President Obama was right to express his views on constructing a mosque near Ground Zero, the site of the 9/11 catastrophe: "As a citizen and as President, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country. And that includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in Lower Manhattan in accordance with local laws and ordinances."
Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who was first to take up the fight to protect the legitimate rights of American Muslims to build a mosque near Ground Zero, was right and courageous to lead the way and point Americans in the right direction.
President Obama, according to The New York Times of August 15th is now "faced with withering Republican criticism of his defense of the right of Muslims to build a community center and mosque near Ground Zero." Those leading the charge against the president, according to The Times, "including Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, Representative John A. Boehner, the House minority leader and Representative Peter King of New York, forcefully rejected the president's stance."
The president's position will be remembered by later generations of Americans with the same high regard as President George Washington's letter in 1790 to the Jews of Rhode Island who built the Touro Synagogue in that state.
Moses Seixas of the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island wrote to George Washington: "Deprived as we heretofore have been of the invaluable rights of free Citizens, we now with a deep sense of gratitude to the Almighty disposer of all events behold a Government, erected by the Majesty of the People — a Government, which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance — but generously affording to all Liberty of conscience, and immunities of Citizenship: — deeming every one, of whatever Nation, tongue, or language equal parts of the great governmental Machine: — This so ample and extensive Federal Union whose basis is Philanthropy, Mutual confidence and Public Virtue, we cannot but acknowledge to be the work of the Great God, who ruleth in the Armies of Heaven, and among the Inhabitants of the Earth, doing whatever seemeth him good."
President Washington responded as follows: "...The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent national gifts. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support. It would be inconsistent with the frankness of my character not to avow that I am pleased with your favorable opinion of my Administration, and fervent wishes for my felicity. May the children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy."
Let us not do again, albeit in different form and to a different group, what we did to Japanese-Americans during World War II when we rounded them up without cause. No Japanese-American was ever charged with treason, notwithstanding that they were placed in internment camps for the balance of the war.
I am a proud Jew. Proud of my religion and my culture. Columnist David Brooks, also Jewish and similarly proud, in a New York Times article of January 12, 2010, wrote of our people's accomplishments: "Jews are a famously accomplished group. They make up 0.2 percent of the world population, but 54 percent of the world chess champions, 27 percent of the Nobel physics laureates and 31 percent of the medicine laureates. Jews make up 2 percent of the U.S. population, but 21 percent of the Ivy League student bodies, 26 percent of the Kennedy Center honorees, 37 percent of the Academy Award-winning directors, 38 percent of those on a recent Business Week list of leading philanthropists, 51 percent of the Pulitzer Prize winners for nonfiction."
We Jews also have our share of thieves, predators, child molesters, Ponzi-schemers, traitors and profiteers. Muslims have their share of great world accomplishments – the concept of zero, advancements in mathematics, medicine, chemistry, botany and astronomy. They also have their share of crazies, tyrants, homophobes, those holding hostile and irrational attitudes towards women, vilification of Jews, Christians, Hindus and other so-called infidels.
Let's be calm now and not need the passage of time to bring us to our senses and years later apologize. Of course, those who suffered the loss of loved ones, and those exposed to the catastrophe of 9/11 have every right to hold opinions opposing the building of the mosque. They are grieving and rightfully enraged at anyone associated in any way with the 19 Muslim terrorists who were responsible for the deaths of nearly 3,000 Americans killed on 9/11, and all of us must sympathize with them and their feelings.
But Americans must never forget who we are and why our Founding Fathers and those who built the original 13 colonies came here. It was primarily to find and create a new country in which they could practice religious freedom, denied them in England. Jews found that freedom of religion in New Amsterdam, where the East India Company of Holland directed the first public anti-Semite in that city – its Governor, Peter Stuyvesant – to let them in, he first refusing to do so.
I believe we are locked in battle with fanatical Islam and will be for the foreseeable future. I do not believe the vast majority of Muslims, and American Muslims in particular, are fanatics or enemies of the American people.
Government should neither favor nor hinder the efforts of religious institutions, other than to protect their rights to engage in carrying them out as permitted under the First Amendment of the Constitution.
Ed Koch served as Mayor of New York City from 1978 to 1989.
Related City Conversation: 9-11 Family Member: Core Beliefs Frame Mosque Debate