More than 350 years ago, New Amsterdam Governor Peter Stuyvesant welcomed the first 23 Jewish immigrants with open hostility and threats of deportation. In contrast, President George Washington, while addressing the Rhode Island Jewish community, offered full membership in American society for any newcomer who embraced American constitutional principles. This tension in immigration policy has been a constant theme throughout American history, and has had a profound impact on the development of our Jewish community.
During the last three and a half centuries, the annual number of Jewish immigrants to the United States has changed frequently, due to international conditions and American laws. Yet throughout the years the Jewish community has remained deeply engaged in efforts to promote generous immigration opportunities, just and compassionate immigration procedures, and programs to assist and protect refugees and other migrants fleeing persecution, discrimination and violence — something we would do well to remember as the debate continues to rage in Congress and across the country on how to confront the problems of undocumented migration, border security, labor needs, and refugee protection.
Jewish religious and ethical values provide a firm foundation for Jewish involvement in immigration and refugee policy. Central Jewish teachings emphasize offering welcome, protection and love for the ger, or stranger. This is seen in the more than 36 references to this principle in the Torah — more than any other commandment — including perhaps most famously, the instruction in Leviticus: “When strangers sojourn with you in your land, you shall not do them wrong. The strangers who sojourn with you shall be to you as the natives among you, and you shall love them as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (19:33-34).
Jewish tradition also includes principles of kindness, hospitality and redeeming the captive that create a solid framework for a compassionate response to the needs of immigrants and refugees. Summing up the importance of the Torah’s teachings on the ger in relation to Jewish humanitarian principles, German Jewish philosopher Herman Cohen concluded: “It was the foreigner that brought the commandment to love into existence. Man was recognized in the foreigner. Love for the foreigner is the original motivation for love of man.”
The lessons of Jewish history, beginning with God’s commandment to Abraham to “go forth from your homeland to the land that I shall show you,” reinforce the message of Jewish teachings on welcoming the stranger and rescuing the refugee. From biblical times until the present, Jewish history has been characterized by wandering caused by persecution and expulsion, as well as migration for economic opportunities and religious freedom.
In the United States, the Jewish community has been actively engaged in the struggles of new immigrants and in the development of the nation’s immigration policy. From the 1880s until the early 1920s, the Jewish community strongly opposed efforts to curtail immigration and institute a national origin quota system. The community’s opposition continued after these harmful principles were included in the immigration acts of 1921 and 1924 — with devastating effects during the Holocaust — and until these quotas were eliminated in 1965.
The Jewish community championed the cause of refugees following World War II, and advocated for the Refugee Act of 1980 that created today’s refugee resettlement system. Additionally, in recent years many Jewish organizations worked to restore due process protections and access to public benefits that were eliminated for legal immigrants in draconian legislation enacted in 1996, and to develop comprehensive, fair and workable solutions to the problem of illegal immigration.
Underlying historic Jewish activism on refugee and immigration issues has been the dual goals of creating opportunities for Jews to immigrate to the United States while helping to develop a pluralistic civic culture, rather than a monoculture based on race, ethnicity or religion. Only under this cultural paradigm can Jews be both fully Jews and Americans.
The American Jewish community continues to rely on the American immigration system to renew the community with Jewish newcomers, and to admit immigrants to support priority Jewish communal activities. According to the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01, today’s community is composed of approximately 10% foreign-born Jews, hailing from Russia and other former Soviet states, Argentina, South Africa, Australia, Iran, Israel and many other countries around the world.
Only by maintaining an open and generous refugee and immigration policy can the Jewish community ensure that Jewish refugees from Iran and the former Soviet Union are able to seek freedom from persecution — a need that is made clear with each headline from these troubled regions. The Jewish community also benefits from policies that allow Jews to be admitted into this country to study at universities and yeshivas, reunite with family members and assume religious and other professional occupations, and often lend their talents to Jewish communal organizations.
Community institutions — federations, youth groups, day schools, camps, Jewish hospitals and homes and many others — rely on visitors from abroad, Jews and non-Jews alike, to perform a variety of functions from providing first-hand witness testimony on terrorist attacks in Israel to facilitating young Jews’ Jewish camping experiences as waiters, lifeguards and other temporary workers. Without generous immigrant admissions programs, legal protections for immigrants and effective government structures to review immigration applications and grant benefits, the Jewish community would lose the contributions that these newcomers make to the community.
Living in a complex and interdependent world, the American Jewish community has significant interests in building coalitions with other communities and groups to support the Jewish community’s goals. Whether the issue is Israel, the war on terrorism or programs to assist elderly Jews, the Jewish community needs friends and allies.
With refugee protection and immigration being such high-priority issues for the Jewish community’s partners — Latinos, Asians, Catholics, mainline Protestants, Evangelical Christians, the labor movement and business groups, among others — how can we look the other way and claim that migration issues are not Jewish issues? Even in the extremely sensitive area of cultivating moderate Muslim support for the war on terrorism, refugee and immigration policy plays a major role in excluding dangerous extremists while offering a welcoming environment to essential moderate allies.
Finally, immigration policy does not exist in a vacuum. In many areas of life, immigration influences other areas of Jewish community concern including foreign, economic and social policy. In the post-September 11 world, of all of these issues the paramount concern is national security.
While anti-immigrant organizations, politicians, and talk-radio and cable-news hosts attempt to score points at the expense of immigrants, security is not inconsistent with fair immigration policies. One does not have to support the demagogues who blame immigrants for the nation’s ills and attempt to conflate immigration with terrorism to understand that intelligent immigration reform can and should play an important role in enhancing national security.
Not only does the Jewish community benefit from participating in the border security debate to ensure that tough and effective policies are pursued, but energetic advocacy to fix the United States’ broken immigration system and deal comprehensively with illegal immigration will allow the government to target resources to combat the most dangerous threats from terrorists and criminals. Like the security and immigration debate, the role of immigration in making American society and the Jewish community stronger is very complex, but is a policy debate where civil and principled Jewish participation can help improve the quality of life for the Jewish community and the nation as a whole.
As the Jewish community wrestles with the multitude of priorities that we now face, we should remain engaged in the refugee and immigration policy arena, and do our part to continue to assist newcomers in moving from greenhorn to citizen. While it may seem attractive to take this set of issues off the community’s plate, ultimately the assertion that immigration is not a Jewish issue would undermine fundamental Jewish community interests — including security concerns, religious and ethical values, community relations goals and access to the United States for Jews from around the world.
Gideon Aronoff is president and CEO of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.