November 15, 2018

Speaking of thy neighbor

A couple of weeks ago in my column, I asked Donald Trump’s Jewish voters if, in their minds, our historical experience as Jews created any doubts or even a dilemma about supporting him. In a nutshell, are they bothered by the idea of a (metaphoric or real) “wall”? 

Readers’ responses ranged from “Compassion has nothing to do with it; laws must be obeyed,” to “Trump is not going to lock all Muslims out, only the terrorists,” to “It’s the economy, stupid.” I was reminded that Trump is going to tear up the Iran deal on his first day in office, Hillary Clinton is a liar and I’m an idiot. 

None of this comes as a revelation. But a few readers raised an issue that I believe bears reflection: 

Leave aside the question of whether, by accepting Muslim refugees, we may be allowing terrorists into our schools and playgrounds, these readers said. What if, by letting in a people whose ideology is fundamentally anti-Western, we are doomed to repeat the experience of Europe, where millions of first-, second- and even third-generation Muslims seem to, or in fact do, resist integration?

Not all Muslims refuse to integrate, the readers wrote. But enough of them have proven to be hostile to their European host countries as to warrant consideration. What if, like Paris and London, Michigan became the scene of demonstrations by men in Islamic dress condemning core Western values? 

Indeed, what if? 

It’s a salient question, but it’s not a new one, and it wasn’t prompted by Muslims. We Jews know this — the sting of being accused of “otherness,” inherently suspect — as well as any other people. To this day, I shudder when I hear a Muslim Iranian in the United States or in Iran say those all-too-familiar words, “Jews are not Iranian.” Historically, no matter how much Jews of a certain region have felt they belonged to a country, whether Christian or Muslim, a time has come when they were shown the door or the sword, told they’re a fifth column, locked out. 

It’s not a new question, and not one with which this country is unfamiliar: The 784 active hate groups — neo-Nazis, Klansmen, other iterations of white supremacists — identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center are neither Muslim nor newly settled in the United States. I believe it’s safe to say that their ideals are in stark conflict with this country’s fundamental principles. They, too, are descendants of immigrants who came to this country as economic or political refugees. Maybe they became radicalized because they were politically or economically marginalized; maybe they’re marginalized because they subscribe to an ideology that enforces separation from the mainstream.

But for every Timothy McVeigh that white Christian immigrants have given to this country, there have been many a great white Christian American, and for every Tsarnaev brother that Muslim ideology gave the United States, there have been many a great white or brown or Black Muslim American. 

The good that has been done by many does not lessen either the pain or the disgrace brought by a single terrorist. But there’s equal disgrace in seeing a terrorist behind every scientist, artist or plain old everyday Muslim. More importantly, there’s disgrace in promoting a rhetoric, creating an atmosphere, setting an example for others to follow, of judging the many by the acts of a few. 

Vetting is important — indeed, essential. But we all know that no amount of vetting will keep us 100 percent safe. And helping the marginalized, whether white Christian or of any other origin, assimilate and prosper is crucial, but no amount of assimilation will dislodge certain extremist ideologies. 

And yes, believe me, I do know that some, perhaps many, of the Muslims whose rights I believe should be defended may not return the favor to a Jew. I know how despised and vulnerable we still are in so much of the world. I do know how little mercy so many of Israel’s Muslim neighbors would show it if only they were able. 

It’s partly because I’m a Jew that I find outrage in Trump’s depiction of other minorities. It’s because I know of the centuries during which the Jews of an entire ghetto in Iran were punished for the “sins” of one; because I know how much greater all of Iran became when the government stepped in to protect the minorities, and how much greater the United States is owing to the fact that it has allowed in Muslim immigrants

Perhaps one reader put it best when he wrote in response to my column, “If any group of people ever feels empathetic to the plight of others, it is the Jews. We are wired since birth, in fact since the birth of Judaism, to ‘care for thy neighbor as yourself.’ … We issued the first rules of conduct even toward slaves (three thousand years before U.S. independence).” 

Let’s hope we all remember this as we watch the new administration find its sea legs and either fulfill or back away from its campaign promises.

GINA NAHAI’s most recent novel is “The Luminous Heart of Jonah S.”