At the beginning of last century, my great-grandparents and many others like them immigrated to the United States from Poland and Russia. They were as poor as dirt, and didn’t speak the language.
Initially they lived in squalor, in the tenements of New York City. They were vilified in the press and in the halls of Congress as an indigestible mass, unable to assimilate. Yet within three generations their descendants were college-educated professionals, heavily represented throughout in the upper reaches of achievement in American society.
I have been blessed over the past couple of years to get to know some members of the Muslim community in Kansas. They are mostly immigrants and first-generation Americans, from Pakistan and India. But they don’t live in squalor.
They already speak the language, and they are already heavy contributors to American society: doctors and engineers who place a great premium on education and are grateful for the opportunity to live and work in America.
When I hear public officials these days talk about Muslims, I don’t recognize the people I know. Of course, I know there are people in other countries who are at war with their own people and with the West. But I also know that they are a infinitesimal percentage of the 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, and none (not one) of the Muslims in Kansas.
I know that, left to develop on their own, America’s Muslim community will achieve great things, and be a great asset to our country.
One hundred years ago the Jewish community developed institutions that would represent them in the halls of power. The Anti-Defamation League, for example, has become an exemplar of both Jewish self-protection and anti-discrimination in general. Today, the Muslim community is developing its own such institutions, including the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR.
If there’s anyone who needs to represent themselves to the public and to officials, it’s the Muslim community, and I fully support their right to do so.
My Jewish tradition teaches me that every person is created in the image of God. Jewish history teaches me that a vilified population, without friends, can become subject to the worst that humanity has to offer.
I consider it my obligation to support Kansas’ Muslims against ignorance, vilification and targeting, including by the federal government.
Rabbi Moti Rieber is executive director of Kansas Interfaith Action, a statewide faith-based advocacy organization.