In this space last week, we questioned the thinking behind the Anti-Defamation League’s decision to “generalize” the swastika, treating it now as a wider symbol of hate rather than simply as an indicator of anti-Semitism. (See opposite page for the ADL’s point of view.)
In brief, we argued that symbols do matter, and suggested that the symbolism of the swastika, at least in this generation, cannot be separated from its use by the Nazis, no matter how some choose to reinterpret it.
This week, there is another symbol that bears questioning.
On Tuesday, New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission voted unanimously to deny landmark status to a building near the fallen World Trade Center, making it possible to use the property for an Islamic community center and mosque.
The commission held that the building wasn’t special enough to merit landmark status. That may well be true, and, if so, the commission was honor-bound to be truthful.
However, the decision has ramifications far beyond the question of building style.
In recent weeks, a diverse collection of politicians, individuals, and organizations – including the ADL – have opposed plans to build the mosque, arguing that it disrespects the memory of those who perished on 9/11.
In this case, at least, the ADL has acknowledged the power of symbols, taking a strong position against erecting the mosque.
This posture has earned the organization both support and criticism. Rabbi Irwin Kula, president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, said the ADL – with its reputation for fighting discrimination on the basis of religion or ethnicity and for advocating tolerance – “should be ashamed of itself.”
Nevertheless, one cannot overlook the very real symbolism of the World Trade Center site. Whether or not the presence of a mosque near the ruined structures can be considered an “insult,” as some maintain, it is, at the very least, troubling.
The thinking behind the new Islamic Center is that it will provide a forum for moderate Muslim voices. And yet, sadly, those voices have been sadly absent in recent years. We do want to hear them and yes, as mosque supporters argue, we do want to move forward.
But is this the right way to do it, choosing a location that, by its very nature, is controversial?
Let the dialogue begin and let intergroup relations flourish. But don’t be naÃ¯ve: Symbols do matter.