Among Donald Trump’s many proposals for how to “make America great again,” his call to register all Muslims living in the United States was among the most alarming for those afraid of Trump summoning the spectre of Hitler’s separation of German Jews from the German population. Trump’s rhetoric and its resemblance to fascism echoed the fear that Trump longed for a return to 1930s Europe.
But those who think that Hitler originated the idea that Jews should be forced to wear the yellow star should consider that the Catholic Church mandated the wearing of special clothing for Jews back in 1215, more than 800 years ago. Lateran Council IV is largely remembered among Catholics because it described the Eucharist as an act of transubstantiation (that is, that the bread and wine became the literal flesh and blood of Christ), and called down for harsh punishments against heretics. (Although the Church was not allowed to execute anyone itself, it could try suspected heretics and then”relax” the convicted heretic to civic authorities, who would then burn the offender.)
What is often omitted in historical accounts of the Council was its harsh pronouncements about Jews who lived in Christian lands. Canons 67-70 mandated that Jews be forced to adhere to the regulations set forth by the Church — laws that crossed national borders to wherever Jews lived in Christendom.
So, for example, the laws that prevented Christians from being able to loan money to other Christians and charge interest had a negative impact on the economy — no one was likely to loan money without some way of making money on the loan. Jews were able to loan money with interest, but the Fourth Lateran Council declared that if a Christian struggled to pay tithes to the Church because they were paying off an interest-bearing loan to Jews, then the Jew who had loaned money to the Christian would be forced to pay the tithes to the Church instead.
Jews were also forbidden from holding any elected office, and any Jew who converted to Christianity — even if it were a forced baptism — could not revert back to Judaism. To do so would subject them to the same penalty as those found guilty of heresy.
And while it is easy to dismiss these laws as products of their time, it is Canon 68 that has continued to have repercussions down through the 21st century and in the rhetoric of Donald Trump. Trump has called for the “watching” of mosques and Muslim-Americans because he links them all to terrorism. And Americans cannot tell peaceful Muslims from those who are plotting destruction.
“Until we are able to determine and understand this problem and the dangerous threat it poses, our country cannot be the victims of horrendous attacks by people that believe only in Jihad, and have no sense of reason or respect for human life,” CNN quoted from a statement on Trump’s campaign website, which is still there as of May 3, 2016.
Christians harbored similar fears about Muslims — and Jews. Instead of terrorism, however, what the Church feared was that secret Jews would impregnate Christian women, or that a Jewish woman would seduce a Christian man, which they thought would be disastrous. Thus, the Church mandated that Jews had to wear special clothing so that Christians could tell who they were interacting with. Canon 68 said “we decree that such Jews and Saracens of both sexes in every Christian province and at all times shall be marked off from other peoples through the character of their dress.” Furthermore, Jews were banned from appearing in public at all in the last three days before Easter. As a consequence, Jews were to appear in public wearing oval badges, “the measure of one finger in width and one half a palm in height.”
Other historians have documented that certain localities passed other “sumptuary” laws that regulated the clothes that Jews were allowed to wear. In a noted article, historian Diane Owen Hughes showed how in Renaissance Italy, two groups of women were forced to wear hoop earrings: prostitutes and Jewish women, a warning to Christian men to beware.