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When Did The Orthodox Community Become So Anti-Immigrant?

In March, a friend of mine posted an article that appeared in these pages about Orthodox Jewish families who hired drivers to take their undocumented workers to Florida for Passover. The families subjected the workers to long and arduous journeys, risking their deportation so that they could have help for the holiday.

The friend who posted the piece was upset on behalf of the workers, but the response from some of of the people on her timeline was unsympathetic.

“Also it is not cruel to drive 20 hours in a car… I am sure there are bathroom breaks,” wrote one woman who believed that the driver who described the difficulties of the journey must have been exaggerating.

The thread then quickly took a dark turn.

“The problem is it’s a crime to hire illegal immigrants in the first place,” wrote one man. “If you know someone is illegally in the US contact INS and report them immediately.”

Another man quickly posted, “Want to do something about it” and linked to an online form to make anonymous tips to ICE.

I grew up in an Orthodox Jewish community on Long Island. The adults I knew were kind, compassionate and largely dedicated to Tikkun Olam — repairing the world with good deeds. Though I left the community when I emigrated to Israel, and though I ultimately stopped my Orthodox practice, I associated the religion of my youth with basic kindness.

I’m not saying it was perfect, or that I never heard racist comments (I did), but this was generally a good-hearted group of people who would balk at the idea of harming another community, regardless of their immigration status.

Either my community was an outlier, or something has changed.

After I moved to Israel, my political viewpoint shifted to the left, in part because I saw the benefit of programs like nationalized healthcare and government-mandated family leave, contrary to the hysterical anti-Socialist narrative of 1980s America, and in part because of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Once you meet and interact with Palestinians, the right wing approach to the conflict is no longer tenable. It’s only possible to maintain an absolutist approach when you don’t see “the other” as human beings.

I sometimes wonder if that failure to see Palestinians as human beings infected the American Orthodox discourse and spread to include all people deemed as “the other”. I wonder if the tendency to group all Palestinians together, referring to all Palestinians as terrorists, for example, paved the way for members of my old community to view undocumented workers as a mass group unworthy of basic compassion.

Like the President, who dehumanizes immigrants because of the violent actions of a few, too many people I know have lost their ability to sympathize with people who are different than them.

On the Facebook thread about the Passover workers, I asked the people who had encouraged others to call ICE if they were religious. I knew the answer was yes, but I wanted to follow up with another question: Would your Rabbi condone what you’re doing on this thread? I wanted to ask this because I had no doubt what the Rabbi of my childhood synagogue, who still leads the community, would say. Making such a call would cause suffering, would likely ruin the life of another human being. This Rabbi, a genuine spiritual leader, would never make an allowance for such a cruel act. Surely most Orthodox Rabbis would agree.

Wouldn’t they?

On Wednesday, to our great shame, the Orthodox Union honored Attorney General Jeff Sessions at its annual conference in Washington. They gave an award to the man who ordered the inhumane policy of separating parents and children who enter the United States on the Mexican border.

It’s been many years since I’ve been Orthodox, but I was shocked. How far the Orthodox community has fallen to have chosen to honor, of all people, a person responsible for such a monstrous policy. No one — not immigration hawks, not Trump supporters — should excuse a policy which punishes and traumatizes children. Even ardent Trump supporter Franklin Graham called it disgraceful.

Following the event, the Orthodox Union tweeted, “In a private conversation in advance of Attorney General Session’s address, OU leadership raised a number of issues including immigration policy.”

They didn’t even claim they had addressed family separation. They certainly gave no indication that this issue was of concern to them.

On the Facebook Passover thread, I tried to point out that targeting these people was an act of cruelty. No one listened. Someone posted a fake tweet mocking Maxine Waters and her advocacy for immigrant rights. Another person, an American Israeli from a more liberal orthodox community, popped into the thread.

“Wait,” he wrote, “are you implying there is a connection between religion and ethics?”

My mistake.

Devorah Blachor had written for The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Forward among others. She’s the author of The Feminist’s Guide to Raising a Little Princess. Follow her on Twitter @DevorahBlachor.

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