On the face of it, Morton Klein would seem to embody everything that has driven most Jewish communal organizations to oppose the current call to stop admitting refugees from Syria into America.
Klein, who leads the right-wing Zionist Organization of America, was born in a displaced persons’ camp in Germany after World War II. He arrived in New York at the age of four as a refugee with his two Holocaust survivor parents.
“I used to cry at nursery school because I spoke Yiddish and no one understood me,” he recalled.
But while Klein said he has “strong feelings, in general, that America should be a country that welcomes refugees,” almost alone among leaders of major Jewish organization, Klein declared, “Right now, until we have a better vetting system, I oppose accepting Syrian refugees”
His was a distinctly minority voice in the Jewish community, and among Jewish members of Congress this past week. Since the November 13 terrorist attacks in Paris by the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS, Republican presidential candidates, led by Donald Trump, have mainstreamed everything from proposals for registering Muslims nationwide to setting up Christians-only religious tests for Syrian refugees. But on November 19, even the Orthodox Union — a group that has often opposed the Obama administration — clearly articulated the theme driving many Jewish groups to oppose such measures.
“Just a few decades ago,” the group noted in a statement, “refugees from the terror and violence in Hitler’s Europe sought refuge in the United States and were turned away due to suspicions about their nationality.” Anti-Semitism was common at the time, and tied frequently to fears about letting socialists, communists and anarchists into the country. But “in fact,” the OU noted, “the Jewish immigrants that ultimately came to these shores fully adopted American values and have contributed greatly” to the country. Responding to the November 19 passage of a bill in the House of Representatives that would effectively halt the resettlement of refugees from Syria and Iraq, the OU urged Congress to work with the president to iron out any problems in the U.S. vetting system with the aim of “getting to yes” on a bipartisan admissions program.
“We’re not saying ‘open the doors wide and come one, come all,’” said Jason Isaacson, associate executive director of the American Jewish Committee, which also joined in the communal consensus. “But to say that people fleeing persecution cannot escape to the United States after they are properly checked, that is cruel.”
The measure must now also be approved by the Senate, and President Obama has threatened to veto it if it reaches his desk. But in the House vote, Jewish members showed the same sense of solidarity as Jewish communal groups — and often cited the same reasons.
Still, there, too, exceptions existed.
“My No. 1 priority is to keep New Yorkers safe,” said Rep. Steve Israel, a Jewish Democrat in New York, explaining his vote in favor of the House bill. “To do that, we must defeat ISIS to protect our national security and prevent the hateful terrorist attacks.”
Israel, a member of the House’s Democratic leadership who represents a district in Long Island, and Representative Jared Polis of Colorado were the only two Jewish Democrats to support the legislation out of 18 total. Together they constituted 11% of the House’s Democratic Jewish members. That compared with some 25% of Democrats overall who voted for the measure. Many cited fears stoked by the Paris attacks and the discourse from GOP presidential candidates, which sparked a spike in constituent pressure to block the refugees. Representative Lee Zedlin of upstate New York, the body’s sole Jewish Republican, also backed the bill, which passed overwhelmingly, 289 to 137.
But for the majority of Jewish lawmakers, there was no dilemma. If anything, there was anger at those who tried to tie the Paris attacks to President Obama’s plan to settle 30,000 Syrian refugees in America over the next two years. This would be above and beyond their much smaller presence in the planned total of 70,000 refugees worldwide to be admitted to the United States during this period.
“I am appalled by the actions of this House and by some of the words of my colleagues today,” New York Democrat Jerrold Nadler said on the House floor. Asked later by the Forward how he views the vote of fellow Jewish Democrats Israel and Polis, Nadler said: “I was frankly surprised when I saw those votes.”
Obama’s plan helps only a fraction of the four million Syrians who have fled their war-torn country in recent years. Germany, with a much smaller population, has taken in some 1.5 million people fleeing from Syria and other Middle Eastern and North African countries this year alone, even as many other European countries, facing a migrant flood from which the oceans protect America, have thrown up higher barriers.
Currently, Syrian refugees seeking resettlement in America face an 18-month waiting period in teeming refugee camps in countries neighboring Syria. During this time, the United Nations and then the United States conduct rigorous background checks and perform biometric identification to make sure they are not affiliated with a terror organization.
The legislation passed by the House would further require every single refugee to be individually approved in writing by the director of national intelligence, the director of the FBI and the secretary of Homeland Security before being cleared for admission.
Administration officials do not see any current threat from ISIS directed at the American Jewish community. In a November 23 conference call with Jewish communal leaders, top officials from the Department of Homeland Security said public threats made by ISIS against the United States after the Paris attacks were “aspirational” and not indicative of any credible current menace.
Advocates for the refugees point out that notwithstanding the furor being generated about the threat from Syrian refugees, none of the Paris terrorists who have been identified so far have been Syrian, though six are known to have traveled to Syria to make contact with terrorist groups there fighting to bring down the brutal government of President Bashar al-Assad.
Nadler denounced the House measure as “ignorant, wrong and disgusting.” He cited scholarly studies that estimated that as many as 2 million Jews would have been able to leave Europe before the Holocaust had Congress not passed a xenophobic anti-immigration bill in 1924.
“To use this excuse of terrorism, which has no application here at all, to block desperate men, women, and children refugees from coming to this country is disgusting and we’ve seen this before,” he said. “Before World War II this was done to the Jewish refugees and they’re doing the same thing. Period.”
Rep. Israel argued, in his statement, that the bill he supported did not close America’s doors to Syrian refugees, but rather imposed cautious measures to ensure terrorists don’t slip in. “When you have a mother in Syria who is trying to protect her young child from torture and radicalization at the hands of ISIS, we don’t slam the door on them,” he said. “We must do our due diligence but there is a way to protect our safety and our humanitarian values.”
Jewish opponents of allowing Syrian refugees to resettle in America argue against comparing the current situation and that facing Jewish refugees as the Nazis began to take over Europe.
“With Jewish refugees there was never a fear that we’d become terrorists,” said Klein, who said that ISIS was actively trying to establish a foothold in the West by taking advantage of the willingness to accept refugees.
Klein and other Jewish opponents of welcoming Syrian refugees also argue that anecdotal information about the views of Syrians converged in camps across the region or spread in Europe indicates that many hold strong anti-Israeli and at times anti-Semitic positions.
“As a Jew and as a Zionist, I’m very concerned of bringing in more people who hate me and who hate Israel,” Klein said.
The issue, Klein and others claim, is not one of Jewish values, but of legitimate security concerns.
“I don’t believe that anything more than a small percent of these folks are involved in terror, but even that is still a significant number,” said Stephen Steinlight, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Immigration Studies, an organization that advocates for lower levels of legal immigration to the United States.
Steinlight argued that despite the lengthy vetting process carried out overseas before refugees are admitted for resettlement, America does not have an effective way of making sure they are not connected to terror groups. “I don’t know that we’re very good at this, quite frankly,” he said.
Steinlight, who in the past was a top official at the AJC, offered what he described as an “ideal solution” that would address security concerns as well as Jewish values. He suggested increasing American help for creating safe communities in Turkey and Jordan to house the refugees.
“It’s always better to keep refugees closer to their country of origin and inside a culture they know and understand,” he said.
Jewish activists did not dispute the notion that Syrian refugees coming to America are likely to be biased against Israel and possibly against Jews, mainly because of their upbringing under the Assad dictatorship, which promoted such ideas.
Isaacson argued that proper integration of refugees in their new homelands could help uproot any hostile sentiments they might carry with them from the country they are fleeing.
“Before we turn our back on a humanitarian crisis, let’s be serious about the need to integrate migrants in the society,” he said.
As the anti-refugee bill moves to the Senate its opponents hope that “cooler heads will prevail” and that the legislation will be prevented from moving forward. Jewish groups, including AJC, the Anti-Defamation League and HIAS, the largest Jewish immigration and resettlement agency, as well as the Reform Movement, have been speaking to members of Congress and to governors and state legislators in an effort to counter the current wave. Most continue to believe that the bill will never become law and that its House passage was no more than a political statement.
If the current wave indeed subsides, the Jewish community will, in fact, return to its previous immigration priority: significantly increasing the quota for resettlement of Syrian refugees beyond Obama’s plan.
Contact Nathan Guttman at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @nathanguttman
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, was the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.