American Jews have a long and understandable tradition of advocacy for immigrants. That’s due in part to the fact that most Jews were the children and grandchildren of immigrants as the community first began to assert itself into the political life of the country in the 20th century. It’s also because the plight of those who were denied entry to the United States and other potential sources of refuge for those Jews seeking to flee Nazi Germany and occupied Europe during the Holocaust is imprinted upon the political memory of most Jews.
So it’s hardly surprising that much of the organized Jewish community has little sympathy for President Donald Trump’s positions on illegal immigration. That includes distaste for his desire to build a wall on America’s southern border, as well as contempt for controversial policies that led to the separation of families of those who entered the country illegally. And it now extends to revulsion towards the deplorable conditions at detention camps.
But there is a difference between supporting more liberal immigration laws and empathy for those who came here illegally and the more radical stands on these issues that are increasingly become mainstream on the left.
The left-wing Jewish groups that are organizing the growing number of demonstrations against the work of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency and essentially opposing any enforcement of laws against illegal immigration think they are representing the views of most Jews these days. And they might be right.
The Democratic presidential candidates were nearly unanimous during their recent debates about supporting the decriminalization of illegal entry into the United States. They are similarly united behind measures like providing free government health care for illegals.
And while most mainstream Jewish groups have pushed back against analogies to the plight of illegal immigrants and asylum-seekers to the Holocaust, many are continuing to do just that. Indeed, the coalition of left-wing organizations organizing the protests against federal law enforcement aren’t just applauding Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s labeling of detention centers as “concentration camps,” they’ve named their group “Never Again Action.”
The support they have garnered is indicative of two things: genuine horror about the conditions at federal facilities and partisanship.
Claims that all those who are flooding across the border are in some ways analogous to Jews fleeing for their lives from a Nazi death sentence are as absurd as they are false. Still, the hardships faced by the illegals in custody were bound to generate outrage from Jews, who are naturally sympathetic to downtrodden underdogs.
It’s also true that many of those leading these protests are guilty of blatant hypocrisy.
It was, after all, only six months ago that the same people now denouncing the conditions at the border today were just as adamant in claiming that Trump’s arguments about there being a crisis there were false. Whether or not you agree with the president about the need for a wall, in retrospect the position taken by his critics, which generated a lengthy government shutdown, was disingenuous.
Their hypocrisy is also compounded by the fact that the same Democrats decrying Trump voiced no protests when families were separated, immigrants imprisoned and millions deported on President Barack Obama’s watch.
To note this hypocrisy is not to gainsay the need for the government to improve conditions at the detention centers.
But in assessing this debate, we also have to acknowledge that Trump’s critics and the Democratic candidates have departed from traditional Jewish positions on immigration. That means that the notion that the community is obligated to follow along and echo some of these radical Democratic stands doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
The organized Jewish community has always supported more liberal immigration laws, family reunification, and an orderly and generous asylum process. But what leading Democrats are now proposing in terms of decriminalization and entitlements for illegals goes beyond even the granting of amnesty for those who are already in the country without legal permission. Their stands are now indistinguishable from open borders. The idea that open borders, as opposed to compassionate treatment of immigrants, is somehow consonant with Jewish values or history is pure fiction.
The accusations that the crisis at the border is the result of Trump’s moral failings are also bogus. Whatever you may think of the president, every mass movement across the border has been preceded by liberal promises that those who come here without following the rules don’t have to worry about being held accountable for breaking the law. The only way to curtail this flood of migrants – and thereby relieve the crisis – is to make it clear that all those who try will be caught and deported. Democratic pledges of free health care, college tuition and driver’s licenses are a neon welcome sign that led directly to the unfolding calamity at the border.
But there’s another point that needs to be emphasized. Sovereignty and the rule of law – the values that are being trashed by those making inappropriate Holocaust analogies and calling for tearing down the border – are actually good for the Jews.
The basic problem Jews faced in the 1930s was partly the result of restrictive U.S. immigration legislation, coupled with the anti-Semitic refusal of some officials to let in refugees that did qualify under the law. But it was also rooted in the plain fact that the rule of law had broken down in Europe, and Nazi aggression was aimed at destroying the sovereign rights of all nations not named Germany.
If generations of Jews have found a haven in the United States, it is because it remains a nation of laws. Destroy the rule of law – and that is exactly what Never Again Action and others who share their desire to strip the United States of its sovereign right to determine who may pass through its border are advocating – and no one, least of all religious minorities like Jews, will be safe.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor of JNS.org.