It’s been travelled before.
Aside from the fact that real democracies don’t persecute their minorities, Jews are reminded in many pieces of scripture to never forget when we were “strangers in a strange land” (see the book of Exodus). Maybe this is one reason why Muslim-bashing ticks me off so much. As a group, we should know what it’s like — if not us personally, then our parents.
Nowadays, though, we have discovered that, after centuries of being despised by zealots and Christian-tinged nationalists, we have suddenly been mailed gold membership cards to a newly-constituted “Judeo-Christian” country club [others need not apply]. We’ve arrived, we tell ourselves. They love us. Things have changed.
Well, I hate to burst anyone’s bubble, but the folks who hated Jews last year have simply moved on to new enemies. They haven’t stopped their hating, and I don’t trust their unctuous expressions of new-found love. The religious right responsible for so much of the bigotry toward Muslims (and previously Jews and African Americans) still can’t decide whether they want to kiss us, convert us, wear tallit and sing in Hebrew, or keep blaming us for Golgotha. By the time they realize we really aren’t converting any time soon, I suspect they won’t love us quite so much. And then it will be time for us to die in their End Times scenario. All this is to say – we’re really still the enemy. But ever since the Holocaust it’s just been, well, a bit awkward to say things like that in polite company. But give it time. They haven’t really changed.
Yet Jews are not their only enemies. Blacks, gays, tree-huggers, socialists, progressives, unionists, Hispanics, immigrants, flag-burners, pacifists, anti-globalists, anti-imperialists, secularists, atheists – the list is pretty long – everyone’s a target. And it has always seemed so obvious to me that much of their hostility to Muslims is that Islam is simply their number one religious competitor.
But none of this is new.
A few years ago, while doing some genealogical research, I came across a 1909 immigration document which recorded a family member’s recent arrival in America on a ship from Antwerp. I always found it odd that the shipping company had recorded all this information (but more on this in a second):
19y; male; single; can read/write;
Citizen of: Russia, Race: Hebrew;
Last Residence: Russia, [town] Destination: NY, NY; Has ticket;
Passage paid by brother;
In possession of: $25; Has been in US before in NY;
Never in prison or supported by charity;
Not a polygamist or an anarchist;
Place of Birth: Russia, [town]
In that year, 1909, many Jews were sympathetic to movements advocating anti-authoritarian forms of government based on justice, not nationalistic slogans. After all, nationalism had never been kind to Jews in Europe. For reasons of both fact and perception, most Jews were presumed to be anarchists in 1909.
And a cautious nation couldn’t be too careful about letting such troublemakers into a society whose ideal was British and German Protestantism. Organizations such as the Boston-based Immigration Restriction League were alarmed that so many of these new Jewish immigrants were “undesirable” that they helped legislate large fines on steamship companies which failed to screen them out (thus the detailed steamship records above). The League’s Numerical Limitation Bill was hardly subtle: restrictions were harshest on eastern and southern Europeans (Jews and Italians). The Dillingham Commission further restricted such immigration and totally eliminated Asians. The American nativists of the time believed these foreigners were inherently “lesser breeds” and incompatible with a superior Christian, European society – something echoed frequently by Tea Party types in the U.S. today and by Islamophobes like Geert Wilders. The League’s charter:
We should see to it that the breeding of the human race in this country receives the attention which it so surely deserves. We should see to it that we are protected, not merely from the burden of supporting alien dependants, delinquents, and defectives, but from what George William Curtis called “that watering of the nation’s lifeblood,” which results from their breeding after admission.
First they came for the Jews, then the Muslims. Who’s next?