Jewish thinking about Syrian refugees — again

Apropos of Douglas Murray’s warning the the Jewish community, this if from the JTA: “For Jewish groups, Syrian refugees are a reminder — not a threat

American Jewish organizations don’t see the Syrian refugees as a threat; they see them as a reminder.

With rare unanimity on an issue that has stirred partisan passion, a cross-section of the community has defended the Obama administration’s refugee policy in terms recalling the plight of Jews fleeing Nazi Europe who were refused entry into the United States.

“The Jewish community has an important perspective on this debate,” the Orthodox Union said in its statement. “Just a few decades ago, refugees from the terror and violence in Hitler’s Europe sought refuge in the United States and were turned away due to suspicions about their nationality.”

Echoed the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly: “We can sadly remember all too well the Jews who were turned away when they sought refuge in the United States on the eve of, and during, World War II.”

Eleven Jewish organizations joined another 70 groups in pleading with Congress to keep open the Obama administration’s program, which would allow in 10,000 refugees over the next year from among the 200,000 to 300,000 in Europe. Neither the Orthodox Union nor the Rabbinical Assembly signed the letter.

Among the signatories were mainstream bodies like the the Reform movement, the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee and the National Council of Jewish Women, as well as HIAS, the lead Jewish body dealing with immigration issues, and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the umbrella body for Jewish public policy groups.

The mainstream Jewish community seems incapable of taking the viewpoint of anyone but itself. Even if one grants that denying refuge in the 1930s to Jews is indefensible — and I don’t agree that it is — there are solutions that would not result in bringing in yet more unassimilable, non-White immigrants with no sympathy for Western culture, such as Donald Trump’s proposal of providing a safe zone in or near Syria where people can live until things are more stable. There is no attempt to balance the interests of other Americans, much less condemn Israel’s opposition to non-Jewish refugees.

However, the parallels to the Nazi era raised hackles among some conservatives.

“The refugees from Syria are not fleeing a genocide, it’s a civil war,” said Matt Brooks, who directs the Republican Jewish Coalition.

Given the general support of the RJC for pro-immigration candidates and their antipathy toward Donald Trump, Brooks is an outlier here, and he is certainly not speaking for the RJC. See also the comments of former Bush administration official Michael Chertoff below.

Officials from the organizations that support allowing in the refugees said they were not likening the magnitudes of the two catastrophes, but could not help noting the reluctance in the 1930s, as now, to accept refugees and the accusations that the refugees posed a danger.

“It’s obviously a sensitive comparison, but it’s the right point to make,” said Nathan Diament, executive director of the Orthodox Union Advocacy Center. Both the Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Assembly added in their statements that the administration and Congress should also take into account legitimate security concerns, while pressing forward with resettlement.

The consensus among the three major streams of U.S. Jewry – Reform, Conservative and Orthodox – is derived from a shared understanding of Jewish scripture, said Rabbi Jonah Pesner, who directs the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center.

“Our role is to be the pure rabbinic voice that lifts people up beyond their narrow partisan views,” he said of rabbis.

Rabbi Steve Gutow, a Reconstructionist who is the outgoing president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, said sympathy for the refugee was written into the Jewish cultural genetic code.

READ: Recalling Holocaust, Jewish congressman slams bias against Syrian refugees

“We’ve been facing the need to have refuge since we left Egypt,” he said. “To think about not speaking out flies in the face of who we are.”

Somehow this sympathy for refugees  fails to show up in Israel where one would think it would be strongest if in fact it is written into the Jewish cultural genetic code. Absent that, the default option is that sympathy for non-European refugees reflects Jewish interests in the diaspora.

There is not 100 percent agreement: The president of the Zionist Organization of America, Morton Klein, for one, spoke against allowing in the refugees at his group’s annual dinner in New York this week, citing security concens.

Still, the overwhelming consensus lines up the Jewish organizational world against the Republican Party.

A GOP-backed bill that would pause the refugee program passed overwhelmingly in the U.S. House of Representatives last week and virtually every Republican governor has said they do not want to allow in the refugees. At the same time, almost all of the Republican presidential candidates want it paused, if not reversed.

There appears to be popular opposition to the resettlement as well. An ABC/Washington Post poll showed 54 percent of Americans oppose accepting refugees, while 43 percent support it. The margin of error was 3.5 percentage points.

Being on the losing side of a political debate is nothing new for organizational American Jewry, said the ADL’s CEO, Jonathan Greenblatt, noting that the ADL in 1958 solicited a book from a “young senator from Massachusetts” — John F. Kennedy — to counter rising anti-immigrant sentiment. The future president wrote and published “A Nation of Immigrants.”

“‘We were once strangers’ is core to our identity,” Greenblatt said.

Jerry Kammer of the Center for Immigration Studies adds that Kennedy’s A Nation of Immigrants “was actually written by a member of Kennedy’s staff, Myer Feldman. Describing Kennedy’s participation as minimal, Feldman said the senator had ‘reviewed it, and did some editing.'” This is a good example of behind-the-scenes Jewish activism featuring prominent non-Jews — a common strategy used by Jews beginning in the ancient world.

Beginning in the late nineteenth century, anti-restrictionist arguments developed by Jews were typically couched in terms of universalist humanitarian ideals; as part of this universalizing effort, gentiles from old-line Protestant families were recruited to act as window dressing for their efforts, and Jewish groups such as the AJCommittee funded pro-immigration groups composed of non-Jews (Neuringer 1971, 92). (see Culture of Critique, Ch. 7, p. 261).


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