The Year Of Fear


While I would not necessarily have labeled it as such, when the religion writers of America declared that Park51, the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque,” was the biggest religion story of the year, it’s hard to ignore — especially given that we are in New York and the fact that this story certainly got the attention of lots of Jews from across the ideological and theological spectrum. And yet, the building itself is not a big deal.

Not only is it not built, it’s not even under construction and there is significant disagreement even among those who support its construction, including, according to Gallop, within the American Muslim community, about what exactly it is that should be built and where. What is a big deal, though, are the feelings that this debate evoked.

In fact, Park51 is certainly the biggest Rorschach test of 2010, one that speaks volumes about where Jews are and what’s really on our minds. It reminds me of the old joke about a man who visited a psychiatrist. Trying to get a handle on the patient, the doctor took out his inkblots, and the patient said every one was an image two people making love. Finally, the doctor remarked to the man that he was unduly fixated on sex. “Me?” said the man, “You’re the one showing me the dirty pictures!”

That’s how it is with Park 51 and the Jewish community.

Jews were at the forefront of both the opposition to and the support of the project, reminding us that as is often the case, taking the lead is itself a Jewish thing to do — and so is maintaining a diversity of opinion. There is no such thing as the one authentically Jewish position on most public-policy matters, and pretending otherwise is futile, foolish and arrogant. Translating that lesson from 2010 into the rest of Jewish life in 2011 will be a huge undertaking.

The story of the “Ground Zero Mosque” also demonstrated how much unresolved fear and unspoken anger permeates both our nation in general and the Jewish community in particular. This story took off, in part, because it became the release mechanism for collective feelings that have been largely held in check for almost 10 years since the 9/11 attacks.

With a small number of highly vocal Jewish organizations spreading fear and rage about Islam as being “fundamentally violent and hateful,” and a majority that wanted to prove that we could all get along, the Jewish community got little work done at the ragged edges where difficult but productive conversations take place. Conversations that acknowledged both how wounded and angry Jews were, and the real challenges in our relationships with American Muslims. Jews spent time either spreading calumny or singing “Kumbaya,” but we need to get past either approach as the dominant mode of relating to Muslims and Islam.

In fact, we need to get past them in terms of how we relate to different kinds of people in general, including Christians and also different kinds of Jews. Clearly, the top story in that regard was the Clinton-Mezvinsky wedding, but not because of the celebrity of the bride and groom. The real story with the wedding is not who got married but, as in the story of the struggles around Park51, what we can learn about ourselves and our community from it.

The truth is, whether all of us like it or not, whether we deem it “good for the Jews” or not, couples like Chelsea and Mark are proudly and simultaneously celebrating both faith traditions from which they come. Purists on both sides are nervous, to say the least. Some will immediately declare this to be a “dangerous syncretism” that undermines the integrity and authenticity of both traditions. Are they correct? I don’t think so, even though such blending is not for me.

The real upshot of the coverage of the most covered wedding of the year is what was revealed about the acceptance of Jews and Jewish religious practice in America. Not only are Jews at home in America, but so is Judaism — even in the form of an Aramaic ketubah and blessings in Hebrew. Having achieved that level of acceptance, our understanding of the tradition must shift.

This is not a plea for increased liberalization or for people to change their current position on intermarriage. It is about shifting our sense of Judaism as something in need of protection and preservation, to one that appreciates it as a resource for living better and happier lives.

Like the story of Park 51, the story of the Clinton-Mezvinsky wedding is not about a particular event, but about the opportunity lost when we are driven by fear of what might be instead of by the possibility of what we might create. But each is also a cautionary tale about the necessity of articulating our fears without feeling that we will be attacked for having done so.

Questions about Islam or the capacity of the Muslim community to critique and control itself are not always Islamophobic. Concern about intermarriage and the implications of its increasing popularity are not necessarily ethnocentric. And the challenges to our understanding of Jewish community and peoplehood that flow from being fully integrated into the cultural, spiritual and political world of contemporary America are real.

We live in a world where there are things to be afraid of, no doubt. And fears demand attention even if we do not all agree about what constitutes something we ought to fear, if for no other reason than knowing that people are not talked out of their fears simply because we label those fears as unfounded.

Fears are actually a vital part of the warning system used by any biological entity, individual or collective. But while fear is an essential component to staying safe, it is hardly ever the best mindset for the creation of safety over the long haul, and certainly not the mindset which creates the next levels of success in either personal or communal life.

The biggest story for the Jews of New York City may well have been Park 51/Ground Zero Mosque. And if it was, it will be because it will have taught us the importance of recognizing fears without being dominated by them, and the necessity of spending more time, money, and energy not on resisting what we fear, but on contributing to the New York and to the Jewish people of which we most deeply want to be a part.

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is president of CLAL – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and the author of “You Don’t Have to Be Wrong for Me to be Right.”