Against the backdrop of the raucous debate over what has come to be known as the “Ground-Zero Mosque” another, quieter, debate engaged the Jewish community in recent weeks. And it is this latter debate that has powerful lessons for those on both sided of the mosque issue, and for the community as a whole.

The tragic and untimely loss of Yoseph Robinson presented the potential for a conflict no less dramatic than that playing out in downtown Manhattan. Cut down in the prime of life, Yoseph left no instructions or indications about his preferences regarding passage into the next life; what 34-year-old does?  Because those involved – rabbis, friends, community leaders and family – all understood a fundamental truth that has escaped those battling over the mosque, Yoseph’s passage into the next world became a matter of pride to all involved, and a Kiddush HaShem to our community.

What family, friends and community leaders understood is that it matters not what the letter of the law permits or disallows. What matters is that we learn to treat each other with consideration and respect. Often, that requires that we choose not to enforce our “rights” and refrain from imposing our will on others. And that is precisely why, as we mourned Yoseph’s passing we could also take pride in the Kiddush HaShem wrought by creating a framework that allowed all who loved him to participate and find comfort in the way he was escorted to his final rest.

Unfortunately, the parties involved in the “Ground Zero Mosque” dispute have taken the opposite tack.  Rather than consider the feelings and sensibilities of the majority of the community, they rigidly insist on asserting their rights. And in mobilizing support for their rights, they have launched a juggernaut of opinion that trumpets their righteousness, in the name of religious freedom, but in fact only serves to exacerbate tensions and hostility.

To be fair, it is not entirely their fault. American society has always been highly legalistic and focused on rights and obligations rather than civility and reason. Hence the old joke about the accident victim who calls his lawyer before asking for an ambulance. Anyone with a modicum of legal knowledge will acknowledge the legal “right” to build a mosque in what was once a former manufacturing loft and store. We Jews have ourselves fought hundreds of legal battles over the decades to assert and protect that right in cities and suburbs that sought to bar synagogues and schools. In most cases, we were successful, because the law was on our side.

At the same time, anyone with a modicum of reason and common sense will also acknowledge that in this situation insisting upon the right to build is generating ill-will rather than support, and is damaging to relations between the ethnic groups involved and to the overall civic culture.

At times like this it is perhaps relevant to ask cui bono, who benefits?  Surely the sponsors and supporters of this project must be aware of the negative impact it is having on the body politic.  Is it possible that that is their underlying objective?

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