Chesler Chronicles

Waltzing with Suicide Bombers at Ground Zero. The Dangers of “Interfaith Dialogue.”

The Jews and Christians Behind the “Cordoba Initiative”

The concept of an “interfaith dialogue” is an alluring one. It assumes that people of faith are, by definition, virtuous, honest, tolerant, soft-spoken–and, hopefully,  more committed to peace, reason, and morality than non-religious people are.

But is this true?

What if some religious people who are involved in such seductive dialogues are also crafty, evil, double-dealing hypocrites, more interested in money, power, sex, and war than in embracing lives of poverty, powerlessness, chastity, or even self-restraint? What if they are liars? Or addicts? Or, like so many others, merely addicted to the “high life”?

I myself believe in talking to and working with Muslim and ex-Muslim dissidents and feminists—some of whom are religious Muslims, many of whom are secularists or apostates, but none of whom are powerful imams or sheikhs. I also believe in talking to and working with Christians, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, and atheists who are anti-Islamist—not necessarily anti-Islam or anti-Muslim—and who support universal human rights. By definition, we are all opposed to Islamic gender and religious apartheid, misogyny in general, and the demonization of Israel, America, and the West. These are my kind of “interfaith” allies.

Jews are especially tempted by the idea of an “interfaith dialogue.” Why? Because it means that as long as one is still talking, the pogrom has not yet started. Also, despite a long and terrible history of being persecuted and murdered, Jews still continue to believe that reason, ideas, charm,  even cleverness still have the power to triumph over genocidal hatred. Jews also believe that listening to the “other,” trying to understand his pain, will lead the lion to lie down with the lamb.

Thus, any number of prominent (and non-prominent) religious Jews are involved in “interfaith dialogues.” They fly around the world (they are often in constant motion) as they meet with their counterparts. Some stay at five star hotels or in palaces; others reside in more modest lodgings. Some are pillars of their communities; others seek to overthrow those very pillars. Some are clean-shaven, others fully bearded. Some sport ponytails and long, flowing hair. Some are seen as radically progressive, others as radically conservative. Mainly, all are men. Rabbis Arthur Waskow and Michael Lerner immediately come to mind. I bear a residual sentimentality towards them, (we go way back), but I certainly do not agree with their views about Israel, America, jihad, global warming, or the “Palestinian” question.

But there are other prominent, religious Jews who are more directly involved with the Cordoba Initiative, otherwise known as the mosque at Ground Zero, and with Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, its chairman. (Abdul is part of his last name, which means “servant of The Kind One.”)

The Great Mosque of Cordoba, originally a Christian Visigothic Church

Rabbi Bradley Hirschfield, the director of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership (CLAL), has been working with Imam Abdul Rauf  for awhile. In fact, Rabbi Hirschfield is on the Advisory Board of the Cordoba Initiative. In 2007, Rabbi Hirschfield spoke on a panel together with Abdul Rauf for the Cordoba Initiative. The panel was also sponsored by CLAL and the American Society for Muslim Advancement—and took place at UC Irvine (the very university where Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren’s speech was disrupted).  Their subject? “Why Should/Would Israel & Palestine exist? …How Cultural Narratives Compete.”  For all I know, it was a principled and moving moment. I have no sure way of knowing. All I can say is that these two men — Hirschfield and Abdul Rauf — are in each other’s orbit, talking, presenting and working together publicly.

Rabbi Hirschfield was also involved with Buffalo-based Muzzammil Hassan, the founder of Bridges TV, who turned out to be a serious and serial wife batterer and wife killer. He is the man who beheaded his wife Aasiya when she dared to leave him. Bridges advertised itself as committed to interfaith dialogue and to the presentation of a positive image of Muslim-Americans. Amazingly, Hirschfield, an author and radio personality, (whom I have met  twice, but briefly), has not dropped his association with Bridges, at least as shown on Wikipedia.

There are worlds within worlds. Rabbi Hirschfield, Imam Abdul Rauf, and former President Jimmy Carter, the author of the infamous book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, have all worked together at the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions. They presented at the same conference, the same year. Look: Maybe Rabbi Hirschfield tackled Carter at this conference—but probably not as forcibly and passionately as Alan Dershowitz tried to do at Brandeis. (Carter refused to appear with Dershowitz).

Jimmy Carter? He is a Jew-hater, Israel-demonizer, and a Saudi-money lover.

In any event: Rabbi Hirschfield may have good intentions. My point: He may not be a good judge of character. Or, he may not care with whom he associates. Just as he was willing to work with Muzzammil Hassan “for the greater cause,” just so, is he now working with Imam Abdul Rauf.

3/11 Madrid Bombing

Rabbi Hirschfield is not alone. There is also Professor Michael Gottsegen, a Visiting Assistant Professor of Judaic Studies at Brown University who is also on staff at CLAL. In addition, Gottsegen is listed as a technical consultant at the website for the Cordoba Initiative. Dr. Gottsegen is a co–founder and Executive Committee member of the Consultation on Interfaith Education (CIE), an advisory group with links to the Parliament of the World’s Religions (where Hirschfield, Carter, and Abdul Rauf have presented) and at the United Nations (currently run by tyrants and Islamists). CIE represents the world’s major religions, and seeks to promote and map the field of interfaith education globally. CLAL has been a member of CIE since 2003.

The Lead Signatories to the letter on behalf of the Ground Zero Mosque/Cordoba House include Her Majesty Queen Noor of Jordan–and Rabbi Roly Matalon of Bnai Jeshurun. There are other Jewish and Christian supporters–too many to list here. Among them are: Reverend Cannon Anne Mallonee, Trinity Church; Rabbi Bob Kaplan, Jewish Community Relations Council; Reverend William Tully, St. Barthalomew’s Church; The Very Reverend James Morton, Interfaith Center of New York; Reverend Katherine Henderson, Auburn Theological Seminary; Stephen Heintz, Rockefeller Brothers Fund.

Finally, the highly distinguished Rabbi Arthur Schneier, of Manhattan’s Park East Synagogue, has also praised the work of Imam Abdul Rauf and the Cordoba Initiative. Rabbi Arthur is quoted in the New York Times as saying: “He [Imam Abdul Rauf] subscribes to my credo: ‘Live and let live.’” However, Rabbi Schneier, Senior, is not on the Board of the Initiative.

His son, Rabbi Marc Schneier, who, together with Russell Simmons of Def Jam, runs the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, is working a slightly different, and younger, monied side of the street. Rabbi Marc is the one who launched the “twinning” of mosques and synagogues. He sponsored a panel at which Imam Namous, of the Islamic Center of New York, and Imam Samer AlRaey, a chaplain at Baruch College, CUNY, appeared. Like father, like son. Rabbi Marc is not on the Advisory Board of the Cordoba Initiative either.

By the way: The Islamic Center of New York is a heavily fortified and gated mosque—and yet it is called a Center. We should bear this in mind vis-a-vis the Center/Mosque at Ground Zero. And, by the way, it seems beautiful—but most of the women who gather there are heavily shrouded.

Now, let’s presume that Imam Abdul Rauf is one of the “good guys.” If so, why does he have Karen Armstrong on the Advisory Board of the Cordoba Initiative? Armstrong is the former nun and bestselling author who just happens to be a serious demonizer of Israel and a Jew-hater. According to Andrea Levin, the founder of CAMERA, Armstrong

“omits or obscures information that points to unique Jewish attachment to Jerusalem. … Armstrong is particularly popular with Arab-American groups promoting harshly anti-Israel agendas. [S]he wrote [in the Journal of Palestine Studies]:

“A city cannot be holy if it is not ruled with justice. Expropriating land, torturing, destroying property, threatening other people’s holy places, ejecting people from their ancestral homes, and depriving them of essential human rights cannot be justified…”

No, this is not a characterization of the Arab occupation of East Jerusalem from 1948 to 1967, its dispossession of the Jews and destruction of their property and holy places. It is an Orwellian gloss on the Israeli presence in the city as a reign of inequity which “cannot be justified in Jewish tradition by the overriding sanctity of Jerusalem, because holiness is also and inescapably a moral imperative to justice.”

And why is United Nations functionary Shashi Tharoor on the Board of the Cordoba Initiative? The United Nations—oh, let’s spare each other here. I do believe that the United States should pull out and found an organization of democracies, not tyrannies, democracies in which human rights exist and are not a mockery. If for no other reason: We should have all walked out when Iran was elected to the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women.

Still, let’s give Imam Abdul Rauf the benefit of the doubt. But why, then, is someone like Joan Brown Campbell, the director of the department of religion at the Chautauqua Institution, so enamored of him? Can it be because they both share the same brand of anti-Israelism/anti-Judaism/pro-Palestinianism? (Campbell is also one of the Lead Signatories on the Cordoba House letter where she is identified as the Reverend  Joan Brown Campbell, the Chautaqua Institution).

Campbell was once the Secretary General of the National Council of Churches (NCC), which has gone on record demanding that terrorists be tried as citizens, not as enemy combatants. Between 2000-2003, the NCC issued seven human rights criticisms. They condemned Israel four times, the United States twice, and Sudan once.

Let us still give Imam Abdul Rauf every benefit of every doubt. But why does he insist on building so close to Ground Zero? Yes, I know: One wants a tikkun, a redress, a radical turning of evil into good and yet, if one truly comes in peace and not to conquer, one first asks the families of the victims whether they would be offended if a mosque were to rise in this very spot. Might there be another, even better location to begin the important but difficult work of interfaith dialogue? According to Joan Brown Campbell, “building so close is owning the tragedy. It’s a way of saying we want to be here to repair the breach, as the Bible says.” But that’s Campbell speaking.

I question the…brash boldness of the location choice. It augurs no good.

But why has Imam Abdul Rauf named his work “The Cordoba Iniatitive”? My God, do people not understand that between the eighth and fifteenth centuries, Arab Muslims conquered and occupied first all, then parts of Spain? (While Christians retook Cordoba in 1236, Muslims held on in Grenada until 1492). Muslims conquered by the sword. They forcibly converted many of the existing Christians and Jews. Under Islamic rule, or under Shari’a law, both Christians and Jews were considered civil inferiors, sub-humans. Muslims routinely massacred them.

Yes, there was a flourishing, a flowering of civilizations in Spain (Al-Andalus); some Caliphs were kind, others were exceedingly cruel. Science, architecture, and poetry ruled too. But the “glorious” flowering was the product of bloody Islamic imperialism and colonialism. It is not the best choice of what to name this new, allegedly peaceful and harmonious Ground Zero Mosque/Center.

Alyssa Lappen has characterized Imam Abdul Rauf as a Muslim Brotherhood affiliated extremist who, like Tariq Ramadan, practices taqiyya (disinformation). Abdul Rauf has said that “Osama bin Laden was made in the USA…because U.S. policies were an accessory to the crime that happened on 9/11.” According to Lappen, Imam Abdul Rauf is not convinced that “Muslims” really attacked the World Trade Center. Lappen discusses the various countries and groups that have funded Abdul Rauf’s work, e.g., funding from Qatar. She points out that the Islamic Center/Mosque of New York has been funded by Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Libya—not bastions of freedom, not lovers of Zion or of the Big Satan.


Bret Stephens, in the Wall Street Journal, has challenged Imam Abdul Rauf with a series of questions that should be put to him and to any other Muslim cleric with whom one engages in “interfaith dialogue.” I can only repeat these questions which must be put to Imam Abdul Rauf and to any other Muslim cleric with whom one engages in interfaith dialogue in these times:

Who perpetrated the attacks of 9/11, and what was their religion?

Are suicide attacks or other forms of violent jihad acceptable under any circumstances, including against American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Does Israel have a right to exist as a Jewish state?

Do (you) agree with the State Department’s designation of Hamas and Hezbollah as terrorist organizations?

What aspects of Shariah law, if any, do (you) repudiate?

Will (your) center invite the input and participation of Muslim gay and lesbian groups?

Do (you) consider the Muslim Brotherhood to be extreme?

What influence will any foreign funding of Cordoba House have on its programs or on the literature it distributes?”

Have all the Jews and Christians who support the Mosque at Ground Zero asked Imam Abdul Rauf these questions? I suggest they do so. And, one more thing. Read M. Zuhdi Jasser’s excellent and moving piece “Mosque Unbecoming” here. Jasser opposes “Islamism”–and he opposes the presumptiousness, the heartlessness, of what Imam Abdul Rauf is planning for Ground Zero. Please read what he has to say.

Note: I want to thank “Yehuda” for his tip about Professor Gottsegen.