Attitudes toward immigration
An overflowing, standing room only crowd at the Holocaust Memorial Resource and Education Center of Florida welcomed Central Florida’s own Mitchell Bloomer and Duke University’s Imam Abdullah Antepli as they co-presented the Feb. 25, forum titled, “Is History Repeating Itself: Jewish and Muslim Immigrant Experiences in America.” The forum treaded near the grounds of the controversial, even as one of the speakers noted, and a significant police security presence was on the premises for the evening.
The contentious issue was brought about by some who are concerned with the potential for improper comparison between the respective immigrant groups of Jewish and Muslim. Although the title can lead to seem otherwise, the event was actually focused on the American responses to immigration over the past century, with actually little said about the immigrants themselves at all.
The only real comparison was across time periods, rather than across people groups. Beyond the observation that for the earlier part of the 20th century immigration receiving the most backlash was predominantly Jewish, and, as of late the same backlash is applied to Muslims, there was, again, little further mention of the immigrants themselves.
Bloomer began the evening addressing the American response to immigration in the era with the highest amount of Jewish immigration among respective time periods, that era being roughly the years between 1880-1920. That period saw the shift in formal American attitudes toward the immigrants, with the “Dillingham Commission,” so-called because of its head, Vermont Senator William P. Dillingham, stating that immigration from places other than the “old” countries of Western and Northern Europe should be drastically reduced.
Bloomer addressed the general question of why this “ruling” by the Dillingham Commission was the case, and why, concurrently, immigrants have historically been so degraded in the United States for almost the past 100 years, citing a perceived quality of “otherness” among the immigrants by the citizens of the United States.
This “otherness” extends among different subgroups of Americans to different perceived qualities among the immigrants, from their political affiliation to their religious practices to their appearance. Notably, even U.S. President Woodrow Wilson subscribed to the virulent notion of an insurmountable “otherness” among the immigrants, with his specific claim being that of an endemic opposition to America’s political principles among immigrants.
Additionally, this same “otherness” perception has been extended to the immigrant groups of modern times, of which the majority is Muslim. As Bloomer noted, the United States is at the same place regarding immigrants that it was in the 1920s- and that place is, to put it lightly, a gravely bad place to be. As Bloomer also related, this anti-immigrant attitude from the years prior to World War II is the main line of attack on which America utterly failed in its potential to save many hundreds of thousands of Jews who were murdered by the Germans.
As for the predominantly more modern experiences of Muslim immigrants, Imam Antepli shared his experiences as a Muslim in the collegiate field of work. He has had Muslim families connected with his school express to him their fear at violent backlash against their young people, repeatedly cited to him while explaining why the families’ names were so American sounding or why there was little outward expression of their Muslim identity.
The compulsion to hide one’s identity is all too familiar for the American Jewish community. As Bloomer noted at the beginning of his portion of the presentation, the purpose of the Holocaust Center is to help create a world free of hate for all people. Some may object that Muslims should be treated differently because of differences in their faith, which do exist and cannot be denied.
The problem is that people are more than their faith—they are individuals, and especially when they move to America, when most often they came very close to alone, as was repeatedly mentioned by the speakers. The purpose of the evening was to communicate as such and advocate for the reorganizing of Americans’ perceptions of immigrants to stop the dangerous practice of seeing so much “otherness.”
Caleb R. Newton is a global affairs analyst living in Central Florida and the founder of Global News Breakdown. Find him at Global News Breakdown, Dissecting Society, and the Times of Israel. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.