Until this whole Park 51 Community Center controversy exploded, I really did not know much, or really have any strong feelings about New York’s Mayor, Michael Bloomberg.
However, over the course of the past few weeks as this Islamic Community Center controversy continues to get out of control, nothing has moved me or been made more clear to me than the integrity and courage of this Mayor.
On August 3rd, 2010 after New York City’s Landmark Preservation Commission made a vote that cleared the path for the proposed Community Center to be built, the Mayor went to Governors Island. With the Statue of Liberty and a host of Rabbis behind him, Bloomberg gave what I have to say is one of the most articulate and passionate speeches I have ever heard. It was and is also one of the strongest and most moving pieces of defense given on the principle of why this Community Center should be built.
The text of this speech, as I have stated before, should be required reading for all, whether you support the building of Park 51 or not. I have read it many times and it never fails to bring me to tears. One of the most powerful passages in my opinion begins here:
Of all our precious freedoms, the most important may be the freedom to worship as we wish. And it is a freedom that, even here in a City that is rooted in Dutch tolerance, was hard-won over many years. In the mid-1650s, the small Jewish community living in Lower Manhattan petitioned Dutch Governor Peter Stuyvesant for the right to build a synagogue – and they were turned down…In the 1700s, even as religious freedom took hold in America, Catholics in New York were effectively prohibited from practicing their religion – and priests could be arrested…We would betray our values – and play into our enemies’ hands – if we were to treat Muslims differently than anyone else…Muslims are as much a part of our City and our country as the people of any faith and they are as welcome to worship in Lower Manhattan as any other group. In fact, they have been worshipping at the site for the better part of a year, as is their right.
One of my favorite things that I just love about this speech is not only Bloomberg’s skillful application of history and emotion in his words, but how he uses examples of Jews and Catholics in New York being denied their right to freely practice their faith as examples of exactly why we should not deny this right, this Constitutional right to Muslims now.
On a personal note, watching such a powerful and influential Jewish public figure stand with New York City Rabbis to defend the right of New York Muslims is a profound lesson to all of us about the prejudices we may harbor without even knowing it, prejudices that perhaps we were even raised with and never questioned. It is an inspiration on self-reflection.
I think defending the Park 51 Community Center with this caliber, this level of passion for the Mayor once was generous enough. But as the flames of the non-existent, incorrectly labeled “Ground Zero Mosque” fire continue to be fanned, Mayor Bloomberg went on the defensive again this week, giving another speech at a Ramadan dinner at Gracie Mansion on Tuesday, declaring that “there is nowhere in the five boroughs of New York City that is off limits to any religion.”
Bloomberg continued defending Park 51 by stating that not only should it be built, but how important it is that no compromises are made about it either:
The question will then become, how big should the ‘no-mosque zone’ be around the World Trade Center site? There is already a mosque four blocks away. Should it be moved? This is a test of our commitment to American values. We have to have the courage of our convictions. We must do what is right, not what is easy.
The fight for the Park 51 Community Center has just begun. American Muslims and supporters of this Center should be comforted and grateful knowing that we have such a strong ally in Bloomberg. As a good friend recently said to me when he urged me to write this piece:
The direction of American politics leaves me very depressed, but it strikes me that when political leaders have the courage to speak out for justice the way Bloomberg did, it needs to be supported.
In the midst of all this racially charged madness and rhetoric, one man is not afraid to stand up and demonstrate to all of us the spirit that truly makes New York great.
*This post of mine was also published on The Huffington Post.