More than most Americans, Jews are acutely conscious of their history as a community of immigrants. The beginning of restrictions on immigration in the 1920s that ultimately prevented Jews who might have fled Nazi Europe from finding safety here is integral to our historical memory. In discussions of immigration policy, the specter of the St. Louis, the German cruise liner packed with Jewish refugees that was turned away from the United States in 1939, always looms large.
That’s why the vast majority of American Jews have not only found the clamor on the right about the perils of illegal immigration to be troubling, but also oppose efforts to restrict legal entry into the country. Most Jewish organizations strongly criticized both the first and second versions of President Donald Trump’s executive orders calling for a temporary halt to immigration from certain countries as well as for the admission of refugees.
But while the latest judicial decision puts Trump’s plans on ice, the debate about them, as well as the litigation over the efforts to prevent them from being implemented, are far from over. That’s why Jewish institutions need to think seriously about what is impelling them to take such a strident position in a debate that will continue to divide Americans on the basis of their political loyalties. At a time when many liberal Jews are lining up to support the “resistance” to Trump, those tasked with defending the interests of the community as a whole need to ask at what point their advocacy on immigration crosses over into open partisanship.
To many Jews, Trump’s personality, the nasty tone of his campaign, and his unwillingness to quickly disavow support from the tiny but noisy alt- and far-right made him anathema despite his conspicuously Jewish daughter and grandchildren as well as a predilection to be more supportive of Israel’s government than his predecessor. Concerns about his slowness to denounce anti-Semitism and alt-right backers, when combined with liberal anger about his victory, has led all too many to make absurd analogies about Weimar Germany and the Nazis. Arguments against the travel orders that compare them to the situation during the Holocaust particularly resonate with Jews.
But they shouldn’t.
Whatever one may think about Trump’s decisions there is no comparison to the plight of Jews being denied haven anywhere with the situation of illegal immigrants from Central America or refugees from current conflicts in the Middle East. They may command our sympathy, but contrary to the comments of Anti-Defamation League national director and CEO Jonathan Greenblatt, they are not fleeing for their lives since they have already found safety elsewhere. Nor are they, other than Christians and other non-Muslim minorities (which the Trump administration tried to favor in their first effort), specifically marked for death as Jews were.
By blasting Trump’s stand with labels such as “xenophobia” and “hate,” Jewish groups are distorting the debate in a way that makes it harder rather than easier to have a rational discussion about the subject. Part of this is Trump’s fault since his malicious comments about Mexicans and Muslims during the campaign made it hard to credit him with good faith. But Jews who continue to play the Holocaust card are also wrong. One may think Trump’s ban — which was limited to six majority Muslim nations that are ITAL. terrorist hotbeds — may be unnecessary. But to claim, as many liberals are doing, that any concern about Islamist influence or terrorism is patently irrational or mean-spirited is equally disingenuous.
Reasonable people may disagree about whether the vetting of immigrants and refugees from countries where radical Islam is a major influence is rigorous enough without invoking the Holocaust. The same applies to the discussion about immigration reform and border enforcement. But in order to align themselves against Trump — and with their liberal donors — many Jewish organizations have felt forced to adopt a Sept. 10 mentality about potential terror threats that, if someone other than Trump was in the White House, they might not take at least with regard to the tone of their protests.
The temptation to demonize Trump may be irresistible to liberals. But Jews need to try and separate their revulsion about him from a policy debate in which their emotional needs to resist the president is in conflict with the imperative of their organizations to both avoid partisanship and to take potential security threats seriously.