Immigration Critic Cries ‘McCarthyism’

By Anthony Weiss

Published April 08, 2009, issue of April 17, 2009.
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The Jewish community’s most vocal proponent of stricter immigration policies is accusing a national Jewish group of leading a “McCarthyite effort” to silence him.

Stephen Steinlight, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Immigration Studies, leveled the charge upon discovering that the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society had e-mailed Jewish newspapers alleging that his organization has ties to a “white nationalist.” HIAS sent the e-mails after it learned that Steinlight was working on an opinion article attacking Progress by Pesach, a campaign by a coalition of Jewish groups to push for immigration reform. Around the same time, the women’s Zionist organization Hadassah — which, like most national Jewish groups, takes a liberal stance on immigration — canceled a talk Steinlight was scheduled to give to a local chapter.

Steinlight fired back in an opinion article published in the online magazine Jewcy, accusing HIAS of trying to shut down dissenting voices on immigration.

“Will the Jewish community be an open forum for competing ideas, or will we surrender to a new McCarthyism?” wrote Steinlight, a former American Jewish Committee official who has since carved out a niche as the Jewish community’s most outspoken advocate for more restrictive national immigration policies.

HIAS responded that it was simply trying to make sure that newspapers knew about the ties of Steinlight’s employer.

“HIAS is clear about who it is,” Roberta Elliott, HIAS’s vice president for media and communications, told the Forward. “When we have a debating partner who debates the opposite, we think that person owes the discussion and the audience an honest account of who and what he represents.”

The controversy began March 12 when Elliott sent an e-mail to a number of Jewish newspapers, including the Forward, warning that they might soon receive an opinion article submission from either the Federation for American Immigration Reform or CIS. The e-mail, which was marked “not for publication,” was subsequently posted on Jewcy by blogger David Kelsey.

In her e-mail, Elliott wrote that these groups “were founded and are funded by an individual in Michigan who is a white nationalist and foments nativist groups.” The e-mail included a link to a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center on FAIR, CIS and a third group called NumbersUSA, all of which support tighter restrictions on legal immigration and a tougher line on illegal immigration. The SPLC said the three “were part of a network of groups created by a man who has been at the heart of the white nationalist movement for decades,” referring to John Tanton, FAIR’s founder and a current FAIR board member. Tanton, in turn, has called the SPLC “smear merchants.”

CIS’s executive director, Mark Krikorian, said CIS was founded under the auspices of FAIR in the 1980s, though the two organizations separated shortly thereafter. But he said that aside from the occasional small donation, Tanton has played no role with CIS.

A HIAS press release from February that accompanied the e-mails said that these groups’ “penetration in the Jewish community has been primarily through appearances before Jewish groups by Steven [sic] Steinlight, senior policy analyst at CIS, and opinion pieces and interviews in the Jewish press. His legitimacy is enhanced because he previously worked for a Jewish organization.”

Steinlight has worked for the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, the National Conference of Christians and Jews and then for seven years at the AJCommittee as its national affairs director and then as a senior fellow, leaving the organization in 2001.

At the time HIAS sent its e-mails, Steinlight told the Forward, he was working on an opinion article criticizing Progress by Pesach, which is endorsed by more than a dozen national Jewish groups, including HIAS and the AJCommittee. The campaign urges the White House and Congress “to choose humanitarian immigration reform over the failed policy of exclusively relying on raids and enforcement tactics as a means of controlling immigration.”

In the course of his work, Steinlight said he called several Jewish groups to ask them about their membership numbers — part of his effort to demonstrate that “the American Jewish establishment is a Potemkin Village — a fraud, a sham.”

Elliott said that an employee from one of those organizations informed her of Steinlight’s call.

At roughly the same time, Hadassah’s Monroe, N.J., chapter contacted Steinlight to inform him it would be canceling a planned talk by him, citing instructions from Hadassah’s national office. Steve Rabinowitz, a spokesman for Hadassah, told the Forward that because Steinlight’s position on immigration is so greatly at odds with Hadassah’s position — and since nobody was appearing at the event to debate him — the organization did not want to appear to endorse his views.

“We didn’t want to appear to give the Hadassah hechsher to Steinlight,” Rabinowitz said, using the Hebrew term for a kosher seal. “This is a guy that wears as a badge every group he’s spoken to or worked for.”

Steinlight, for his part, insisted in a phone interview that “90% of the people” he speaks to in Jewish venues agree with him about immigration. Opinion surveys conducted by the AJCommittee, in 2006 and 2007, however, found that two-thirds of American Jews say they favor an approach that would “allow illegal immigrants to remain in the United States and become U.S. citizens but only if they meet certain requirements over a period of time.”

Contact Anthony Weiss at

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