Out of the Woods / A symbol of freedom

I wholeheartedly agree with Mayor Michael Bloomberg's forthright decision to defend the right of a group of Muslims in Lower Manhattan to build a controversial community center two blocks from Ground Zero.

The multi-purpose religious and cultural institution -- that would be located near the site of the World Trade Center, where the twin towers once so proudly stood -- has also received the backing of President Barack Obama, a man who will always try to bring together people before he engages in any kind of confrontation.

It is not an accident that he is the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. For our president to step into what might be seen by some observers as a dangerous political move shows that he is true to his word.

But it is Bloomberg -- a Republican in a city dominated by Democrats (many of whom are Jewish) -- who deserves the full credit for taking a huge political risk, especially in light of harsh criticism from the Anti-Defamation League, a liberal Jewish organization, ironically known for preaching tolerance.

Bloomberg's fierce defense of the proposed Muslim mosque appears to be contrary to the wishes of a majority of the New York City voters, according to polls, and it flies in the face of many of some of the more outspoken members of the 9-11 survivors who, for understandable reasons, attach a stigma to the building, some even warning that it could "attract terrorists."

The fact is there are hundreds of mosques all over New York City and none have caused any problems to date.

Opponents of the proposed mosque have disdain for the project because it would be so close to the treasured site where new structures will be built to honor the memory of the 3,000 people who were killed in the attack of Sept.11, 2001. Bloomberg's courageous decision was motivated, in large part, by his life's experience, according to a front page New York Times report last week. I was fascinated to learn that his lifelong commitment to fight prejudice played a key role in his thinking.

Bloomberg, who is Jewish, witnessed an episode as a young boy in which his parents were forced to ask their non-Jewish lawyer to buy a house in the Medford, Mass., suburbs and then sell it back to them -- all because the owner refused to sell it to Jews.

Obviously, that act of overt discrimination against Jews -- fairly widespread in the suburbs in the 1940s and '50s -- is an experience he never forgot.

The reason why I feel strongly about this is similar to Bloomberg's. It is very personal. I can remember, as a young boy, driving with my parents and my sister out to the coastal towns of Long Island, looking for a place to stay near a beach for a long weekend. Most of the houses had signs on their front lawns with the word, "Restricted" plastered in large letters on them.

Having grown up in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, where I attended private school as a youngster with a student body that was mostly Jewish, I was puzzled by the signs. I asked my father, the late Albert M. Klein, who, ironically, was a leader in the Anti-Defamation League at the time, what it was all about.

I recall clearly my father turning to me and quietly explaining that meant those people did not accept Jews into their homes, nor did they want to rent to Jews. When I asked him why, I will never forget what he said, quietly and patiently: "Because those people have a problem. It's their problem, not ours."

I believed then and I still do, that my father's reply to anti-Semitism showed his dignity, his wisdom and his ability to avoid falling into a "hate" trap because of discrimination. He turned the other cheek.

Bloomberg's story -- and the support of Obama -- I think is a lesson that all of us can learn from. Both men stood up for their principles regardless of the political outcome. Why? Because they are right. And they know it.

The mosque issue is really quite simple. As Bloomberg was quoted in The Times: "If somebody wants to build a mosque in a place where the zoning for it is allowable and if they can also raise the money, then it is none of government's business."

In a speech he gave on Aug. 3 announcing his full support, Bloomberg said in a strong voice: "We honor their [the victims] lives by defending those rights -- and the freedom that the terrorists attacked..." Bloomberg was right on target. And so was Obama. I find it gratifying to see two of our nation's leaders speaking out for the very essence of democracy.

The mosque is meant to be a place where people of different religions can come together and better understand one another's faiths. It is, in a sense, a very powerful symbol of freedom -- the freedom of anyone to worship, one of the fundamental rights guaranteed under our Constitution. What better way to persuade the legitimate Muslims in the Middle East that America's doors are open to them. President Obama often has said as much many times.

This should be seen as an opportunity -- not a problem.

Woody Klein's "Out of the Woods" column appears regularly in the Westport News.