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Our Fellow Citizens

Supporting the rights of Muslim Americans

December 10, 2015
Immigrants arriving at Ellis Island, 1902. Wikimedia
Immigrants arriving at Ellis Island, 1902. Wikimedia

According to FBI statistics for 2014, Jews were far more likely than members of other religious groups to be the victims of religiously motivated hate crimes. Despite Jews’ small numbers, 59 percent of the year’s 6,400 religious bias crimes were against Jews; to take one point of comparison, Catholics, who make up about a fifth of the country, accounted for only 6 percent of victims. The FBI said that hate crimes against Jews were down last year, but the Anti-Defamation League, which keeps its own statistics, said that 2014 was a particularly bad year for anti-Semitism, with incidents up 21 percent over the previous year.

And yet, it feels like those under increasingly sharp attacks are Muslims in America. Muslims made up 14 percent of victims—an enviably low number, compared to what Jews suffered—but their numbers were up 14 percent in a year. And one imagines that when the numbers for 2015 are in, Muslims will appear worse off still. Reverberations from the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino are threatening to inflame bigotry toward all Muslims (and toward non-Muslim Arabs, and dark-skinned Hindus, Sikhs, and others). The sight of refugees in Europe has, instead of provoking Americans’ compassion, sometimes scared them, and made them more fearful of immigrants, Muslim and otherwise. Hateful and ignorant comments coming from presidential candidates, including Donald Trump, who this week called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” threaten to make Islamophobia mainstream.

There have been plenty of denunciations of Islamophobia, and of Trump specifically, and they have come from the left and from the right. That’s a good first step. But the only way to improve—or legitimately try to improve—public discourse is for good people to, publicly and confidently, say what they are for.

Here’s our modest contribution: The United States has always defined itself as a country of immigrants. It has drawn enormous strength from that identity, and that narrative—indeed, it’s been a cornerstone of American exceptionalism from the country’s earliest days. This impulse has afforded us, the children of immigrants, both safety and opportunity: to live freely; to worship openly or, if we choose, not at all; and ultimately to give back to this country in ways that have made it stronger. We must demand that immigrants of all kinds, including Muslims, receive the same opportunity—for them, for us, and for the America we all need. Our identity as a country of refuge has to be constantly renewed, for all of our sakes.

For the most part, Jews have been commendably aggressive about denouncing Islamophobia. The Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, J Street, the Orthodox Union, and Bend the Arc all denounced Trump’s statement, for example. And over one thousand rabbis, representing the spectrum of American Jewish observance, signed a letter from the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society calling on “elected officials to support refugee resettlement and to oppose any measures that would actually or effectively halt resettlement or prohibit or restrict funding for any groups of refugees.”

But some Jewish groups have, alas, kept quiet about anti-Muslim bias. The silence seems to us to have at least two roots. Some may believe that if Muslims are seen as the enemy, anti-Semitism will recede; they may also believe that if Americans understand Islam as radical and destabilizing, they will have more compassion for Israelis, who contend daily with a Palestinian national movement whose leaders countenance, and even encourage, the murder of Jews. A second source of Jewish silence on anti-Muslim bigotry is the fear, shared with many other Americans, that Muslims are more likely to commit terrorist acts.

With regard to the self-protective sense, we say that xenophobic nationalism is not easily contained: what today is aimed at the Muslims can turn tomorrow toward the Jews. Nativist movements in the United States have never been kind to the Jews. To them, we’re just blacks or Arabs, but with more effective international conspiracies.

To the fear of terrorism, we say that all potential immigrants, of any ethnicity, should continue to be vetted for anti-American sympathies. Citizens, however, do not have to pass loyalty tests. We disagree with the liberal columnist Michael Tomasky, who recently wrote, with regard to Muslim Americans, that “the rights you have as Americans have to be earned, fought for” (wording that Tomasky immediately regretted). As Jews, we know about loyalty tests, and we reject them. As we hear some insist on applying such tests to Muslims, we react with horror, and stand in solidarity.

Besides, if we really want to be safe from radical Islam, we need Muslims to come here. Historically, America is where religions come to get less threatening. It’s where they split and multiply and get liberalized and reformed; it’s where they spend their energy on internecine theological squabbles instead of wars with rival religions. And what a glorious thing that is. If the world is ever to be filled with reformed mosques, female imams, and postmodern, non-literal readings of the Quran, that movement will come not from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, or Iran, but from mosques and seminaries here in the United States. Some are operational already. They need our support and our benison.

We aren’t naïve. We know that Islamic terrorism is a problem. We also recognize that with a more liberal immigration policy, fanatics could slip in. But any system not designed first around openness to immigrants and liberties for all citizens is un-American. Ours is a country worth safeguarding, but only because fellow citizens of all ethnicities, and a robust flow of immigrants, keep it that way.

Editorials do not (necessarily) reflect the views of staff writers, editors, contributing editors or columnists.