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Jewish World Review
Jan. 13, 2004
/ 19 Teves, 5764
How wide should our open doors be?
Is it blasphemy, or simple logic and self-preservation, to
suggest that U.S. immigration laws should be tightened?
Even to mention the topic makes some Jewish leaders
America, of course, is a nation of immigrants, the land of
second chances. As a result, its beckoning shores have
long held a special place of gratitude for American Jews.
Our bubbes and zaydes came here to escape persecution
from Europe and Russia and other lands, and it was here
that they prospered in the melting pot of ethnic diversity, tolerance and
democratic values. More recently, hundreds of thousands of Jews from the
former Soviet Union were able to settle here and begin new lives without
fear of religious discrimination.
So it is only natural that the American Jewish community has been
outspoken in its support of immigration even as the numbers of Jews
coming to this country has diminished.
But there are a few voices of late insisting that the tide has turned, that a
complacent Jewish community, wedded to nostalgia and political correctness,
is about to be overwhelmed by an influx of immigrants, many of them Muslim,
with negative feelings about Jews and Israel. If Jews are to continue to
thrive politically, socially and economically in this country, they must
reconsider their position on immigration, these critics argue, and help lead a
move to block, if not shut, the open door.
By the next census, Muslims may well outnumber Jews in the U.S., and
according to Stephen Steinlight, former director of national affairs for the
American Jewish Committee, an inevitable political shift will take place within
the halls of Congress, putting increasing pressure on Israel in the Mideast
conflict. "Our defense organizations have not responded," said Steinlight,
now a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, "and when disaster
comes, they will be asking themselves, 'where were we?' "
He points to Mideast policy and social changes in European countries like
France and England, where Israel is viewed with increasing disfavor and
anti-Semitism is on the rise, and he attributes the shift in part to the rapid
growth of the Muslim and Arab populations. Jews are now outnumbered by
about 10-to-1 by Arabs in those countries.
Ira Mehlman, media director of FAIR (Federation for American Immigrant
Reform), agrees that "American Jews need to look out for their own
self-interest," but noted that immigration is an American problem, not just a
Jewish one. "This is not about right-left politics," he said, "it's about
excessive numbers of immigrants coming here and placing a burden on our
communities, our schools and our economy." He and others argue that aside
from Jewish concerns, with up to 1.5 million immigrants, legal and illegal,
arriving each year, America cannot properly absorb them; the current policy
will lead to social and economic upheaval, in addition to jeopardizing
national security, these observers say.
Mehlman cites a recent article in the New York Review of Books by
Christopher Jencks, a professor of social policy at Harvard, who argues that
the influx of cheap labor from Mexico and South America is creating a huge
underclass that will lead to great turmoil in the U.S.
Steinlight and Mehlman have joined forces and gone on the road, speaking
at synagogues and to Jewish groups around the country, preaching the
dangers of unchecked immigration. They are finding much support, they say,
from amcha, or heartland Jews. Even some leaders of national Jewish
organizations admit privately there is a problem, according to Steinlight and
Mehlman, though they have yet to address it openly.
Rabbi David Lincoln of the Park Avenue Synagogue is well aware of the
benefits of U.S. immigration laws, having come to America 35 years ago from
Great Britain. But he thinks it is time for Jews to re-visit their position on
immigration. "Unlimited immigration is a danger to the Jewish community," he
said. "But I'm more worried about the U.S. There is a worldwide struggle
today against Islamic fascism and we have to be very careful about who we
let in." He worries about "loyalty to the state," noting that Jews are taught
to be loyal to the countries where they live while some Muslims seek
government funding for their religious schools which "teach Islam comes
Rabbi Lincoln is not against immigration, he says, but "we need some
checks." He has invited Steinlight and Mehlman to speak at his synagogue in
Rabbi Harlan Wechsler of Or Zarua, another Conservative congregation in
Manhattan, sounds more hesitant than his colleague but he, too, is
concerned about the potential dangers of open immigration. "As a rabbi I
worry about things that lead to more anti-Semitism," he said, noting that
there is much hate in the Muslim world directed at Jews. But he also
observes that America has long succeeded in making democrats out of
newcomers. "I don't want to feel that the openness of our society should be
limited unless it has to be. I want to be optimistic without being foolish."
He has not spoken from the pulpit on the issue because of its delicate
nature. "We have to go very slowly," he said.
Others, though, insist that opposing open immigration is never justified.
"The melting pot still works," said Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New
Republic. "Even in an age of ethnicity, Arab Americans will become
Americans, and the idea that they are here to infiltrate us strikes me as
paranoid and ugly. If there are particular problems, fix them. But for Jews to
suggest limiting immigration or imposing quotas is historical hypocrisy of the
Steinlight counters that while it is true the melting pot will eventually
acculturate immigrants, "militant Islam is strong and on the march." He said
it may take 30 to 50 years to create a more pluralistic form of Islam here,
and the danger remains in the short-term.
Clearly, there are no easy answers to this issue, and just to raise it causes
emotional ripples in the community. But it is too important to ignore, and
should not be left to Pat Buchanan, whose racist views lead him to oppose
immigration, as the only spokesman on the subject. An open discussion
within our community on U.S. immigration policy may lead to new thinking
and creative ways to deal with the moral imperative of keeping this country
open to newcomers "yearning to breathe free" while protecting its
inhabitants legal and illegal from those who would undermine all
America stands for.
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JWR contributor Gary Rosenblatt is Editor and Publisher of the New York Jewish Week.
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© 2004, Gary Rosenblatt