What Lebanon can teach the U.S. about religious tolerance

David Samel

Posted Sep 1, 2010      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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What Lebanon can teach the U.S. about religious tolerance

by David Samel

In Beirut, a recent event, under-reported in the United States, provides a dramatic contrast with the New York controversy over Park51, an Islamic cultural center planned for lower Manhattan. According to Ha’aretz, Lebanon’s largest Jewish synagogue has been saved from the wrecking ball and beautifully restored to its past glory.

The Magen Avraham synagogue had fallen into disrepair during the Lebanese Civil War of the 1970’s and 1980’s. Located in the city center, the synagogue was in danger of being demolished in favor of urban renewal. However, Beirut’s tiny Jewish population decided to save and renovate the structure, and received the approval not only of the Lebanese government but specifically of Hezbollah. The Islamic party, announcing its support, proclaimed: “We respect divine religions, including the Jewish religion.”

There was no public outcry, demonstrations, or even controversy. The contrast with the proposal to build the Islamic Center two blocks from the World Trade Center site could not be more stark. There have been increasingly strident and even frightening demonstrations against Park51, and the protesters cannot be dismissed as isolated fringe elements. Some public opinion polls have shown a majority of Americans, even a majority of New Yorkers, against the “Ground Zero Mosque,” which has become the unofficial, doubly inaccurate shorthand for the nearby cultural center. Politicians and media pundits have been divided, but many prominent conservatives, and even a significant number of prominent Democrats, such as Anthony Weiner and Harry Reid, have voiced various degrees of opposition.

It would be difficult to reconcile the dramatically different reactions in Beirut and New York. Of course, Park51 is in close proximity to the site where terrorists, supposedly acting in harmony with their interpretation of Islam, committed a heinous atrocity. The principal argument against the cultural center is that the wounds of 2001 are still too fresh to erect any Islamic symbol in the neighborhood. (Of course, anti-mosque fervor has spread to other states, including Tennessee, Wisconsin, and California, where proximity to “hallowed ground” cannot be considered a factor.)

But similar circumstances exist in Beirut as well.

The Lebanese are divided on many issues, but there is overwhelming agreement condemning Israel’s 2006 military campaign that took well over a thousand lives and destroyed residential areas of Beirut and other population centers throughout the country. A generation earlier, Israel’s 1982 invasion had a far higher death toll and began an 18-year military occupation of a wide swath of southern Lebanon. While this occupation featured frequent outbursts of lethal violence against the civilian population, the worst were in 1993 and 1996 when Labor Prime Ministers Rabin and Peres exhibited their “toughness” by randomly killing many civilians and panicking hundreds of thousands more into fleeing their homes.

Even those who might object to a comparison between the 9/11 attacks and Israel’s actions in Lebanon cannot reasonably dispute that Israel is about as unpopular in Lebanon as al-Qaeda is in the U.S. And just as the 9/11 terrorists cited Islam as their motivation, Israel acted as the self-proclaimed State of the Jewish People. Thus, the Lebanese had at least as much reason to oppose the Beirut synagogue restoration project as Americans have to oppose Park51.

But they did not.

The cooperation of the Lebanese, even Hezbollah, in the synagogue project demonstrates a degree of understanding that is sorely lacking in the U.S. The Lebanese did not allow their raw wounds from Israel’s repeated military assaults against their country to make them intolerant of Beirut’s remaining Jewish community and its symbols. Unfortunately, many Park51 opponents have a different view, holding New York’s Muslim population collectively responsible for the 19 individuals who hijacked not only airplanes but an entire religion. It seems that Americans and New Yorkers have a lot to learn about religious freedom and tolerance, and can take lessons from Beirut.

On a related note: Hezbollah’s approval of the synagogue renovation is entirely consistent with other statements it has made regarding distinctions between Jews and Zionism, e.g. “Our problem with them (the Israelis) is not that they are Jews, but that they are occupiers who are raping our land and holy places.” However, it is entirely inconsistent with the 2002 supposed quote of Hezbollah head Nasrallah that has been peddled as genuine by the likes of David Horowitz and Alan Dershowitz and CAMERA[url]: “If Jews all gather in Israel, it will save us the trouble of going after them worldwide.” This quote has gone viral, even finding its way into a [url=http://www.nytimes.com/2004/05/23/books/the-enemy-within.html?scp=1&sq=]New York Times book review, misleadingly cited by Dershowitz as the source for the quote, as if it had been reported in the Times rather than simply repeated by a book reviewer. Charles Glass, a journalist who actually was captured and held hostage by Hezbollah in 1987, has provided an excellent refutation of the quote, but it persists in hasbara lore because of its great value in portraying Arabs as motivated by genocidal Jew-hatred rather than resistance to Israeli aggression and occupation.

Source:  Mondoweiss.  Reprinted with permission of author.