Congresswoman Ilhan Omar tweeted recently that “Islamophobia and anti-Semitism are two sides of the same bigoted coin.”
Her comments came in response to media reports that the suspect behind the shooting at a San Diego synagogue was also under investigation for burning a mosque.
As author of “American Heretics,” I have found that American antagonism toward Islamic and Jewish traditions goes back nearly 500 years, and shares some unfortunate connections.
From time to time, Muslims and Jews have both been viewed as being antithetical to certain ideas of Americanness.
Nativism and Jewish immigration
As I explore in my book, nativism – an effort to protect the position of native-born citizens from perceived threats by immigrants – has periodically erupted in the U.S. since at least the early 19th century. These nativist beliefs have led to bias, exclusion and even violence against different religious groups who immigrated to America.
Although Jews had faced discrimination since first settling in Europe’s North American colonies in the 17th century, they were not depicted as a racial threat until around 1900.
In the early 20th century, northeastern American cities swelled in size as both factories and immigrant labor increased. Both caused popular anxieties about industrial capitalism and urban decay.
During this period – from 1870 to 1900 – the Jewish American population grew from perhaps 200,000 to over a million. That was the time when increasing numbers of immigrants were trying to escape anti-Semitism in Europe.
Nativists, however, began to portray Jews as non-whites and blamed them for bringing poverty and communism to the U.S.
In addition, American law granted citizenship only to those classified as “white” or “black.” Given anti-black sentiment, many immigrant Jews struggled to racially prove their whiteness. They did so by attempting to meet shifting legal definitions of proof, including reference to scientific authorities and skin color.
At various times, government officials classified Jews as Caucasian or Hebrew. They even seemed inclined at times to label them as Mongolians, which would exclude them from naturalization. Nativists used ugly stereotypes of Jewish physical and character traits, such as large noses and insatiable greed, in order to portray Jews as a race apart from most Americans.
During the later part of the century, such stereotypes would be applied to Muslims as well.
By the 1920s, the idea that Jews represented a separate, foreign race that threatened the U.S. had become prevalent among the Protestant majority. The Ku Klux Klan in that decade focused on anti-Semitism just as strongly as anti-Catholic nativism and anti-black racism.
KKK speakers and publications described Jews as unwilling to racially and culturally assimilate to an essentially white and Protestant America.
Klan membership peaked at perhaps four million throughout the nation, not simply the South. On Aug. 8, 1925, approximately 40,000 uniformed KKK members marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in a show of strength and assertiveness. Men and women wearing white caps and carrying American flags marched past a vast crowd that watched for three hours, publicly demonstrating the Klan’s strength and implicitly advocating their nativist agenda.
But it wasn’t the Klan alone. Other prominent individuals in the U.S. were also involved in spreading anti-Semitic messages.
Convinced that Jews bore responsibility for the First World War, car-maker Henry Ford sold ten million copies of his book “The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem” beginning in 1920.
Throughout the 1930s, a Catholic priest Father Charles Coughlin attracted a wide radio audience with his anti-Jewish rants. Before the Catholic Church eventually shut down his populist career in 1942, he broadcast messages of anti-Semitism, anti-capitalism and anti-communism to perhaps the largest radio audience in the world at that time as the country wrestled with the Depression.