).