Las Vegas Sun

April 19, 2014

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Where I stand:

What 9/11 should mean to America

Happy New Year. It has been 5,771 years since the creation.

Jews around the world celebrated their new year Wednesday night. Synagogues across the land were filled with worshippers who began their High Holiday observances, which end with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, 10 days later.

This year’s sermon by Rabbi Sanford Akselrad happened to be the epitome of current events meeting Biblical admonition. He called it “The End of Civility? The Mosque that Roared.”

Since it should be exposed to the broader audience in this country, I am, with his permission, reprinting his sermon, which has been edited for length. (Vu den?)

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By Rabbi Sanford Akselrad

Every year I, like rabbis throughout the world, sit down to write our High Holiday sermons. Coming up with topics, themes and messages that reflect our passion and the tenor of our times is our greatest challenge. Usually, I stay away from topical events because they fade away and are overcome by the next news story.

But this year I decided to speak on a subject that is not only topical, but one which I think will define our nation. I refer to the controversy over the proposed so-called mosque planned to be built two blocks away from ground zero.

There are reasonable opinions on both sides of the debate as to whether this Islamic center should be built there. Some people argue that building a mosque near ground zero is an affront to the memory of those who died — that it would be a symbol of Islamic triumphalism.

Others argue that they have every legal right to build a house of worship there. And that freedom of religion is what our loved ones died for.

These questions are important. But perhaps even more important than the answers is the tenor in which these questions are being asked. Ugly demonstrations against Islam, acts of violence and even the threat of burning the Quran by a “man of cloth.”

Everywhere we turn, people are talking about this issue. And what comes out are not words of tolerance. Rather, they are words of fear, hatred and bigotry. When are we going to stand up and say “enough”?

Nine years ago, a short while after Sept. 11, I organized an interfaith gathering at the Clark County Amphitheater. I had people of many different faiths. And I had representatives from the Muslim community whom I had known for many years.

We had hundreds of people who gathered to add their voices of support. I remember the pain that we all felt about what had happened to our country. And I remember the fear and concern that emanated from the Muslim community about how they would be received by their non-Muslim neighbors.

Our goal was to stand as a community in solidarity with one another. We sought to identify the perpetrators of these vile acts as representatives of radical Islam and not Islam itself. To some this nuance is naive. To others, impossible. And to others still, the right thing to do. They did not feel it proper or American to brand 1 billion people with the same paint brush of radicalism.

Since that time, many years have gone by. Two wars have been launched. Many have died. And, yes, the fighting still continues. Homeland security has been totally reshaped and redefined. Our sense of safety isn’t the same. Whereas before we counted history from Pearl Harbor, we now count history from what has become known as 9/11.

Next year will mark the 10th anniversary of 9/11. And undoubtably there will be countless documentaries, programs, observances and articles written about what 9/11 means to our country.

But I question whether we actually know what it means. I think we as a nation are still in the process of deciding what it means. In fact I think that the controversy about the mosque near ground zero is a reflection of that process.

This past summer my wife and I went to what is the interim memorial for 9/11 next to ground zero. We walked through quietly. Looking at the remnants of what were human lives. Photos of the horror. Artifacts that were found. Recordings of the last words of those who died as they spoke to their loved ones. I was moved to tears in much the same way as when I have visited Holocaust memorials. The sadness is palpable.

If this is not holy ground, I don’t know what is.

But just as it took us time to define what the Holocaust meant to us as a Jewish community, so too do I think that it will take time, perhaps many more years, for us as a nation to fully understand the meaning of 9/11.

I remember initially when it happened, I like many rabbis gave a sermon which declared, “After 9/11 we are all Israelis.” It was an observation that our nation would no longer be able to live with the naive belief that we were safe from harm on our native soil. Like Israel, we had felt the brunt of the terrorists’ might and determination. And we knew that our world would never be the same.

But Israel has gone through challenges with terrorism a lot longer than we have. We are new to this scourge. In this struggle, there is one challenge that I think overrides all other challenges:

How does a nation retain its democratic character and its moral principles when fighting terrorists? How can we remain true to our values and our sense of morality when we are fighting people who know allegiance to no particular country, follow no rules of engagement, and commit atrocities no civilized nation on earth would think of doing?

Remaining morally centered has been an ongoing struggle for the Israeli people. Sometimes, in their zeal to fight terrorists, they go too far. Sometimes, in their desire to uphold the moral high ground, they put their people at risk. It is never easy, but it is always, always part of the equation politically, militarily and morally. As Americans, we are just beginning to go through that process. Perhaps the most we can do right now is say what 9/11 does not mean:

• 9/11 does not mean that we should let our fears and passions rule us.

• 9/11 does not mean that politicians have the right to prey upon our fears for political gain.

• 9/11 does not mean that clergy have the right to prey upon our fears to denigrate the religion of Islam in order to bolster their own faith.

• 9/11 does not mean that televised “talking heads” have the right to convince us that we are morally weak and, unless we defend ourselves “right now,” the terrorists are going to destroy us.

We live in difficult, uncertain times. The economy has impacted millions of people. Millions have lost their homes. Many millions still look for work. Their worlds are turned up side down. Our nation remains at war. And terrorism is still a very real threat to our way of life.

Such uncertainty may bring out the best in people, but all too often it brings out the worst. People look for someone to blame. They look for easy answers to complex problems.

As Jews, we have known more than our share of prejudice and periods of persecution. Having felt hatred’s pain, we have a special obligation to speak up for what is right.

If we remain silent, we will be guilty of helping to create a society that is intolerant. If we remain silent, we embolden those who feel it is their right to impose their values on us by force and intimidation. If we remain silent, we abandon our moral imperative to bring about Tikun Olam — wholeness to a broken world.

I think some Jewish organizations understand this. The Anti-Defamation League, for example, has tried to walk a thin line between being sensitive to the victims of 9/11 and maintaining its mission to fight prejudice of all kinds. Its national director, Abe Foxman, has been relentless in his condemnation of recent attacks against Islam:

“The tragedy of Sept. 11 should never be exploited, and we should not let bigots defile the memory of the victims of 9/11 with offensive rhetoric and hate speech. That stands against everything this country and our long tradition of religious freedom represents.”

Such statements of tolerance and mutual respect are important. But their effectiveness ultimately will be judged by how each of us acts toward each other in our own individual communities.

We cannot remain silent, nor turn our heads away in fear. We must not only support leaders of great courage, but we must personally do what we can to stand together with people of all faiths to uphold the values and ideals that bring strength and character to our society.

As we move closer to the 10th anniversary of 9/11, I am certain that we will all give much thought as to what that day means to us. Amongst the many meanings, I think it will come to be a day in which we remember that for one sad, solitary moment, we as a nation — regardless of religion, color or creed — came together and stood as one.

From that rare moment, I hope the strength of our country’s moral character will be permanently forged. A strength that will guide us through the coming years with our core values alive and intact. So that we will be, and will always be, a nation ruled not by fear, but by the power of our convictions. A nation which holds all of its citizens with equal regard. A nation which stands tall among all nations as a beacon of hope and humanity. In the words of the prophet Amos, “Let justice roll down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.”

Brian Greenspun is publisher and editor of the Las Vegas Sun.