Only hours after the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision to uphold U.S. President Donald Trump’s right to restrict entry into the United States from seven countries, including five with Muslim majorities, Jewish groups were issuing condemnations and organizing protests. Much of the organized Jewish community has been involved in opposing the administration. That opposition has deepened as the understandable anger over the government separating children from their parents who had crossed the southern border without permission ignited a firestorm of protest.
This anger has set off a torrent of comments that damn Trump as a racist and proto-authoritarian, as well as prompted a comparison of the situation of current immigrants to the plight of refugees from the Holocaust, and of the administration to the Nazis. Yet some of those who have been inflaming this debate believe that in doing so, they are upholding Jewish values.
Are they right?
Concern for the “stranger” is deeply ingrained in Judaism. The immigrant experience is also crucial to understanding the way American Jews view the world. Most Jews trace their origins to the waves of migration from Eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. That historical memory helped form both the political worldview and the culture of the American Jewish community. Identification with subsequent generations of immigrants from other communities were often tied to ideas about Jewish identity and faith.
Supporting more liberal immigration laws is second nature for Jews who remember that most of their forebears arrived in this country prior to 1924, when the United States more or less welcomed anyone in good health that wasn’t excluded by racist laws prohibiting immigration from China. The unwillingness of the United States to open its doors to those fleeing Nazi Europe is also imprinted into the Jewish consciousness by usually putting them on the side of those claiming refugee status.
Revulsion at the way the president has engaged in demagoguery regarding immigration has deepened these convictions. Trump’s December 2015 call for a ban on the entry of all Muslims smacked of bigotry. Since then, his comments depicting illegal immigrants as criminals have appealed to our basest instincts more than concerns about security.
But the idea that Jews are compelled to condemn the Supreme Court’s decision or oppose the administration’s focus on border security says more about Jewish politics than principles. The tone of this debate reflects the way the left-right divide in America has become the function of a culture war on everything, rather than specific debate on the merits of any one thing. The invocation of the Holocaust reflects a general panic felt by many liberals and Democrats about the Trump administration, in which they are not so much opposed to its policies as convinced that it is a threat to democracy.
Shock at Trump’s unexpected election victory led to some apocalyptic rhetoric about his presidency. But rage about Trump has now gotten to the point where much of the country cannot separate his personality and tweets from what has been for the most part a rather conventional conservative government. Normal disagreements about border security and much else have been inflated into existential questions; people feel they cannot agree to disagree as is necessary in any political debate.
But no matter how deeply you are angered by the “zero tolerance” policy when it comes to illegals at the border, the desire to conflate the plight of Central Americans seeking to enter the country without permission largely because of economic reasons with Jews otherwise doomed to death in Hitler’s Europe is a function of the impulse to “resist” Trump. It’s simply not sober analysis.
Nor is there any substance to attempts to compare Trump to Hitler or even to claim that disagreements over immigration policy echo the first steps towards fascism in Germany. You don’t have to be a fascist to think that the government should enforce current immigration laws, whether or not we completely agree with them. Officials of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) authority, which some on the left demand be abolished, are not the Gestapo, anymore than they were when President Barack Obama was the one giving orders to arrest illegals.
Nor is the effort to evade the law by providing “sanctuary” to those who entered the country illegally the same thing as hiding Jews from the Nazis. Such analogies are an insult to the Holocaust and misrepresent a debate largely motivated by partisanship. Support for the rule of law or opposition to what amounts to a call for open borders is not racist. Like all countries, the United States has a right to determine who may cross its borders, and saying so is not contrary to Judaism.
The same applies to the so-called “Muslim ban” upheld by the court. One may claim Trump’s order was unnecessary or a political stunt. But it’s also true that this order, which was well within his constitutional authority and far from unprecedented, wasn’t a general ban on Muslims, and did impact countries where terror is rampant and where the ability of the United States to vet asylum-seekers is limited.
Sadly, what’s happening now is not so much a debate about the merits of stands on immigration as it is a situation in which left and right increasingly view each other as evil and unworthy of respect.
The president’s instinct for division and incivility is greatly to blame, but his opponents are now responding in kind as Americans engage in a race to the bottom of the gutter. It’s time for both sides to step back from the overheated partisan rhetoric.
Supporting more liberal immigration policies is legitimate, though the same can be said of those who urge more caution. Still, it’s not the duty of Jews to promote a false narrative about analogies to the Holocaust or to feed a hysterical panic about the end of democracy. Those who do so are now part of the problem—and not the solution.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS — Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.