One of the rare issues on which nearly all mainstream Jewish organizations agree — and on which they’ve always believed they had the backing of most American Jews — involves how the United States should treat immigrants, including those who are undocumented.
More than a dozen national agencies, including the congregational arms of all four major branches of Judaism, have publicly announced their support for comprehensive immigration reform, which would go beyond an enforcement-only policy to offer unauthorized residents “a path to citizenship.”
But this week some Jewish leaders are beginning to wonder if American Jewry’s traditional empathy for all newcomers is now waning.
Their concern follows the Oct. 12 release of a survey by the American Jewish Committee that asked respondents if they supported or opposed Arizona’s controversial new law on illegal immigration. Fifty-two percent of the 800 respondents said they supported the law, while 46 percent opposed the measure and 2 percent said they weren’t sure.
“It’s a reminder that Jews are part of America and are influenced by some of the same currents that influence other Americans,” said Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University. At the same time, he noted that the 52-percent figure remains lower than the 65 percent of Americans, overall, who’ve told pollsters they favor the law.
The query was among 29 questions in a survey that focused largely on the Obama administration, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the upcoming midterm elections. But it touched on a subject that has a special resonance for American Jews, confusing and dismaying some Jewish leaders because of the result.
“That one took us by surprise,” said David Harris, AJC’s executive director.
Noting that the result seems “to defy conventional wisdom” about the Jewish commitment to progressive social policy, Harris said he couldn’t explain, but could only guess, why respondents answered as they did.
“When Americans, including Jews, see the words ‘illegal immigration,’ that helps define their answer,” he said, referring to a term used in the question. “But we don’t have enough data to tease that out, and we didn’t expect it.”
Another AJC leader close to the issue also seemed taken aback by the result.
“When I first heard about this, my first thought was, ‘Why this question?’” said Ann Schaffer, director of the organization’s Belfer Center for American Pluralism, who wasn’t alone among her colleagues in wondering why the question was asked.
“I don’t know if we know what to make of this,” Schaffer said.
As Harris suggested, one explanation for the result may rest with how the question is worded: “A new law in Arizona gives police the power to ask people they’ve stopped to verify their residency status,” it begins, simply enough. “Supporters say this will help crack down on illegal immigration. Opponents say it could violate civil rights and lead to racial profiling. On balance, do you support or oppose this law?”
“‘Racial profiling’ is not a term that people understand, but they do know that something illegal is wrong,” said Sammie Moshenberg, director of Washington operations for the National Council of Jewish Women. Even those who support comprehensive immigration reform oppose illegal immigration, she added, suggesting that it’s possible to believe in a “path to citizenship” but still tell a pollster that you support the Arizona law.
The law, key portions of which were blocked by a federal judge in July, calls for police officers to check a person’s immigration status while enforcing other laws and requires immigrants to carry documents proving they are authorized to be in the country. The judge agreed with critics who say the law would almost certainly lead to the harassment of citizens and legal immigrants who, because of their accents or the color of their skin, look no different than many of the unauthorized residents.
Many of the respondents to the AJC poll may have been unfamiliar with those details, Moshenberg said, affecting the result even more. The poll, conducted on behalf of AJC by Synovate, a survey-research organization, took place by phone from Aug. 31 to Oct. 5.
In fact, what looms in the minds of many Americans, including Jews, is that the country’s current system of immigration is broken and in bad need of an overhaul, a factor acknowledged by several Jewish leaders. In light of that, they said, Arizona stands out as a state in which some action is being taken, no matter how wrong or misguided the law might be.
Like others, Moshenberg said she had “faith” that if the question involved comprehensive immigration reform, rather than the Arizona law, most respondents would have sided with the immigrants.
All that is nonsense to Stephen Steinlight, the lone figure who has advocated an anti-immigration stance in talks to Jewish groups and in the op-ed pages of Jewish newspapers.
“What we’ve found is a gigantic gulf between the pulpit and the pew [on the issue], and this is true of every religion in America, including Jews,” said Steinlight, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Immigration Studies and a former staff member at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and AJC. “Not only is it a slam dunk that Americans don’t support illegal immigration or amnesty, but Jews are no different.”
Steinlight’s contention is that illegal immigrants are taking jobs away from Americans during tough economic times, and their presence only benefits large companies looking for cheap labor.
“When Jews talk about tikkun olam [repairing the world], they have to ask themselves a question: Tikkun olam for whom? The illegal immigrant who entered the country last night or their struggling neighbor?”
The argument is a common one in the case against comprehensive immigration reform. But Steinlight, whose center also favors a lower level of legal immigration, also carries the argument further, saying that Jews have every reason to be worried about higher numbers of Hispanics in this country.
Steinlight cited a number of polls, including one conducted several years ago by the Anti-Defamation League, showing a higher level of anti-Semitism among Latin American immigrants than for other groups of Americans.
“If present immigration levels continue, [Jews] will be outnumbered by Hispanics 50 to 1,” reducing the community’s political clout considerably and hurting such Jewish concerns as Israeli security, he said. “What do you think will happen when we’re outnumbered 50 to 1?”
Those objecting to Steinlight’s logic include Ken Jacobson, the ADL’s deputy national director, who confirms that his agency found a relatively high percentage of anti-Semitic attitudes among first-generation Hispanics — 44 percent — in a 2001 survey. That compared to about 15 percent among Americans as a whole.
But the ADL also measured attitudes among second-generation Hispanic Americans, as well as those whose families have been here longer, and discovered a “significantly lower” number, Jacobson said. Twenty-one percent of that group’s members harbored anti-Semitic attitudes, less than half the percentage for foreign-born Hispanics and not much higher than the figure for Americans in general.
“We came to two conclusions,” Jacobson continued, “one being that first-generation immigrants probably developed their attitudes in their native country, much of it while attending Catholic church in rural areas, and the second being that second-generation Latinos are exposed to American pluralism, as well as churches with more liberal teachings.
“If you want to talk in terms of being overwhelmed demographically, Jews are already overwhelmed demographically,” Jacobson continued. “We’re something like 2 percent of the population.” Rather than being an argument against comprehensive immigration, Steinlight’s inferences are “an argument that more needs to be done,” especially in working with new immigrants and educating them.
Schaffer agrees, saying that if the ADL’s survey was accurate, the Jewish response shouldn’t be “to inflame the stereotypes and create more distance. Our response should be to engage [the immigrants] and build mutual respect.”
Aided by a Ford Foundation grant, the AJC is currently engaged in just such work, Shaffer said, sponsoring workshops for emerging Latino leaders in four regions across the country: Arizona, New Jersey, Houston and Chicago. The organization is also planning to bring together Jews and Latinos in various communities to learn more about each other and break down stereotypes.
HIAS is involved in similar grass-roots work through such divisions as its Young Leaders chapters.
In Washington, for instance, Phil Wolgin, a 27-year-old doctoral student, has joined other members of the local chapter in tutoring Hispanic immigrants for the U.S. citizenship test. The chapter is now planning a Chanukah party in December where its own members and the Latinos they’re coaching will share elements of their own cultures.
Wolgin believes that Jews have a special responsibility to treat immigrants fairly.
“A lot of people talk about biblical commandments to welcome the stranger,” he said. “For me, it’s more pragmatic, connected to what Jews have experienced through history. We’re not that far away from the Holocaust and not far away from the kinds of issues that made most Jews refugees.”