By Aaron David Miller
Wednesday, August 18, 2010; A15
If there is one lesson to be learned from the controversy over the proposed mosque near Ground Zero, it is that messing with memory, particularly traumatic memory of the first order, is akin to messing with Mother Nature: It rarely ends well, no matter how good the intention.
I learned this the hard way 12 years ago, when my idea of inviting Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat to visit the Holocaust museum in Washington proved to be a disaster. There is great danger in misappropriating memory and attempting to link it to another agenda or to a tragic historical experience seared in the minds of millions. However the controversy over the proposed mosque and Islamic center in Lower Manhattan plays out, the outcome is bound, for many in this country and elsewhere, to keep raw and open the wounds of Sept. 11, 2001. And the benefits do not appear to be worth the risk.
The decision to invite Arafat to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum was conceived with the best intentions. In 1998, the Arab-Israeli peace process was in constant crisis. There was zero trust between Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (then in his first term in that office). Both were looking for ways to demonize the other. Israelis and Palestinians -- officials to ordinary citizens -- traded accusations in the media over settlements, textbooks and portrayals in the media. To many Israelis, among the worst of the Palestinian transgressions was Holocaust denial. As a senior U.S. adviser on Arab-Israeli negotiations, I was charged with identifying steps and gestures that might build confidence on both sides, in this case among Israelis. 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?
Inviting Arafat to the museum, one of the dumbest ideas in the annals of U.S foreign policy, created a perfect storm. After I had gotten a yes in principle from the Palestinians and the chairman of the museum's executive committee, the idea leaked to the media. The museum's board was blindsided; its director was fundamentally opposed. Israelis and many American Jews were outraged by what they saw as a political hijacking of the genocide. Some Holocaust survivors supported the idea but many were opposed. The official invitation eventually was retracted.
How I could have believed such an invitation would head any way but south is beyond me. Yes, the museum was a living memorial to combating racism, hatred and genocide. But did I fully grasp that I was using hallowed memory and narrative for purposes that could affront the very people I was trying to persuade? For millions, the museum was a positive and powerful symbol of not forgetting -- just as, for so many, Arafat was a symbol of anti-Semitism, violence and insensitivity. The potential conflict and misunderstanding overwhelmed any opportunity for dialogue and understanding.
And even if the visit had taken place, what would Arafat have said afterward? That he better understood the Israeli and Jewish sensibility but that they would have to understood Palestinian dispossession and suffering, too? That Israelis were perpetuating a genocide against Palestinians and demand equal time and space? The possibilities for disaster were too numerous to identify.
The debate over building an Islamic center in Lower Manhattan involves different issues, such as the right of a private developer in a free society. The controversy cuts to the core of America's commitment to religious freedom.
Yet Americans must still consider the propriety of appropriating the memory of such a traumatic incident. Is it wise to risk tying a cause to these kinds of memories when the outcome wounds or polarizes, instead of healing or unifying?
Memory and memorial have at times been intertwined with great purpose; Lincoln at Gettysburg in 1863; Marian Anderson performing at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939 after she was prevented from performing at Constitution Hall; Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963.
This isn't one of those times. 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.
Aaron David Miller is a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He served as an adviser to Republican and Democratic secretaries of state on Arab-Israeli negotiations from 1988 to 2003. His forthcoming book, "Can America Have Another Great President?," will be published by Bantam Books.