By Jonathan Greenblatt
CEO of the Anti-Defamation League
This article originally appeared in The Jerusalem Post.
When Yigal Amir assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, surely one of the low moments in Israeli history, there were those who blamed Orthodox Jews because he was an Orthodox Jew and was educated in that sector of Israeli society.
Shortly after the tragic event, the Orthodox Union, the representative body of modern American Orthodox Jews, convened a large gathering at a prominent Orthodox synagogue.
The keynote speaker was Rabbi Norman Lamm, then President of Yeshiva University.
Speaking to the issue of accusations against the Orthodox community, Lamm said: “Yigal Amir was a weed, but he was a weed in our garden.”
As American society and, indeed, the world confront the challenge of Islamic terrorism while avoiding the destructive thinking that blames all Muslims and Islam itself for the terror, Rabbi Lamm’s comment seems more relevant than ever.
What Lamm was saying about the role of Orthodoxy was that it is a false and dangerous accusation to blame all Orthodox and the religion itself for what Yigal Amir did. He was a weed, a person who behaved in a way that does not represent the Orthodox philosophy and worldview. So stop these accusations and stereotypes.
Having said that, Rabbi Lamm went on, still the Orthodox world needed to look at itself and ask tough and penetrating questions about the way it’s tending to its beautiful garden, that too many of these weeds are appearing.
It was a call for serious introspection and a willingness to say there is an element of responsibility that demands examination.
In my view, that is the missing piece in the current discussion about Islamic terrorism. The president of the United States condemns the terror and calls on all Americans not to fall into the trap of stereotyping Muslims or Islam, both admirable reactions. But he cannot bring himself to refer to the horror that is taking place as radical Islamic terrorism, as if were he to do so he would be encouraging anti-Islamic sentiment and behavior.
Meanwhile, other politicians and influentials blame Muslims in general for the terror, even to the point, as in the case of Donald Trump, to exclude Muslims from entry into the U.S. and to have them bear ID cards as Muslim.
The truth is these two approaches are not the only choices that could be made. Rabbi Lamm’s perspective is far more suitable.
The fact that the San Bernardino and Paris terrorists were radical Islamic extremists in no way justifies the horrendous anti-Muslim behavior and rhetoric that has emerged in the United States in recent weeks.
ADL has indicated that there has been an upsurge in anti-Muslim incidents over the past month. Every effort must be made to denounce such activity, particularly when it is incentivized by rhetoric such as that coming from Trump.
There can be no equivocation: All Muslims should not be blamed for the actions of the few.
But that should not lead to the conclusion that all this terrorist activity bears no relationship to the Islamic world. Not only is this inaccurate, but the reluctance to spell out Islamic extremism as the source of the violence actually plays into the hands of those who want to stereotype all Muslims.
It sounds artificial and strained when the president does anything to avoid using the term Islamic terrorism to the point that people are more, rather than less, willing to blame all Muslims.
“He was a weed in our garden.” What is it that is going on in the Islamic world that is producing the most virulent and widespread manifestation of terror that the world has seen?
Ultimately, it is up to Muslim leaders around the world to ask this question and to ask what it is that they can do to create a different environment less conducive to the emergence of terror.
We do not help them in this necessary process when we shy away from calling it what it is.
Ironically, it was President George W. Bush, still vilified for his misguided war in Iraq, who set the standard for how to deal with problem.
Following 9/11 and the trauma that it was for our nation, the president spoke at a Mosque in Washington, D.C. and made an eloquent plea not to blame all Muslims or Islam itself for the horror that befell our nation.
This important step in leadership, however, did not in the least prevent him from saying clearly and loudly: We are in a war with radical Islam and we must win that war for the sake of civilization itself and for the sake of Muslims as well.
A weed, but a weed in our garden.