Yasser Arafat, the Holocaust Museum and the 'Ground Zero' Mosque
08/18/2010 - 06:46
James Besser

Former U.S. peace processor Aaron David Miller weighs in on the “Ground Zero” mosque controversy with a Washington Post op-ed comparing the decision to build an Islamic center near the site to the “my idea of inviting Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat to visit the Holocaust museum in Washington” - a well-intentioned move that “proved to be a disaster.”

In 1998, with Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations in shambles, “I was charged with identifying steps and gestures that might build confidence on both sides, in this case among Israelis,” he writes. “ I proposed inviting Arafat to the museum during one of his many official visits to Washington, thinking: What better way to counter Holocaust denial than by having the alleged denier in chief visit the museum?”

The result? “Inviting Arafat to the museum, one of the dumbest ideas in the annals of U.S foreign policy, created a perfect storm.”

What does this have to do with the New York mosque controversy?

While Miller agrees that freedom of religion is a core American value, “Americans must still consider the propriety of appropriating the memory of such a traumatic incident [as September 11]. Is it wise to risk tying a cause to these kinds of memories when the outcome wounds or polarizes, instead of healing or unifying?”

I'm not sure the two situations are analogous, though.

In the Arafat case, the invitation was an act of the U.S. government; the decision to build a mosque in lower Manhattan was the act of a religious group, not a government entity.  There's a difference, I think.

And the two sites aren't the same.

The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum is a discrete site with very specific functions: memorializing the victims of the Holocaust and ensuring the accuracy of memory.

The New York mosque is in a busy city neighborhood, a few blocks from Ground Zero. The World Trade Center site may be “hallowed ground,” but is the site of the mosque? Exactly how far does hallowed ground extend?

And Miller ignores the way the issue is being exploited by crass politicians, and the negative impact that will likely have on our political culture.

Still, it's an interesting analysis by one of America's most thoughtful foreign policy professionals, and it offers insights into one of the more controversial episodes of the Oslo years.

And Miller's concluding paragraph is worth contemplating:

“The number of Americans killed on 9/11 was exceeded by only one day in our nation's history: Sept. 17, 1862, during the battle of Antietam. The events of Sept. 11 are in many ways still untouchable. The risks of linking that day to anything else or confusing it with another issue are vast. However worthy the benefits of promoting interfaith dialogue and greater understanding among Christians, Muslims and Jews, the reality is that the payoff will be small. We meddle in our tragic memories and those of others at our peril.”

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