By: Doron Levine  | 

Consistency is All I Ask

The Syrian refugee crisis has divided American politics but united American Jewry. With state politicians taking strong stands on both sides, the polarizing question of whether to open our doors to Syrian refugees has created yet another wonderful opportunity for color-coded US maps (mellow yellow = welcoming refugees, orange = NOT welcoming refugees, noncommittal gray = not committing). But a similar map of American Jewry would look relatively monochromatic – for us, the notion of turning our backs to the persecuted hits too close to home.

Many have drawn parallels between the Syrian refugee crisis and Jews running from Nazi persecution, likening recent anti-immigration rhetoric to opinions expressed by western leaders at the Evian Conference in 1938. Franklin Roosevelt convened the conference in order to address the predicament of Jewish refugees, but most nations refused to rethink their immigration quotas; the Canadian representative said, “one [Jews] would be too many.” To this day, the tragic story of the MS Saint Louis echoes hauntingly in our ears.

With these events in mind, leaders of the Orthodox Union released a statement in which they compared the current situation to Jews fleeing the holocaust and emphasized that “while security concerns must be paramount, our focus as a nation should be on ‘getting to a yes.’” One writer for the Forward boldly challenged, “How can we call ourselves Jews and bar Syrian refugees?”

Fearing the resurgence of racial immigration policies, Jewish leaders and organizations the world over have jumped to the aid of the refugees. Jonathan Greenblatt, the National Director of the ADL, urged governors who oppose Syrian immigration to reconsider, explaining that “to do otherwise signals to the terrorists that they are winning the battle against democracy and freedom.” Along with other Jewish organizations, the ADL has created the Jewish Coalition for Syrian Refugees, a group dedicated to providing aid to refugees and promoting “fair and humane immigration policies.” Paul Anticoni, executive director of World Jewish Relief, appealed to the British government to accept more refugees, citing his characteristically Jewish “empathy of looking after the stranger” and “desire to assist, irrespective of the nationality of the individual.”

Here I would like to pinpoint a tension in our community’s collective thought. We seem to hold two positions that, at least on the surface, appear inconsistent. When discussing American immigration policy, many of us advocate for more open borders, especially with regards to people seeking asylum or refugee status (though of course with the necessary vetting procedures). Ourselves descendants of immigrants, we are quick to point out the odious hypocrisy of enjoying the opportunities and freedoms that America provides while denying those same rights to others.

But when it comes to Israel, our rhetoric takes a decidedly ethnocentric turn. We see Israel as a Jewish homeland appropriately dedicated to the furthering of particularistic Jewish interests. So when we discuss Israel, certain arguments that we might proffer in conversations about American politics are temporarily tabled. For example, members of our community tend to oppose racial immigration policies but rarely criticize Israel’s Law of Return.

In 1950, the Israeli Knesset passed the Law of Return, granting all Jewish people the right to immigrate to Israel and permanently reside therein. By encouraging diaspora Jews to move to Israel, this law effectively ensured that Jews would remain an ethnic and religious majority in the State of Israel. The policy accords with public opinion – a study published in 2013 by the Israeli Democracy Institute found that almost two-thirds of Israeli Jews believe that maintaining a Jewish majority in Israel is more important than Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin said, “the red line for Arabs is twenty percent of the population…I want to preserve the Jewish character of the state of Israel not by name only, but also in action, values, language, and culture.”

For the purposes of the Law of Return, Israeli law defines a Jew as a person with at least one Jewish grandparent. So the basis of the law is biological – a person is a Jew if he or she is belongs, at least partially, to a certain ethnicity. Moreover, the law has a religiously discriminatory aspect. A biological Jew who practices a religion other than Judaism can be disqualified from immigrating under the Law of Return. So this law explicitly favors a certain racial and religious group of people over all others, offering it preferential treatment with regards to naturalization.

This policy seems to violate widely held conceptions of discrimination in America. Imagine if the US were to alter its immigration policy such as to provide automatic immigration and citizenship to any person with at least one white Christian grandparent. No doubt, mainstream Americans would see an immigration policy that explicitly favored white people as anathema to everything the country stands for. To advocate for such a policy would be political suicide. Why is Israel different?

Racial attitudes have also shaped Israeli attitudes towards African refugees. Sudanese and Eritrean immigrants seeking asylum in Israel from civil war and persecution in their home countries have encountered cool hostility. A poll conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute found that more than half of Israeli Jews agree with MK Miri Regev that these refugees are “a cancer” on Israeli society. Israel’s multi-faceted cure for this “cancer” has involved shipping some of these refugees back to their home countries, rounding up others in desert detention centers, and building a 140-mile fence along its entire Egyptian border. Yet this response has elicited little outcry from our community. How can we excoriate politicians who ignore the plight of Syrian refugees and yet fail to denounce similar policies in our homeland? Here, again, our views qua Americans do not square with our views qua religious Zionists.

How might we resolve this tension? Many have justified the Law of Return based on the holocaust, claiming that the Law of Return is necessary to provide Jewish people with a safe haven that is free of anti-Semitic oppression. In fact, this justification is built into the fabric of the law itself – the racial definition of Judaism utilized in the Law of Return stems directly from the definition of Judaism provided by Nazi Germany’s Nuremberg Laws. So the Law of Return was crafted as a direct response to the holocaust.

Perhaps this justification was reasonable when the law was passed in 1950. Jews fleeing the holocaust sometimes had difficulty finding countries that would agree to shelter them, so it was argued that the Jewish people needed a national homeland that would grant them automatic citizenship. But now that the Nazi government is no longer a global threat, the immediate necessity for a Jewish sanctuary seems to have dissipated. Moreover, if this law was created to protect a minority group from the most pernicious sort of racial oppression, then the last thing that this law should do is enforce a racial hierarchy.

Others have tried to distinguish between Israel and America by pointing to the original intents of their respective founders. They claim that the United States has always been a nation of immigrants, dedicated to providing opportunity to people the world over without regard for race, creed, or color. But those who make this claim revise history. In fact, until relatively recently, America’s immigration policy was overtly racial. America was originally a nation of a certain type of immigrants – the US Naturalization Law of 1790 restricted naturalization to “free white persons.” The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 suspended Chinese immigration until 1943 when the Magnuson Act allowed Asian naturalization for the first time since 1795 (albeit with an annual quota of 105 persons). Up until 1965, immigration to America was governed by a national origins quota system designed to favor immigrants from northern and western Europe. And even when the Immigration and Nationality Act was passed in 1965, Senate immigration sub-committee chairman Ted Kennedy promised that the bill “will not upset the ethnic mix of our society.”

So when people claim that America is a nation of immigrants, what they really mean is that American rightfully should be a nation of immigrants and that the legislation in 1965 was a positive development. We may wish that America had always been a generous host, mercifully granting citizenship to people of all colors and nationalities, but let us not rewrite history. To say that American immigration has traditionally been racially colorblind is to allow hagiography to take possession of the facts. America made a conscious move to become a more diverse nation of immigrants, and Israel has the ability to do the same.

To be clear, I am not evaluating the concept of an ethnic state. But we should not tolerate collective cognitive dissonance. If denying entry to Syrian refugees is morally repulsive, then so is shipping Eritreans back to persecution and hunger. And if immigration policy aimed at maintaining a racial enclave is unacceptable, then so is the Law of Return. Consistency is all I ask.