Andy Noguchi and I have something in common. Both our fathers served in the armed services during World War II. But there was one big difference. While my father’s family was delighted that he had a job and a steady paycheck, Noguchi’s father’s family was in a United States internment camp, for the crime of being Japanese. Despite having a German-sounding last name, my father’s patriotism was not questioned. Noguchi’s father’s was. My father was Caucasian. Noguchi’s father was not.
At the annual Sacramento Area League of Associated Muslims’ iftar dinner, many community leaders gathered to share in the tradition of breaking the fast during the month of Ramadan. Noguchi, who is the co-president of the Florin Chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League, spoke about his father and the 120,000 innocent Japanese-Americans who were imprisoned in February 1942 “behind barbed wire fences and armed guards for four years.” He told us that the government “denied people of hard-earned jobs, farms, businesses and education. This experience burned deep in our hearts and will never be forgotten.”
And it hasn’t. The JACL has been very vocal in comparing the 2016 treatment of Muslims in America with their own experiences in 1942. That is one reason that SALAM awarded this year’s Distinguished Award for Exceptional Interfaith and Community Service to the JACL.
Speaking alongside JACL Co-President Marielle Tsukamoto, Noguchi went on to say that “our Japanese-American elders told us that, ’It’s happening again. They are blaming innocent people, like they blamed us.’” He told the group gathered at the iftar that while his father’s family was locked up behind barbed wire, his father “risked his life, just as Muslim-American soldiers lay their lives on the line fighting for America today.” He asked, “Should we be blaming them for terrorist attacks? Should we be questioning the loyalties of the Muslim police, firefighters, teachers, doctors, scientists and all the everyday people contributing to our country?”
Just as my father had nothing to do with the Nazis, Noguchi’s father had nothing to do with Pearl Harbor. Our Muslim friends and neighbors have nothing to do with 9/11. Yet the loyalty of German-Americans was questioned during World War I, the loyalty of Japanese-Americans was questioned during World War II and the loyalty of Muslim-Americans is being questioned today.
While 1942 was 74 years ago, sitting at the iftar dinner, it felt very current. These events that took place three quarters of a century ago are still raw and painful. The Japanese community has not forgotten.
Nor should we. Noguchi said that only two major groups stood up for the Japanese during their internment: The Quakers and the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California. He was encouraged that today there are hundreds of groups standing up against bigotry and intolerance.
In 1980, 38 years after the internment, President Jimmy Carter appointed the Commission of Wartime Relocation and Internment, which found little evidence of Japanese disloyalty but much evidence of racism. It was racism against the Japanese that led to the internment camps. And today, it is religious prejudice that is driving the hate campaign against Muslims.
It is wrong and shameful. If we do not learn from the mistakes of history, we are doomed to repeat them.