Sharia paranoia and religious accommodations for Jews

Here’s another thing I don’t understand about Jews who oppose the proposed Islamic center near Ground Zero in Manhattan: aren’t they concerned about the impact of this debate, and a rising paranoia about efforts to impose Sharia law on a hapless America that has fed off the mosque controversy, on the religious accommodations that so many observant Jews feel are critical to their own lives in America? (For a good analysis of the Sharia issue, check out this Washington Post story).

I mean, really: how can we demand special accommodations for Shabbat observers, for those who keep kosher, for Jews who need to celebrate important holidays, for putting up eruvim, and at the same time live in dread that every time an Islamic group builds a mosque or asks for foot baths in airport bathrooms to serve Muslim taxi drivers, it’s one more step down the road to making America an Islamic state?

For the last few decades, Jewish groups have worked hard to expand public accommodations of religion. The focus has been on all religions, not just Judaism; the idea has been that a pluralistic, democratic America, where freedom of religion is supposedly guaranteed, sometimes needs to make accommodations for people whose religious obligations fall outside the American norm.

Jewish sabbath observers are obvious beneficiaries, and workers who need days off without penalty to fulfill their religious obligations. We expect, as a matter of course, that White House and State Department lunches for Jewish leaders will accommodate those who need kosher food, and complain mightily if they don’t.

This isn’t a matter of trying to impose Jewish law on this mostly Christian nation – although there are plenty of anti-Semitic groups that, in an unsettling echo of the mosque debate, have argued it is. It’s a matter of recognizing the religious pluralism that is supposedly part of our democratic character, and making allowances for those outside the religious norm.

So why are we so afraid of the growth of Islam in America, and efforts to accord Muslims the same rights we demand for ourselves? This is a minority even smaller than the Jewish community; it’s absurd to think they are on their way to conquering us by building community centers and mosques and asking for recognition of their special religious needs.

Yes, I know: it’s easy to find Islamic extremists who blather about imposing their will on the world. Well, guess what; you can find Jewish extremists who say all kinds of ridiculous things (just take a look at Yehudah Mirsky’s scary article about a new debate over religious extremism in Israel ). There’s not a shred of evidence that this reflects the view of a majority.

If you believe that Islam is different because it’s an expansionist religion that wants to control the world…well, that’s pretty much the same thing anti-Semites have been saying for years about Jews as they fight the religious accommodations we want for ourselves.

It’s hard for me to believe the current surge of paranoia about Sharia law, and growing hostility to any kind of accommodations to our Muslim minority, won’t ultimately unleash forces of intolerance that will undercut our own hard-won games as a religious minority with special needs.

This also touches on the issue of religious land use, which I blogged about the other day, and the idea that the surge of hostility to Islam that is already resulting in fierce resistance to mosque building projects across the nation will almost certainly come back to bite us.

In response to my last blog, a Jewish Week commentator wrote this: “ The constitutional rights that we have, such as freedom of religion or freedom of commerce, are not absolutes. Local ordinances and community standards determine whether a property or activity is appropriate for a given locality. Political commentator, Noel Nikpour gives the example; ‘you wouldn’t allow a liquor store to be built next to a Betty Ford Clinic or a strip joint next to Disney world.’ Likewise it is not useful to discuss this matter of the Mosque with broad generalities of constitutional rights without specific applications to local conditions and community standards.”

So does this mean that objections to the construction of a synagogue in a religiously mixed neighborhood are legitimate because the synagogue doesn’t meet “local conditions and community standards?”

Isn’t this exactly what Jewish groups ranging from the Orthodox Union to the Reform movement were fighting when they worked tirelessly to pass the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act in 2000 (RLUIPA)?

Religious freedom, these groups argued, trumps “community standards” that are often biased against religious minorities, and zoning rules that have in the past been used to keep Jews out of certain neighborhoods.

Guess we’ll have to repeal RLUIPA, or amend it to say it applies only to certain religions. Or else agree that the religious freedom measures that have been core goals of Jewish groups for years are meant to protect unpopular religions, not popular ones. Lest we forget, Judaism is still pretty unpopular in some parts of this diverse country of ours.

This week an official with the American Family Association, a Christian right group, blogged this on the AFA site: "Permits should not be granted to build even one more mosque in the United States of America, let alone the monstrosity planned for Ground Zero."   Do we somehow believe this kind of thinking, now so prevalent around the country, won’t eventually return to its traditional focus on the Jews?

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.