Are African Migrants the Final Straw for Liberal Jews?

Israel’s plan to deport illegal infiltrators hit a nerve in America where Jews sacralized the immigrant experience. The analogies to Jewish refugees and the Holocaust are resonating with American Jews.

Using Jewish history against Israel's interests

For decades, Israeli governments have sought to navigate a complicated course when it comes to retaining the support of American Jews. Balancing the demands of security with the need to appeal to the sensibilities of a largely liberal American Jewish population can be difficult, especially for nationalist Likud-led coalitions like the ones that have been led by Prime Minister Netanyahu.

In recent years, unpopular policies on settlements and disagreements with popular U.S. presidents like Barack Obama on both the peace process and Iran, have increased tensions. Disputes over Jewish pluralism in Israel, in which domestic political imperatives conflict with the religious affiliations of most Americans, have made things even more complicated.

The latest twist in that always-fractious relationship though, is coming from a completely different issue. American protests over Israel’s planned deportation of African migrants could turn out to do more damage than Israel’s government could have imagined.

While many, if not most Israelis may think the question of what to do with the approximately 40,000 African migrants who entered the country illegally is a matter of law enforcement rather than an existential one about its founding ideals, American Jews see it very differently. To American Jews, the plight of the Africans summons up the travails of the immigrant experience, which is at the core of the narrative of American Jewish history.

Even more importantly, anger about the short shrift Israel is giving to many of the Africans’ demands for asylum is provoking analogies with the “Dreamers” — sympathetic illegal immigrants who were brought to the United States as children — or, even worse, the sufferings of Jewish refugees from the Holocaust.

Those analogies can be easily dismissed as at best, hyperbole and at worst, a vicious distortion of the facts of the case. Unfortunately, as the Israeli government and its defenders are starting to realize, what can’t be dismissed is the fact that these arguments are resonating with American Jews.


Enter, the New Israel Fund

That is in part due to a concerted effort by left wing groups like the New Israel Fund (NIF), that has embraced the cause of the Africans. The reason for their success in getting some of the major religious denominations and the largest Jewish organizations to support the campaign, is not so much due to how much money donors like financier George Soros pour into it — as Prime Minister Netanyahu ruefully pointed out recently. It has more to do with the way sympathy for immigrants and refugees has been sacralized by American Jewry.

The irony involved in this dispute for Netanyahu and the NIF is not lost on either side. The hopes harbored by the prime minister’s left-wing critics, that American Jews will turn on him in a way that might seriously damage the pro-Israel coalition, have so far been largely unfulfilled.

It’s true that — mythology aside — Israel’s safety has never been the primary concern of the majority of American Jews who call themselves liberals and Democrats. Domestic issues have always prevailed over support for Israel in terms of determining most Jewish votes. This is evident in the string of elections in which Democratic candidates have continued to gain anywhere from 60-80 percent of Jewish votes, despite the stronger record on Israel of Republican presidential candidates.

Yet, it is also true that the hopes these same liberals will rise up in opposition to Netanyahu, in a way that would materially undermine the work of groups like the AIPAC lobby, have been consistently disappointed.

So long as the Palestinians are still resorting to violence and their leaders consistently torpedo peace talks and speak —as Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has recently done again — as if they will never recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn, the notion that American Jewry will completely abandon Israel to international isolation is a left-wing pipe dream.

Much to Netanyahu’s frustration though, in the debate about what to do with tens of thousands of African migrants, he may have stumbled upon an issue that, while perhaps less important to most Israelis, could serve as the wedge for which his opponents have been searching.

The reaction to the announcement that after years of delays and half measures, a major effort toward deporting the 40,000 Africans in Israel illegally is at hand, has created a firestorm of criticism among American Jews.

Organizations associated with the left have orchestrated some of this reaction. The NIF, which uses its considerable resources to support, what it terms, social justice causes in Israel, has been particularly active.

Much, though not all, of their backing for activists in Israel tends to revolve around the conflict with the Palestinians and support for critics of Israel’s security and settlement policies. The NIF’s point of view generates little enthusiasm in Israel but it is much more successful among American Jews, who consider these campaigns to be civil rights activism rather than left wing politics. Now the NIF has shifted toward putting the plight of the Africans at the center of their efforts, in a way that has given them more traction than is usually the case.


Not Just the New Israel Fund

Criticism of the Israeli government’s actions on this issue is not limited however to the allies of Peace Now like the NIF. In recent weeks, the leaders of both Reform and Conservative Judaism in the United States — which together represent the overwhelming majority of affiliated American Jews — condemned the Israeli government’s policy and called for the illegals to be granted asylum. A petition signed by 850 rabbis and cantors from all denominations invoked both Jewish history and Judaism to support a #DontDeport campaign. As Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the head of the Reform movement asserted, deporting Africans who seek a haven in Israel is “at odds with Jewish values.

Nor was this reaction confined to religious groups. Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt likened the African immigrants to the “Dreamers”, who are the center of an American national controversy in which the Democratic Party has embraced their cause, in opposition to the policies of the Trump administration. Even more damaging was his claim that deporting the migrants would make Israel appear racist.

Some go even further than that and make direct analogies to the plight of Jewish refugees fleeing for their lives during the Holocaust. Indeed, Rabbi Susan Silverman, a former American who lives now in Israel and is a prominent member of the Women of the Wall group, has helped found the Anne Frank Home Sanctuary movement.  It seeks to not only support the Africans’ claims but signed up Israelis to adopt immigrants and even hide them from the authorities, in an evocation of the efforts of Jews to evade Nazis seeking to deport them to death camps.

While there is a case that can be made for Israel seeking to absorb the Africans, these analogies are inherently specious.

The appropriation of the name of Ann Frank diminishes the enormity and the historical uniqueness of the Holocaust in a way that would be labeled anti-Semitism in another context. The attempt to depict the immigrants as the modern day version of past Jewish refugees is equally false. The migrants were not marked for death as Jews were and no one who hides them is in any danger.


Not Refugees or Asylum Seekers

Though many of the tens of thousands of African migrants are now seeking asylum as refugees, few fit the traditional definition of someone fleeing threats to their lives. While the war-torn Horn of Africa has suffered from many conflicts in recent years, most of the immigrants came to Israel seeking a tiny island of prosperity, not a refuge from imminent death.

Indeed, if their only need was for a safe haven, they might have ended up in any number of African countries that are closer to their homes than Israel. It was Israel’s first world economy that attracted them.

While it’s true that some of those who have been deported have wound up in dire straits elsewhere, that is generally because they have refused to stay in the African countries that offered them asylum. Instead, as is the case with many others seeking economic opportunities, they have suffered the perils of illegal crossings from Africa to Europe.

Moreover, those who speak up for the migrants seem indifferent to the cost of this illegal immigration on the South Tel Aviv neighborhoods where they have gathered. That already poor section has been further devastated by the arrival of a population that has no legal work and who strain the already overburdened resources of the city.

Equally telling is the argument Israelis make that point out the absurdity of asking little Israel to solve the economic problems of the vast African continent.


The Implications for Israel

While supporters of granting asylum to the Africans haven’t made much headway with their arguments among Israelis, many American Jews, including some of the most ardent advocates for Israel like legal authority Alan Dershowitz, believe Israel is in the wrong.

If Netanyahu is failing to convince American Jews that even a country of immigrants like Israel has the right to determine who enters the country and to deport those with no ties to the nation, it isn’t merely a function of his unpopularity or even the efforts of those who have attacked his government on other issues. It’s because support for immigration — whether or not it is illegal — has become synonymous with social justice and Judaism for most American Jews.

In a milieu in which sympathy for “the stranger” and the rights of immigrants is not only part of Jewish belief but calls up memories of the Jewish past, practical arguments about Israel’s needs and rights fall flat.

For Americans who favor “sanctuary” in their own country for people who crossed the border illegally, the notion of the Jewish state denying entry or asylum to anyone, let alone Africans, is tantamount to Israel trampling on their idea of Judaism.

The potential implications of this dispute shouldn’t be underestimated.

Israel is already taking a beating on college campuses and in liberal forums where the often-false claims of Palestinians are taken at face value and Zionism is depicted as a form of unfashionable parochialism that is akin to racism. The optics of deporting black people — no matter how legal or justified the action — will readily fit into the anti-Israel narrative.

When liberal Jewish groups, including those like the ADL, which are generally identified as pro-Israel, validate that point of view, few will be ready to stand with the Israeli government.

This is the opening that the NIF and its allies have been waiting for. When mainstream supporters of Israel, who are ready to back security measures against the Palestinians, back away when it comes to deporting Africans.

Israel’s government must, as is its duty, defend the interests of its citizens and the rule of law. Just because it is a society built by immigrants does not deprive it of the right to decide who may enter the country and who may stay, especially when the arguments for asylum are weak.

The sympathy for African migrants and the notion that denying entry to immigrants or deporting them, is contrary to Judaism no matter what the facts of the case might be, is proving more powerful than any misgivings about Israel’s stand toward the Palestinians.

Whatever the ultimate disposition of this issue, Israelis should be aware that this issue is a political minefield with the potential to blow up the relationship with the Diaspora.


Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS — the Jewish News Syndicate and a contributing writer for National Review. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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