Kudos to the more than 1,000 rabbis who signed a petition calling on the United States government to welcome refugees from Syria. An impressive feat, even in the digital age, to gather such a large number of supporters on a hotly debated political topic in such a short period of time. Even so, the petition represents a fundamental misread of American Jewish history, United States immigration policy, and ultimately, the import of rabbinic authority in the most critical public policy matters of the day. And, in an ironic twist, the petition failed to note the most impressive, visionary and brave aspects of their pro-Syrian refugee position.
“Since its founding,” our nation’s religious leaders argued in their one-page petition, “the United States has offered refuge and protection to the world’s most vulnerable.” Not so. A quick survey of U.S. immigration policy reveals a much less optimistic picture. In 1921 and 1924, for example, Congress enacted racist immigration laws that codified a eugenics-based approach to U.S. citizenship. Supposedly superior Nordic stock immigrants from northern Europe enjoyed large quotas under a national origins system that all but ended migration from less-desired southern and eastern Europe, where two million Jewish immigrants once called home.
Perhaps unwittingly, the rabbis acknowledged that history when they pained over the U.S. government’s refusal to save European Jews aboard the S.S. St. Louis. During the pre-World War II period, this nation did not protect its most vulnerable, with Jews near the top of the list. Famed aviator Charles Lindbergh and automaker Henry Ford headlined a two-decade surge in domestic anti-Semitism. The petition’s optimistic appraisal of immigration history could not be applied to the Japanese, who faced effective restriction with the Gentleman’s Agreement of 1907, nor to the Chinese, whose American dreams ended with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Of course, two and a half centuries of African immigration ended in slavery while the only group not to immigrate, America’s indigenous population, faced systemic marginalization.
On a more subtle level, the petition’s claim that “our relatives and friends found safety on these shores” overstates the political causality of Jewish immigration. In most cases, economic opportunity proved more important in decision-making. As much as eastern European pogroms forced Jews to flee, the comparison to the Syrian refugee crisis doesn’t pass muster. Jews immigrated at a time of a rapidly expanding industrial economy whose titans sought, even recruited, low-wage workers. Business, labor and government joined to provide an open hand to new arrivals in the hope that their service would strengthen the economy and the nation. This is not the case today as xenophobia colors election-year politics, business demands fewer workers and labor resists added competition for scarce jobs.
The petition reflects a misguided, though popular, collective memory that misses a far more important narrative of rabbinic leadership. In history, heroes risk their own power and privilege in order to better the lives of “the other,” people whose inferior status leads to persecution. This rabbinic call to action seeks support for citizens of Syria, an Arab state locked in conflict with Israel. If ever a case could be made to oppose a humanitarian gesture, this would be it. Yet, a broad cross-section of the American rabbinate prioritized human need even at the risk of aiding one’s perceived enemy.
With this, the rabbis follow in the historic footsteps of other American Jews who championed the rights of others, even when it seemed, on the surface, contrary to Jewish interests. When members of the Nation of Islam faced religious persecution in the 1950s, for example, Jewish leaders stepped up to demand their right to pray. In the social protest era of the 1960s, Jews welcomed critique as a core element of free speech. And when neo-Nazis sought to exercise their Constitutional rights in Skokie, Illinois, in the 1970s, many Jews defended their call to march.
In each of these controversial cases, Jewish civil rights activists faced critique from their own co-religionists. This will certainly prove true with rabbis advocating for Syrians. Even as many will applaud the petition, others will surely register opposition with their synagogue boards.
The Syrian crisis splits the American Jewish community between those who argue humanitarian empathy for stateless refugees and those who fear aiding citizens of a nation that seeks the destruction of the Jewish State. In this context, the rabbinic call for opening the American immigration gate stands at its most impressive. It is historic, if not heroic. It “welcomes the stranger,” as the petition concludes. Most important, it is a lesson that American political leaders need to learn.
Marc Dollinger is author of “Quest For Inclusion: Jews and Liberalism in Modern America”; co-editor, with Ava Kahn, of “California Jews” and co-editor, with Gary Zola, of “American Jewish History: A Primary Source Reader.”