Jewish community traditionally at the forefront of immigrant rights efforts has gone strangely mute as politicians fan public fury over illegal immigration. This week there were signs that is changing; the Anti-Defamation League issued a warning to the 2008 presidential candidates to cool their white-hot rhetoric on the issue.
But the ADL has been a lone voice; some critics say the timorous Jewish response is not commensurate with an anti-immigrant surge that could ultimately hurt all minorities – Jews included.
"What I fear is that on this issue, the Jewish community, which has taken such important principled stands in the past, has left some of those stands behind in favor of crasser politics," said Colby College political scientist L. Sandy
Maisel. "You don’t want to be on the side of an issue like this that is going to create enemies for you. And that’s very sad."
The same factors that have made illegal immigration an almost irresistible issue for candidates have made Jewish groups timid about speaking out, Maisel said.
Jewish leaders, he said, are as good at reading polls as politicians.
The anti-illegal immigration invective has reached new heights in key primary and caucus states such as Iowa, where surveys show the issue has risen to the top of voters’ agendas; analysts say it is only likely to increase as the election nears and candidates vie for red-meat issues.
It has been largely a Republican phenomenon as even candidates who have won praise from Jewish groups in the past for their immigration positions veer sharply to the right.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a long shot suddenly propelled into the top ranks of GOP contenders, once supported proposals to provide merit scholarships to some children of illegal immigrants. Now he is promoting what critics say is an impractical and harsh mass deportation proposal as part of his "Secure America Plan."
In a 2005 Boston Globe interview, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney said he favored programs that immigration critics say amount to "amnesty" for illegal immigrants already here, but in Iowa he is claiming Huckabee and former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani are soft on the issue.
Giuliani — who as mayor "often defended illegal immigrants, ordering city workers not to deny them benefits and advocating measures to ease their path to citizenship," according to a New York Times report — is now touting proposals to impose tougher penalties on those here illegally and denying anything smacking of amnesty.
"What Giuliani is doing is despicable — catering to these interests, with the full knowledge that the city he once ran couldn’t operate without illegal immigrants," said Maisel.
One candidate, Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), has made hostility to illegal immigration the centerpiece — some say the only piece — of his campaign.
The Democrats mostly aren’t criticizing the intensifying anti-immigrant din, mostly out of fear of being caught on the wrong side of an issue that has politicians either joining the angry surge or scurrying for cover.
"All kinds of candidates are falling into this nasty immigration debate trap," said Hadar Susskind, Washington director for the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA). "Instead of talking about the important things we can and should do on the issue, they are using this kind of rhetoric."
And that rhetorical escalation is "poisoning" the debate over other issues, he said.
Susskind said some lawmakers voted against expanded State Children’s Health Insurance Plan (SCHIP) funding, a top priority for a long list of Jewish groups this fall, "because of claims some of the money would go to illegal immigrants, which is not true. The rhetoric has been extremely damaging to our agenda."
The political agenda on immigration is being pushed, in part, by well-organized and financed advocacy groups such as the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) — which critics are saying are starting to sound more and more like classic American nativists. That is what led the Southern Poverty Law Center, a respected anti-extremist organization, to label FAIR a "hate group" earlier this month.
That blurring of the lines between classic hate groups, anti-immigration advocacy groups and mainstream politicians on the stump is a matter of deepening concern for Jewish leaders.
In October the ADL released a study claiming that some "mainstream" immigration advocacy groups, including FAIR, are "adopting the tactics and rhetoric of racist groups and moving it into the mainstream."
It added, "Like many other anti-immigrant groups, FAIR opposes legal immigration as well as illegal immigration."
At the same time, the ADL reported, classic hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan have started echoing some of the themes of the more mainstream anti-immigrant organizations.
"The rhetoric of the hate groups is being brought into politics; the temperature is rising," said ADL National Director Abraham Foxman. "And you are seeing groups like the KKK taking the issue and riding it respectability," he said.
"I don’t think you have to scratch very deep to find xenophobia among the anti-immigration movement," said University of Florida political scientist Ken Wald. "This is at base a movement of cultural defense devoted to defending an imaginary Anglo-Saxon society."
He linked the surge to the nativist sentiment in the 1930s that helped keep the doors to sanctuary in the United States closed to European Jews – his own grandparents included.
Gideon Aronoff, president and CEO of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society — a group at the forefront of the pro-immigration movement — said, "We are deeply concerned about the increase in anti-immigration rhetoric and the growing hatred that is seen in that rhetoric." The language and message of traditional hate groups is "infesting the national dialogue in a very serious way," he said.
This year’s failure of congressional efforts to pass comprehensive immigration reform, which would have combined tougher border controls and enhanced enforcemenet with a path to citizenship for some illegal immigrants already here, has encouraged politicians to play to public angst over the illegal immigration issue — and left Jewish groups, which had focused their efforts on national legislation, scrambling for new strategies, he said.
Jewish groups that have traditionally fought the immigration fight may have been less visible in recent months, Aronoff said, because they are shifting their focus to small local battles, and to narrowly focused skirmishes — such as the fight against a new Department of Homeland Security policy of staging dramatic raids against illegal immigrants in their homes and workplaces.
Jewish groups "have been active, but it’s harder to see because so much of the activity has been localized."
For now, local community councils and federations are at the forefront, not the national Jewish groups, he said.
Where Jewish groups have been less active, several observers say, is in openly challenging the politicians who have turned the election into a contest over who can be toughest on immigration. This week’s ADL warning to the presidential candidates represents the first real effort to tamp down the spiraling rhetoric.
And, like other Jewish groups worried about seeming too partisan, the ADL refrained from naming names.
"I think the Jewish community is ambivalent about speaking out forcefully" about politicians who play the anti-immigrant card, said Ken Wald, the University of Florida political scientist. Jewish organizations "simply don’t want to take sides in a partisan fight — unless it involves Israel."
"People are nervous about [angering] their political patrons, and sometimes their biggest donors, who are more conservative," said Daniel Sokatch, director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance in California.
And in the past, he said, Jewish leaders were more willing to wade into the immigration fight because they saw an immediate threat to Jewish interests.
"Now there’s a feeling that nativist anti-Semitism has been relegated to the David Duke-ish fringes," he said. "So it’s not seen as an immediate issue by some leaders."
The issue is taking on even more of a Jewish charge because groups like the Center for Immigration Studies and FAIR are waging an aggressive campaign to pry Jews away from their traditional support for progressive immigration policies.
That effort includes full-page ads in Jewish newspapers — including this one.
Several activists noted that while concern about illegal immigration is high in the Jewish community, surveys show that most Jews reject the Draconian solutions suggested by the candidates who are beating the war drums on immigration.