Pulse of the Peninsula: Rabbi Davidson rebuts Geller on Islam

Pulse of the Peninsula: Rabbi Davidson rebuts Geller on Islam

Rabbi Jerome Davidson returned to Temple Beth-el where he is rabbi emeritus to give a strong rebuttal to the controversy over Pam Geller’s appearance at the Chabad of Great Neck earlier in the month.

Geller drew a huge crowd largely by playing the victim of those who would deny her free speech.

That was a complete fabrication (no one denied her freedom of speech), but in urging Great Neck Synagogue to withdraw its invitation, what Rabbi Davidson was defending was also First Amendment right: freedom of religion.

But this freedom goes beyond merely being allowed to pray to whatever God you choose  because what freedom of (and from) religion really means is a tolerance for different belief systems, different backgrounds, different heritages. 

This is the amendment that sets the framework for an America founded on acceptance of diverse people, beliefs and ideas.  It is what is so fundamental to America as a mosaic of humanity, a melting pot of peoples.

Jews should be particularly sensitive to this issue. For 2000 years in the Diaspora, Jews have had to live in fear of Inquisition, pograms, persecutions of every stripe by a religious majority that for most of humanity was also the political state. Many American Jews trace their roots back only one or two generations to parents or grandparents who came here to escape persecution and seek opportunity in a land that supposedly guaranteed equality to all.

This is the essence of American Exceptionalism; the opposite is on view daily in countries that are dominated by religious fundamentalists.

Davidson began his talk by acknowledging the danger that radical Islam poses, “because policies of radical Islam are the antithesis of the essence of America – we are aware of that and we realize how great a struggle it is.” The difference is a recognition that there are radical individuals, rather than branding an entire religion and an entire people (more than 1 billion in the world). 

“The Boston marathon bombing provides us with a frame of reference, for what occurred in Great Neck was in a certain way part of a larger story,” he said. “The marathon is an American celebration in Boston, attended by runners from 50 countries. Americans were citizens representing multitude religions, ethnic groups, a thoroughly American event.. among the many moving moments after the bombing, a Latino immigrant rushed over to a man who had both legs blown off, hovered over him, saved him..”

Davidson said that it would appear that what propelled the suspects, was “very much in a way related to reasons behind 9/11 tragedy – great anger with the western world, especially US – spelled out well by 9/11 commission report- primarily a feeling of great disapproval on the part of Islamic world with what they perceive as godlessness, immoral characteristic of our society in the view of radical Islam… because our way of life threatens the extremist Islamic world view.. as the Commission put it, all the wars and battles Muslims then and now engaged – Palestinian-Israeli, Russia-Chechnya, Kashmir-India.. are all blamed on us because we are the Satan of them all.

“Sen. Lindsay Graham (and I usually don’t quote him) said we are still at war with radical Islam, and it’s absolutely true, because policies of radical Islam are the antithesis of the essence of America – we are aware of that and we realize how great a struggle it is.

“We fight to preserve the fundamentals of this country, which is what we are about – reflected in the  Bill of Rights, enunciated by Franklin Delano Roosevelt; four freedoms: worship, speech, from want, from fear – they are at the very heart of what we believe as Americans “

“And we struggle to preserve them – from those on outside who would erode them, and inside who with politics and religious points of view would try to undermine them.”

You hear it all the time, and we heard it at Pam Geller’s talk at the Chabad: “They hate us for our freedoms.” But their antidote is to give in to the fundamentalists and destroy hose very ideals.

Davidson went back to the famous letter written by George Washington to the Jews of Newport right after his installation as president:

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 were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, 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…..

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 fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.

“That letter to our forbears in that synagogue is a letter to all Americans, certainly to American Muslims as well.” Davidson continued. “What occurred in Great Neck … was an attack on the spirit of that letter. A threat to the four freedoms we cherish and the defilement of the humanitarian ideals of Judaism. I believe that is really true.”

Davidson got involved after receiving a call from Habeeb Ahmed, a leader of the Islamic Center, 

Ahmed “wanted me, along with others, to somehow reach out to Great Neck Synagogue, because he knew – or soon discovered- that Pamela Geller has long track record of hatred and virulently anti-Islamic views that seems to divide Americans, rather than unite.

“Rather than attack radical Islam, she regularly demonizes an entire religion and its adherents, who are loyal, peace-loving American citizens.”

This is why Rabbi Davidson and Rabbi White entreated Rabbi Polikoff of Great Neck to withdraw the invitation, but the rabbi initially refused (it was only after the synagogue was threatened with a lawsuit if it did not permanently hire armed guards that the invitation to Geller was withdrawn). 

“Of course freedom of speech is enormously significant in our country and [Pam Geller] has right to say whatever she wants, a Constitutional right to do that, but that’s not the issue… the question is whether or not an institution such as an institution, a house of God should be a place for hate speech, an institution has a choice of inviting or not… she has the right to speak – in her home, in the park, wherever she wants, ACLU will make sure of that, but that does not excuse an institution that prides itself on respecting values of Judaism to provide a platform for a speech she was sure to give, and ultimately did,” Davidson said.

After Great Neck Synagogue withdrew the invitation, Chabad stepped in, where Geller “did present them with a tirade of bigotry against the Islamic faith, its adherents and the thuggery of those who hoped she would not be given this opportunity.

Davidson  said he felt obligated to speak up against hosting hate-speech – citing Elie Wiesel  who swore never to be silent whenever, whatever, whenever human beings endure suffering and humiliation, we must always take sides.

“It was necessary to take sides,” Davidson said.

And Martin Luther King Jr. who said, “Evil occurs not only because of the actions of bad people, but when good people do nothing. Silence is the great enabler.”

“I regretted deeply that Jewish leaders in the Long Island community were silent. I can’t understand it…. that is not the way, not when a woman like Pamela Geller has been guilty of spreading hatred so indiscriminately – she called for removal of the Dome of the Rock [a holy site in Jerusalem], posted doctored pictures of Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan in a Nazi helmet [and accused Kagan of supporting Nazi ideology] and has said that the true face of Islam is abhorrent and morally repugnant…

“She has linked Islam to bestiality and the rape of minors, compared Muslims to Nazis, and asserted Islam inspired Hitler. On March 10, she said Islam is not a race, but an ideology, an extreme ideology, the most radical and extreme ideology on the face of the earth. She has also said there is no such thing as moderate Islam.

“She muddies the waters because she hands the platform to extremists in our midst, instead of thoughtful fact base rhetoric on issues, you get xenophobia [a sin we seek forgiveness from during Yom Kippur].

“She promotes a paranoid fantasy about Sharia law taking over America by stealth. – and there are those who believe this ridiculous concern.

“Indeed, an amendment to the Missouri state constitution has been introduced, making the practice of Sharia law a felony. What if a state would put forward and put Jewish Halacha, or Catholic Canon the same way? Jews and Catholics would be outraged.  ..Have they not heard of First Amendment, which already prohibits courts form adopting any religious law?

“This only singles out Muslims as second-class citizens and undermines the Constitution of United States, and in her promotion of creeping Sharia law, she is guilty of both.

“The issue regarding Sharia advocacy by Muslims is a red herring, but why then is there this growing hatred of fellow citizens of Islamic faith? Why do so many Jews look to Geller to ratify their hatred?

“I don’t know. But I think the most disturbing part of this entire story is that we are not talking about the Islamic radicals, the terrorists in Middle East – we are talking about our neighbors, our fellow Americans.

“We rightfully fear Islamic terrorism. [We just learned of] the attempted bombing of a train from Toronto to New York – and somehow it may well become an apparent that lying behind actions of two brothers in Boston was the motivation gathered from Chechen extremist Muslims.

“After 9/11, there was a steep rise in anti-Muslim feeling – Muslims have been living in the United States forever, they are part of this country – but after 9/11 for obvious reasons, they began to feel they were living in constant suspicion of loyalty.”

“Congressman Peter King has proclaimed irresponsibly that 85 percent of American mosques are controlled by extremists, and only yesterday, I heard on NPR a professor from American University, that King still believes that all American Muslims have dual loyalties… Does that sound familiar? That is exactly what they said about Jews.”

{You might recall the Palmer Raids of 1919 and 1920, during an anti-immigrant phase coinciding with the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, in which, under the pretense of expelling Communists, most of those expelled were Jews.]

Davidson said that the furor over the so-called Ground Zero Mosque (which up until Pam Geller and her compatriots got a hold of the issue, the community had supported the expansion of the community center; the mosque had been there for years), “Somehow with that event, it became respectable again to attack Muslims in America, blurring the possible distinctions between radical fanatic Islam held by a tiny minority and centrist Islam. To ignore such distinctions between moderate majority and extremists on fringe is to perpetrate a lie.

“This hatred publicly expressed not only frightens Muslims but eats away at the spirit of pluralism, tolerance, cooperation that makes America, America.

“For most Muslims, terrorist ideology is a terrible distortion of their religious teachings. In a sense Islam has been hijacked by these extremists.

“We as Jews should certainly have emblazoned on our minds that to brush all with same brush, is to engage in the kind of stereotyping that has plagued us as Jews throughout history. We reject that kind of branding categorically and unequivocally.

“Today in the US, Muslims are really our allies in the struggle for civil liberties. For them and us, church-state separation protects … The principles of religious freedom is in many respects under siege – the sectarian ideology promoted by right wing of Republican party in last year’s election – abortion, same sex marriage, evolution – this is very troublesome, and is as threatening to Muslims as it is to us…

“There is a profound ignorance about Islam in this country – profound – and that’s why fundamentalist preachers like Graham and Robertson can get away with describing Islam in near-satanic terms,” he said adding that he hoped Temple Beth-El would revive its dialogue with the Islamic Center, and that other congregations in the country, “ at least the Reform movement, will reach out and embrace mosques who want to be part of our companionship and integration .”

Davidson added, “It is necessary to break down the misrepresentations that give Pam Geller the celebrity, the bucks, and fulfill a sick need on the part of many Jews who have nothing better to do than hate a little more….[who accuse Davidson and others] that we don’t stand up for the Jewish people, that we have gone over to enemies, that we are enablers as were some of assimilated Jews who did not understand threat to Hitler, weaklings that Jewish people in America will go down because of leadership that is so unwilling to stand up to the great threats that American Muslims are presenting to us.

“None of that is true.

“Jews in America are strong because of the First Amendment… because of the four freedoms, and we will remain strong as long as we protect those who are besieged.

“Jews will be free and secure, Latinos will be free and secure and Muslims will be free and secure when everybody is free and secure… we have to fight that battle,

“And George Washington could not have said it better- to ‘keep alive the spirit in this land which gives to  bigotry no sanction and persecution no assistance so that no one shall have to be afraid.’

“That is the mission, the experience these past weeks have inscribed on our hearts,” Davidson said.

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