Sep 10, 2021 - Podcasts

Interfaith efforts to fight hate

Before the 9/11 memorial in New York City was even built, there were plans to build an Islamic community center and mosque a few blocks away. Eleven years ago, the Anti-Defamation League opposed the building of the center in that place. But this week, the ADL’s national director apologized for that stance. He talks to Axios Today about coming together to combat hate and terror.

  • Plus, how threats to the U.S. have changed over two decades.
  • And, COVID today, by the numbers.

Guests: The Anti-Defamation League's Jonathan Greenblatt, Axios' Bryan Walsh and Mike Allen.

Credits: Axios Today is produced in partnership with Pushkin Industries. The team includes Niala Boodhoo, Sara Kehaulani Goo, Dan Bobkoff, Alexandra Botti, Nuria Marquez Martinez, Sabeena Singhani, and Michael Hanf, Alex Sugiura. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at [email protected] You can text questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.

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NIALA BOODHOO: Good morning. Welcome to Axios Today. It’s Friday, September 10th. I’m Niala Boodhoo. Ahead of tomorrow’s 9/11 anniversary, how threats to the US have changed over two decades. Plus: Covid today, by the numbers. And: today’s one big thing: interfaith efforts to fight hate in New York and beyond.

The last time I was at the site of the World Trade Center was just a few months after the 9/11 attacks - back in 2001. It was still so new the rubble was still smoking. So this week - while in New York I wanted to visit the memorial there now: the two man-made waterfalls in the footprints of the towers — with names of those lost engraved all around. Today I’m going to be remembering what happened - with some of my Axios coworkers - we’ll hear from them in a little bit. Yesterday, it was rainy day. There were lots of journalists and tour groups there. And, of course - families of those who lost loved ones that day - like Ray Costello.

RAY COSTELLO: My brother, whose name is right here on the wall, died on 9/11. He was working at the Mercer Hotel. Heard the first plane crash and he came running down here and he ran in through tower one. I was found on under tower two.

NIALA: But before this memorial was even built, there were lots of discussions about how to commemorate that day. Near the site, you might remember there were plans to build an an Islamic community center and mosque a few blocks away. And eleven years ago, the Anti-Defamation League, an NGO focused on the defamation of Jewish people and the fair treatment for all, opposed the location of the center. But this week, the ADL’s National Director in an CNN Op-Ed apologized for that stance -- Jonathan Greenblatt is CEO and National Director of the Anti-Defamation League. Hi Jonathan.

JONATHAN GREENBLATT: Thank you for having me.

NIALA: And I should say Shana Tova. Why was it important for you to write about this during what is now the holiest part of the Jewish year?

JONATHAN: This is the, uh, annual, uh, Jewish New Year. Rosh Hashanah. At this time Jews around the world think about, not just the year ahead, but the year that's been and we engage in a process called Teshuvah or “repentance.” Where you reflect on moments when you miss misstepped. And if you wronged people, how you hope to do-to do right by them. You know, I've been the CEO of ADL for six, some odd years, but it's a legacy organization with a storied history. For all of the successes, we've also missed the mark a few times. One of those moments where I, I don't think we necessarily represented our values was a decision that was made at ADL some 11 years ago when the organization decided not to support the Cordoba House, this multi-faith effort that was championed by some Muslim activists as a way to try to not just heal the city of New York, but really heal the country. And unfortunately, I think that noble intention was slandered by some. ADL to be honest, got engaged on an issue where ADL didn't belong. We actually ended up feeding into anti-Muslim hate. And I think that was a low point for this organization. It felt like in this moment, as we approach a 20th anniversary, it was an inappropriate point just to account for our-our sins and to acknowledge the error. And to seek to do better by the Muslim community in the years ahead.

NIALA: What is your assessment as the CEO of the ADL, where we stand as a country in terms of fair treatment for everyone?

JONATHAN: You continue to see anti-Muslim sentiment, specifically normalized in the media and expressed in popular culture in so many ways. When demonization has been normalized, I think we've really got to dig deep and invoke our better angels and resist that temptation and push back on those people who engage in this kind of hate.

NIALA: What role do you want interfaith groups to play in all of this?

JONATHAN: Some of the most impressive important community building is indeed happening on the ground, quietly out of the headlines. There's an organization called the Muslim-Jewish advisory committee, or MJAC, doing great work on the ground in cities, across the country to bring together Jewish and Muslim communities. I think diversity is a strength. It's what's made this country great for hundreds of years. And I think we've got to lean into that in these moments. To learn from one another. Because ultimately education, it's the best antidote to intolerance. And that can happen again on the ground, in communities at the block-by-block level. And there's lots of opportunity there.

NIALA: Jonathan Greenblatt is the CEO and National Director of the Anti-Defamation League. Thank you for taking the time to speak with us, Jonathan.

JONATHAN: Thank you so much for having me.

NIALA: In 15 seconds we’ll be back with Mike Allen’s reflections on 9/11.


NIALA: Welcome back to Axios Today. I’m Niala Boodhoo. On Sept 11, 2001, I was just starting my journalism career at Reuters in Washington. Axios CoFounder Mike Allen was also in DC - with the Washington Post, and was traveling with President George Bush that day. I asked him what he remembers from that day, 20 years later.

MIKE ALLEN: A big thing about that day was we didn't know what was next. What were the targets? What else was out there? I was part of the press corps that got left behind in Sarasota after Air Force One took off. And when the White House flew us back, we were the only plane in the air. I was like, do we really want to be the only plane in the air on 9/11? But of course the correspondents all wanted to get back to Washington to their families and to get on TV. When you cover the president so much is concealed. This was a moment when the White House, the government, the country were all exposed the machinery, the vulnerabilities, the hatred, our patriotism.

NIALA: Axios' main offices are in DC - and New York. That’s where my colleague Bryan Walsh is based. The past few days I’ve been chatting with him about the threats we face today - compared to back then. So I asked him to join me at the 9/11 memorial to talk more about what those threats look like now. Hey Bryan, thank you for being with me.


NIALA: You moved to New York just a couple years after 9/11. How do you feel like the city has changed in all the time that you've been here?

BRYAN: It's funny cause we're here on the 9/11 site. And when I moved here, it was still mostly a deconstruction site. You were reminded in both this site itself, in the enhanced security, around everything from the federal reserve bank to any kind of monument around here, just what had, had really changed, but it is amazing 20 years on that. both feels very distant, but then you were reminded that it's still driving both the history of this city and the history of the country and the world at large

NIALA: 20 years ago. There was so much conversation around the threats that we missed that caused nine 11 to happen. what threats do you think we're missing?

BRYAN: I think the threat nature has changed a lot since 9/11. What's changed is that we face now a really renewed era of power conflict, We have Russia, we have China, we have other countries and the competition between those countries and United States is growing. At the same time, you have new tools, new ways to create real destruction, real catastrophe. The threat from cyber terrorist, cyber espionage, cyber, uh, sabotage, wherever you want to call it, that's so much greater than it was in 2001, because we're so much more connected. The good news is that when we negotiate, we have communication. We have diplomacy, but I am very worried about the amount of catastrophic threats we face. And I think when you look at COVID-19 how good we would be at actually handling it, I don't think we would.

NIALA: It's a big question and I don't know if you can answer it - Are we safer now than we were 20 years ago?

BRYAN: It's really hard to say. I think on the whole, no, I think the reason is that our society is a lot more fragile than it was in 2001. Part of that is we've connected things and we, we didn't before. So you can have these kinds of cascading effects from a cyber terror event, from a hack, from a disease, obviously that wasn't quite the case in 2001. And then you look at really old threats that are backing in the big way. I mean, nuclear weapons have not gone away. They might've felt as if they had in 2001, but that would mean catastrophe on a scale that would obviously dwarf what happens here.

NIALA: Bryan Walsh is Axios’ future correspondent. Bryan, thanks for being here with me.

BRYAN: Thank you.

NIALA: Almost 3,000 people died in the Sept 11 attacks. But at least that many Americans are dying of COVID-19 every two days. So before we go this week, here’s the latest on Covid, by the numbers: 153,000: that’s the daily average of Americans who’ve tested positive for COVID-19 over the past two weeks. 1 in 5000: that’s the chances of a breakthrough infection among vaccinated Americans — though it could potentially be lower if they live in highly vaccinated communities. 2.1 million — that’s the number of federal employees who will now be required to be vaccinated according to a new executive order from President Biden announced yesterday. 80 million other Americans in the private sector will also be required to get the vaccine or get tested. And that’s all for this week. Thanks so much for starting your day with us. I’m Niala Boodhoo. Thanks for listening - stay safe this weekend - I’ll see you back here on Monday.

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