There was a time in America, circa 1950, when the nouns “Communist” and “Jew” were closely associated. In a 1948 survey by the American Jewish Committee, 21% answered yes to the question “Do you think most Jews are Communists?” An informal survey showed that more than half the people mentioned Jews in responding to the question “What do you think of the atom [spy] stories in the newspapers?” even though the question didn’t mention Jews.
Similarly, in the Peekskill Riots of 1949, rioters with rocks and baseball bats attacked audience members arriving for a concert by the black singer Paul Robeson, who had defended Communism. In addition to shouting anti-Communist slogans, the rioters shouted anti-black and anti-Jewish slogans.
These episodes come to mind because of the hearings scheduled by Rep. Peter King, who represents a district on Long Island, to investigate radicalization among Muslims in the United States. The New York Times observed, “Notice that the hearing is solely about Muslims. It might be perfectly legitimate for the Homeland Security Committee to investigate violent radicalism in America among a wide variety of groups, but that doesn’t seem to be Mr. King’s real interest.”
Writing in USA Today, David P. Gushee, a professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University in Georgia, said, “The focus, after all, is on the purported radicalization of the ‘American Muslim community.’ Not a tiny pocket. But all Muslim Americans can fall under this umbrella of suspicion.”
The Times concluded that Rep. King was “more interested in exploiting ethnic misunderstanding than in trying to heal it.” The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights warned that King’s investigation “will inevitably stoke anti-Muslim sentiment and increase suspicion and fear,” and said that terrorists should be identified by behavior, not religion or ethnicity.
There is unanimous agreement that activity by Islamic extremists in recruiting terrorists must be investigated, but many experts warn that a heavy-handed investigation of entire community would be more likely to stimulate radicalization than to prevent it. Furthermore, 30% of U.S. Muslims suspected of terrorist activity since 2001 were found through tips by other American Muslims.
The anti-Communist hearings in Congress led by Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s never investigated Jews as a group, even though many Jews were called to testify before his committee and lost their livelihoods because of it. Several members of McCarthy’s staff, including his chief counsel, Roy Cohn, were Jewish. Cohn, however, is reported to have said that, “not all Jews are Communists, but all Communists are Jews.”
More than once in our history we have been branded as radical, subversive, or dangerous across the board, and it is wrong for us to treat any other religious or ethnic group in the same way. We should keep in mind the statement by Denis McDonough, the deputy national security advisor: “We must resolve that, in our determination to protect our nation, we will not stigmatize or demonize entire communities because of the actions of a few. In the United States of America, we don’t practice guilt by association. And let’s remember that just as violence and extremism are not unique to any one faith, the responsibility to oppose ignorance and violence rests with us all.”