The Jews’ illegal immigration muddle

It is possible for Americans and Israelis to care about the treatment of immigrants without also insisting on amnesty for those who break laws that are neither unreasonable nor unfair. But that is a truth liberal ideologues choose not to comprehend.

Jonathan S. Tobin. Photo by Tzipora Lifchitz.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

Immigration is at the center of the narrative of American Jewish life. As a community that is largely descended from Eastern European immigrants, the experience of being newcomers is deeply engrained in the community’s consciousness. The biblical warning for Jews to remember that they, too, were once strangers in a strange land, has helped create a sense that Jews ought to back liberal immigration policies.

Israeli students and teachers demonstrate against the deportation of African asylum-seekers in Tel Aviv on Jan. 24, 2018. Credit: Tomer Neuberg/Flash90.

So it is entirely understandable that American Jews are largely sympathetic to the plight of the so-called Dreamers—people who were brought illegally into the U.S. when they were children—who are currently at the center of the increasingly bitter debate about immigration. Jewish groups have been at the forefront of support for the entire illegal immigrant population as well as for the sanctuary city movement, with some houses of worship even declaring that they are “sanctuary synagogues.”

From the point of view of most Jewish organizations that speak out on political issues as well as some of the religious denominations, support for the rights of immigrants is more important than concerns about the undermining of the rule law that is inherent in amnesty plans for those here illegally. But a similar position taken by some of these groups about a controversy in Israel ought to shed some light on whether this doctrinaire stand is a Jewish imperative.

When we think of immigration in an Israeli context, the Jewish state’s efforts to encourage and then absorb Jews returning to their ancient homeland is what comes to mind. Illegal immigration in Jewish history is usually a reference to the heroic efforts Jews made to overcome the U.K.’s attempts to shut the doors to what was then called Palestine before and just after the Holocaust. But in recent years, Israelis—most of whom are only a couple of generations removed from their families’ arrival in the country— have been dealing with a new sort of immigration problem.

Since 2006, tens of thousands of Africans entered Israel illegally while fleeing wars and abject poverty in their home countries. But while the flow of migrants from Sudan and Eritrea was largely stopped by increased border security measures in the Sinai, that still left Israel to deal with approximately 40,000 illegal immigrants.

That people from those war-torn and abjectly poor countries would seek to come to the one island of prosperity and democracy in the region isn’t a surprise. Yet how does a nation founded on Jewish immigration cope with the arrival of people with no ties to the country and have no legal right to stay? While some liberals demanded the Jewish state treat them as asylum-seekers who should be welcomed, others posed the not-unreasonable question as to why it was that tiny, besieged Israel, rather than any country in Africa or the Muslim world, should be responsible for solving the problems of Africa?

That complaint from Israelis gained weight as many if not most of the Africans wound up living in the already poverty-stricken neighborhoods of south Tel Aviv, leading to soaring crime rates. In response, the Israeli government has sought to encourage the illegals to leave via deals with other nations. But the Africans don’t want to leave, and those who were deported have placed themselves in further danger as they crossed war zones to seek shelter elsewhere in the world. While the Israeli High Court has ruled that the government has a right to deport the Africans, they have also said that effort must not place their safety in jeopardy.

But the response of liberal American Jewish groups to this complicated question has been ideological and simplistic. Deaf to the concerns of Israelis who feel their interests and security have been sidelined by those engaging in virtue signaling on the issue, the Anti-Defamation League and HIAS have now weighed in with an open letter. They’re calling for Israel to grant asylum to the Africans as well as to give them the right to seek employment while waiting for the situation in their home countries to improve. But since the chances of peace and prosperity breaking out in the Horn of Africa are next to zero, that means American Jews are basically telling Israel it must absorb these illegal immigrants whether they like it or not.

That ought to place the same sort of stance taken by many Jewish groups on illegal immigration and so-called sanctuary cities in the U.S. in perspective.

People of faith should care about the treatment of immigrants. Nor should those descended from people who left countries that might well have been described by a certain profane description attributed to President Donald Trump be indifferent to those who come here now with the same hopes and dreams of previous generations of immigrants.

But a proper concern for the rights and the treatment of newcomers should not be confused with contempt for the right of nations to borders and to decide who may or may not enter and/or stay. The Dreamers are an extreme case where it is easy to claim that those who arrived through no fault of their own should be granted a special dispensation. But to assert, as those who support the sanctuary city and synagogue movements are effectively doing, that there is a right to enter the U.S. without legal permission with impunity, regardless of the consequences for Americans who must shoulder the burden this creates, is an absurdity as well as making a joke out of the rule of law. Nor should Jews, who ought to know better, invoke the historical example of the plight of refugees from the Holocaust to contemporary problems that are not remotely comparable.

If that is true for the U.S., a nation that is the product of mass immigration from all over the world, the same respect for law ought to also apply to Israel, the sole nation state of the Jewish people on the planet. It is possible for Americans and Israelis to care about the treatment of immigrants without also insisting on amnesty for those who break laws that are neither unreasonable nor unfair. But that is a truth liberal ideologues choose not to comprehend.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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