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A Stupid Analogy

Why Park51 and East J’lem are unrelated

Marc Tracy
August 18, 2010
The planned future site of Park51.(Chris Hondros/Getty Images)
The planned future site of Park51.(Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

In the course of an hysterical attack on President Obama’s “bigoted” Park51 stance (yes, the president’s careful, nuanced back-tracking clearly gave him much-needed political cover with the right), Caroline B. Glick compares his “warm endorsement of the plan to build a mosque by the ruins of the World Trade Center” to his opposition to allowing Israeli Jews to build in East Jerusalem. To wit: “In the case of the Ground Zero mosque he prefers the rights of Muslims over the values of the overwhelming majority of Americans. In the case of the Palestinians, he prefers their anti-Semitic nationalism over the civil rights of Jews.”

Leaving aside the grotesque distortions (characterizing Palestinian nationalism as inherently anti-Semitic, declaring that Park51 offends American “values” based on polls), her provocation remains: Why are American Muslims’ property rights a priority for Obama, but not those of Jewish Israelis? I guess I have some explaining to do.

This analogy is facile because, unless you are a total extremist, you believe that all rights have limits. For example, the United States protects freedom of speech, but does not protect the right to incite a mob to immediate unlawful activity or to shout fire in a crowded theater when there is no fire. The reason we occasionally agree to suspend the rights of minorities or individuals is not because, on a given issue, the majority thinks we should (as the majority does in the case of Park51)—in fact, we pre-commit to a series of rights precisely to avoid the whims of temporary majorities!

Rather, the reason we sometimes agree to limit certain rights is when there is an overriding policy goal so compelling that it trumps this notion of rights. So, for example, it is a compelling policy goal of government to prevent people from trampling other people to death in the rush to evacuate a theater: Hence the ban on shouting fire where there is no fire. (Actually, come to think of it, hence also the Constitution’s limit on property rights: The power of the government to exercise eminent domain and take property from private citizens when it has a compelling interest in doing so.)

And, hence, the suspension of Jewish Israelis’ property rights when it comes to East Jerusalem, a territory that, while on the other side of the Green Line, is administered by Israel and which the international community recognizes as such. The Obama administration’s overriding policy goal is the creation of a Palestinian state, and it has determined that one way to expedite such a thing is to freeze all building in East Jerusalem so as to maintain the status quo until a final resolution is reached. You can disagree with the wisdom of an East Jerusalem freeze (many two-staters do); you can even disagree with the wisdom of a separate Palestinian state (Glick clearly does, and plenty of people on the left whom she loathes do, too). But that is the administration’s argument, and they make it in good faith.

By contrast, even if you are one of those Americans who is against building Park51 a few blocks from Ground Zero (and, no doubt about it, that puts you in the solid majority), you cannot rationally conjure some sort of hypothetical wherein some substantive, compelling, overriding policy goal is at stake. You can hate it, as many Jews (and many Americans) hated it when neo-Nazis marched in a neighborhood full of Holocaust survivors outside Chicago. But you can’t argue that it is hindering some major, hugely consequential aim of the federal, state, or local governments.

But Glick already knows that her analogy is spurious, as she is guilty of the exact same “inconsistency” as Obama: Obama supports the property rights of American Muslims but not Israeli Jews, and Glick supports the property rights of Israeli Jews but not of American Muslims. No?

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.