Monday, September 13, 2010

In Desire of a Less Political 9/11 Anniversary

Last week, I was asked by the Detroit Free Press to submit three paragraphs reflecting on where I was on September 11, 2001 and how my life changed as a result of that day. The irony for my wife and for me is that we made the conscious decision to go ahead with our plans of moving to Israel for the year even though there was violence in Jerusalem throughout the summer of 2001. It wasn't until the terrorist attacks of 9/11 occurred here in the U.S. that we made the difficult decision to alter our plans and not move to Israel.

This year, the anniversary of 9/11 was a collision of religious events as it fell on the Sabbath following Rosh Hashanah -- a fast day were it not the Sabbath -- and on the Muslim celebration of Eid al-Fitr -- a holiday marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan. 9/11 was turned into a political storm as a result of the explosive debate surrounding the planned Islamic cultural center and mosque just blocks from Ground Zero.

There are some similarities between the planned building of Park51 (formerly known as Cordoba House) two blocks from the Ground Zero site and the potential building of a convent near the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1989. However, Anthony Stevens-Arroyo, writing in the Washington Post, explains that the lesson taught by Pope John Paul II in not allowing the nuns to move their convent to that site is not necessarily what the "'move the mosque' spokespersons would want to hear."

More than the debate on whether to allow the Islamic cultural center and mosque to be built so close to Ground Zero, what has surprised me is that the family members of the victims from the Twin Towers have not voiced loud opposition to the fact that their loved ones' graves will become a shopping mall. The lower floors of the rebuilt World Trade Center will be stores. Some will argue that this displays our resolve to rebuild that site as a place of commerce. Others will recall the debate, again at Auschwitz, of constructing a shopping mall in a building once used for storing hair and possessions from murdered prisoners of the camp. A mile from the Auschwitz camp, the site of the proposed shopping mall had been a disco until it was forced to close.

All of this controversy comes down to the issue of space and how we seek to sanctify it. Ultimately those who argue that a mosque would desecrate the hollowed ground of Ground Zero, the burial spots of thousands, and attempt to prove their point by burning copies of the Koran are just as guilty of desecration. I'm hopeful that in the end, calmer heads will prevail, and the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks will be a more civil display of remembrance rather than a petty political debate. I'm nostalgic for the passionate displays of patriotism that prevailed in the weeks following the attacks in our country.

Here is the unedited reflection I submitted to the Detroit Free Press last week:

My life was in limbo on September 11, 2001. My wife and I had spent our first two years of marriage living in a small apartment in Manhattan, just twelve blocks from the Jewish Theological Seminary where I was studying to become a rabbi. We planned to relocate to Jerusalem after the Jewish holidays where we would experience life in Israel for the year and I would continue my rabbinic studies. In the week prior to Rosh Hashanah, I traveled by plane to Chicago to visit my friend who had just moved there. Little did I know I would be stranded in Chicago and our plans to move to Israel would be canceled.

I woke up on the morning of 9/11 in my friend’s Chicago apartment. Jeremy told me to turn the television on to the Today Show on NBC because a plane had just flown into one of the World Trade Center towers. I couldn’t believe my eyes and then we saw another plane fly into the other tower. The world would change forever, and so would the way people talk about that date in history. My flight was canceled, but I was able to take a train back to Michigan a couple days later. Air France, with whom we had booked our flights to Israel, decided they would no longer fly to Israel and immediately refunded our money. We made the difficult decision, along with many of my classmates and their spouses, to stay in the U.S. for the year rather than spend it in Israel. Ironically, it was a choice we made because of the terrorism in America and not because of the scary terrorist acts that had plagued Israel all summer long.

My wife and I had already rented out our New York City apartment so returning there wasn’t an option. Instead, we took our possessions out of storage and moved to Caldwell, NJ – close enough to commute into Manhattan and live in a vibrant Jewish community where I would intern at the local synagogue. For us, 9/11 altered our plans. We never had the chance to live in Jerusalem for a year (at least not before children), but that is certainly no comparison to the way so many lives changed dreadfully as a result of the horrific events of that day. We made the best of a change of plans, while so many families will never be the same. Our country will never be the same after being shaken from the acts of 9/11 – as much as we came together as an American people in the weeks that followed, the events of that day have also torn us apart.


Mark Finkelstein said...

I find the most compelling analogy with the near-ground-zero Islamic Center situation to be the marching of the Nazis in Skokie [ Marquette Park, Chicago] One: the courts upheld the right of the Nazis to march. With regard to the Islamic Center, there, again, is a right to establish presence in an area, despite 'sensitivity issues.' Two: insofar as the City of Chicago finally offered a venue for the Nazi march -- away from Skokie, per se, perhaps a less controversial venue may be found for the Islamic Center.

Mark Finkelstein said...

I find the most compelling analogy with the Islamic Center situation to be that of the 1978 Nazi march on Skokie. (In actuality, the march was held at Marquette Park in Chicago. See:

The analogy is apt for two reasons. One: that despite the sensitivity issue, legal right took precedence. In the present case, it is widely held that the Muslim community has the right to build on private property, consistent with zoning regulations.

Two: that insofar as the City of Chicago finally enabled the Nazi march to be held in Chicago, a more appropriate venue was found at which the Nazis could exercise their freedom of speech. Perhaps, in the current situation, a more appropriate (less inflammatory)venue may be found for the expression of whatever it is ( as muddled a message as it is, due to the unclear allegiances of Imam Rauf) that the proposed Islamic Center is intended to stand for. (I personally think the Islamic Center could have played a beneficial and healing role at the Park 51 venue had the intentions been made more transparent and consistent with a more empathetic reading of 9-11 and what it means to apparently most Americans. Unfortunately, I think they bungled it.)

cermak_rd said...

I don't find an apt analogy between Ground Zero and Auschwitz. Auschwitz was part of a larger scheme to genocide a people. That, to me, is far more heinous than the murder of individuals, as bad as that is. 9/11 was not an attempt to genocide all Americans--to rid the world of them forever. It was not part of a governmental program and thus the policy of a people.

9/11, I find to be more like Oklahoma City but on a grander scale. Awful? Yes. Absolutely. Comparable with Auschwitz? I don't think so.