American Jews and Immigration, Round Two

Yesterday, citing a new study from the Workmen’s Circle, Peter asked why American Jews aren’t as pro-immigrant as their leadership (or their history) might suggest. I’m not sure that American Jews are so anti-immigrant. Sure, roughly fifty percent of American Jews supported Arizona’s draconian immigration-enforcement bill in 2010, but so did more than sixty percent of Americans.Still, I do think Peter has hit on something. You just have to flip the question around and ask: Why is the American Jewish leadership so enthusiastically pro-immigrant? Why have the “congregational arms of all four major branches of Judaism,” among many other national groups, supported a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants?

I have two answers. As the rabbis advise, I’ll begin with some cynicism and finish with some praise. Organizations like the Anti-Defamation League—which is staunch in ferreting out hate speech against immigrants—seem to do so largely for tactical reasons. Hispanic voters are a fast-growing demographic and are none too fond of Israel: last year, Haaretz found that 50% of Hispanic Americans believed the U.S. was too supportive of Israel.So it’s not surprising that the ADL website has a major section on “Hispanic affairs,” which features their (commendable) work on immigration right next to articles like “Prominent Latino and Latin American Journalists Get Up-Close Look at Israel on ADL Mission.” Nor is it surprising that AIPAC is currently seeking a “Regional Hispanic Outreach Director.” So when you hear at an AIPAC conference, a Hispanic man saying, "In Israel's past, I see the past of Hispanic Americans like myself" over a mournful Spanish guitar (0:35), well, that's just politics.

Now, politics don’t directly explain the near-unanimity of the organized Jewish response. But I do think that they have a peculiar and salutary indirect effect. Put yourself in the shoes of a liberal rabbi or communal leader, someone who believes in tikkun olam. Unfortunately, as you ascend the ranks, you discover that politics is a minefield. If you’re smart, you shut up about Israel.Imagine how delighted you are when you discover there’s a progressive cause that actually helps Israel, which has Abe Foxman’s and AIPAC’s stamps of approval. Now, it’s not that you were ever anti-immigrant. After all, as a heavily identified Jew, you probably also identify better with immigrant minorities than do the more assimilated laity. Still, the hawkish camp’s embrace of “Hispanic issues” does help make homilies about the “strangers in your midst” kosher for you and your organization. Which is wonderful, just so long as you don’t apply those homilies to Eritreans in Tel Aviv.