Rabbi, ex-mayor weigh in on the controversy over Park51

Rick Carroll
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN – The way Rabbi Brad Hirschfield sees it, there are two dates in the history of the United States that shape the thought of Americans when it comes to the Park51 controversy in New York City.

“If you’re more animated by the date September 11, 2001, you’re probably going to be opposed to [the Park51 project]. If you’re more animated by July 4, 1776, you’re probably going to be in favor of it.”

Rabbi Hirschfield, who lives in New York City, is well aquatinted with Aspen. As president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, he sat on panels with Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, who is behind the Park51 project, at The Aspen Institute. Hirschfield considers Abdul Rauf a friend, and he’s watched from the sidelines as the Park51 debate has evolved into a hot-button issue just months before the midterm elections.

Hirschfield said he sees both sides to the argument, and Abdul Rauf’s comments that America was an accessory to 9-11 has only fanned the flames of those against the proposal, which includes a prayer room and cultural center two blocks north of ground zero.

“It was unwise to have made those statements,” Hirschfield said. “And the people who heard it have a right to question it.”

But, the rabbi contends, that statement was an isolated one, and does not define Abdul Rauf.

“He has spilt far more ink and much more time talking about why the events of 9-11 are the antithesis of what he believes Islam is about,” Hirschfield said.

Like Hirschfield, John Bennett, a former Aspen mayor, said there’s an apparent movement in the United States in which any type of support for the Islamic faith suggests support for terrorism as well.

“I don’t condemn Americans who are distrustful of Islam,” said Bennett, now a midvalley resident. “I don’t agree with them either. I think they’re flat-dead wrong. I understand where it’s coming from. If you’ve been watching TV since 1979, we’ve seen crowds of Muslims screaming ‘death to America.’

“We’ve also seen too many acts of terrorism – women and children being blown up by murderous nut cases who are committing their acts in the name of religion, or in this case, Islam.”

Along with Abdul Rauf, Bennett was the founder of the Cordoba Initiative, a nonprofit aimed at “improving Muslim-West relations,” according to its website. The organization incorporated in 2004. Its board’s makeup is multifaith, and its bylaws state that the board cannot include more than 50 percent representation from any religion, Bennett said.

He said the fact that the planned Islamic center is two blocks away from ground zero “never crossed their minds,” in reference to Abdul Rauf and his wife, Daisy Khan. Bennett said he remembers when the idea came up years ago.

“Never did I hear anyone mention ‘yes, it’s close to ground zero,'” said Bennett, who practices Buddhist mediation but does not claim to be a Buddhist.

Bennett said the Park51 controversy “has exposed that, as a nation, we have a long way to go. If we’re going to take the America credo of diversity seriously, we have a lot of work to do.”

Rabbi Hirschfield said the Park51 debate is a litmus test that shows how Americans feel about Islam.

“It shows the vulnerability of people post 9-11,” he said. “And people who say [Abdul Rauf] is a terrorist sympathizer, that runs counter to every experience I’ve had with him.”