Religious Registries Have A Disturbing History

The election of Donald Trump to the presidency has renewed talk about creating some sort of national registry of Muslims entering the United States. In some versions, this is similar to the disastrous Bush database enacted after 9/11.

Though not unexpected given Trump’s campaign rhetoric over the past year and a half, the proposal is still frankly horrifying – not only because it’s a blatantly unconstitutional form of religious discrimination and persecution, but because we’ve seen this before.

After the story broke on Trump’s proposed database, a Trump surrogate cited a precedent for this type of discrimination: Japanese internment camps – one of America’s least proud moments. 

But as I watched this man scramble to defend actions that were indefensible, I thought to myself, there’s a much more accurate and much uglier analogy for this: Nazi Germany.

I don’t make this comparison lightly, but the parallels are worth examining. In 1939 and 1940, the Third Reich instituted compulsory registration for Jewish citizens in countries Germany had invaded as part of a massive program of anti-Semitic legislation. This was among a series of anti-Jewish laws that eventually culminated in the mass extermination of six million people.

In light of this history, is it any wonder people get nervous when any politician starts talking about keeping lists of people by religion?

Singling out members of certain religions for a registry is unconstitutional -- and fundamentally un-American.

Throughout his almost two-year campaign, President-elect Trump had some awful things to say about Muslim Americans. He called for a complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States (before walking it back and then calling for it again), at one point insinuated that Muslims should be compelled to report suspicions of terrorism  and stated that he saw Muslims in New Jersey cheering on 9/11 (which is completely false).

He has also implied on more than one occasion that all Muslims should have to register with the government, including, apparently, those who are citizens. In November of 2015, he was specifically asked about this by an NBC News reporter who wanted to know how his plan differed from Nazi Germany’s policies. Trump’s reply was a flip, “You tell me.”

Such inflammatory rhetoric invokes another disturbing comparison to World War II: official anti-Semitism in pre-war Germany. In the years before the war, the German government and German citizens began distributing anti-Jewish propaganda all over the country, creating a hatred of Jews that was unprecedented.

The current campaign to scapegoat Muslims is disturbingly familiar.

Now that Trump is soon to take office, his casual talk of targeting Muslims is rebounding around the nation. We’ve seen numerous incidents of anti-Muslim bias and even assaults on Muslims.

There is a political echo, too. Recently, a Georgia lawmaker proposed a bill that would make it illegal for Muslim women to wear a hijab or other type of Islamic veil in public before abruptly rescinding it after an (understandable) backlash. This was especially ironic considering the bill would have altered an anti-masking law that was originally aimed at curbing the Ku Klux Klan.

My family has some Jewish roots. My great-grandmother fled Russia during the pogroms and came to America. Jewish people are, unfortunately, no strangers to policies of discrimination and hate that emanate from both official and private sources. That’s why so many of them are speaking out now.

The fact that anything even remotely like this seems to be a matter for serious discussion should rattle all Americans to their very core.