A certain people, scattered and dispersed
Testifying at the 1920 House immigration hearings, Representative John M. Robsion, a Republican from Kentucky, described Polish Jewish immigrants as:
filthy, un-American and often dangerous in their habits. . . Most of them nursed hate from their mother's breast. . . Government to them is slavery and oppression. They have become Anarchists, Bolsheviks, Communists, and radicals. . . they become a great recruiting force to the undesirables already here. . . most of them will never learn the spirit of our institutions and our Government.
Robsion's testimony--as well as that of others--resulted in the passing of one of the harshest immigration laws in U.S. history. The 1924 Immigration Act effectively closed America's borders to would-be immigrants from eastern and southern Europe and eventually prevented untold numbers of refugees from Nazi Germany from finding safety in the Goldene Medina (the Golden Country).
This was not, by far, the first time that governmental authorities have targeted Jews as foreign and pernicious forces in their adopted countries. Next week, Jewish communities around the world will read the Book of Esther as part of the celebration of the holiday of Purim. This story revolves around Haman, a powerful advisor to the king of Persia, who becomes furious when Mordechai, a Jew, refuses to bow down to him. By way of revenge, Haman persuades the king to issue an order for the extermination of all of the Jews. To make his case, Haman argues:
There is a certain people scattered and dispersed among the other peoples in all the provinces of your realm, whose laws are different from those of any other people and who do not obey the king's laws; and it is not in Your Majesty's interest to tolerate them. (3:8)
The pattern is a familiar one: one or more members of the Jewish community (or another ethnic or religious community) anger a powerful figure or join a radical movement, and the whole community comes under suspicion. The result is an explosion in anti-Semitic (or anti-ethnic) feelings and behavior, and even expulsion or murder.
This week, Representative Peter King will convene hearings to determine whether there is a home-grown Islamic terrorist movement in America. These hearings are likely to do nothing more than provoke widespread hatred of Muslims. I fear that discrimination, harassment, and even violence may result.
The government has a responsibility to keep its citizens safe. If there are terrorists in the United States--whether these be Muslims, Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, or atheists--the government should be finding, arresting, and bringing to trial those who plot murder. I want to be protected from the likes of Jared Loughner, Timothy McVeigh, and yes--Nidal Malik Hasan.
But investigating an entire ethnic group does nothing to make us safe. In fact, these proceedings distract us from targeted searches for people planning terrorist acts, instill fear and mistrust in an entire religious community, and promote intolerant behaviors toward American citizens and residents.
Haman lost his campaign to eradicate the Jews. Robsion succeeded in limiting Jewish immigration to America. Despite his warnings, though, Jews have not only "learn[ed] the spirit of our institutions and our government," but have become leaders in politics, culture, social services, academia, and every other sphere of American life. But the scars of these anti-Jewish initiatives remain. We cannot read the book of Esther without remembering how many other Hamans throughout history have succeeded in expelling or murdering Jews. We cannot know how many Jews might have been saved if the United States had been accepting immigrants during the Nazi period. And we cannot measure the effect that governmental anti-Semitic rhetoric has had on attitudes toward Jews throughout history.
Today, Americans have a choice: Will we repeat the disastrous mistakes of the past? Or will we embrace American Muslims as positive contributors the economic, political, and social life of our country?