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American Jews Line Up Against the Trump Ban

Ron Skolnik
February 2, 2017

by Ron Skolnik

WITH NOT MUCH to smile about since Inauguration Day, it has been heartening to see the nearly undivided reaction of the American Jewish community to Donald Trump’s January 27 Executive Order (EO) on immigration and refugee admission – widely considered to constitute a Muslim ban. With one or two glaring exceptions -- to which I’ll return shortly -- Jewish Americans across the denominational and organizational spectra have summoned their historical memories, proudly honored their ethical heritage, and rejected both the hardheartedness and the lack of political wisdom in the Trump regime’s diktat.

For some organizations, opposition to the anti-refugee decree was right in their wheelhouse. The refugee resettlement agency, HIAS (formerly the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), for example, which has shifted its focus over the last decade-plus from Jewish newcomers to immigrants and refugees generally,” has termed the ban “vile” and is advising supporters how to “stand up and fight back.” Even though the organization receives federal government funding, the group’s President and CEO, Mark Hetfield, has gone on record describing the Trump administration as “the enemy,” and explaining that the EO has forced HIAS out of the “establishment” and into “the insurgence.”

Similarly positioned is American Jewish World Service, the non-profit dedicated to human rights in the developing world. AJWS President and CEO Robert Bank termed Trump’s policies “inhumane,” called on Congress and the courts to block them, and warned that “we are at risk of returning to the days when the United States tragically acted with indifference to Jewish and other refugees from Europe during World War II.”

Progressive Jewish organizations that work on domestic social justice issues have been front and center in the past week’s efforts. Bend the Arc has mobilized its members, calling on them to attend emergency protest rallies around the country and to “flood Congress with calls,” against the “illegal and fundamentally un-American” ban. JFREJ (Jews for Racial & Economic Justice) brought supporters to the massive protest at JFK Airport on Saturday and helped organize a Havdalah service there at sundown.

But the response to the autocratic Trump has not been limited to the organized Left. The large mainstream Jewish organizations, too, have slammed the White House. ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt called Trump’s EO “cruel and contrary to the values of our country,” saying that “the president [had] turned his back on people fleeing for their lives,” and that the screening system used under the Obama presidency had been “sufficient in keeping America safe.” Pointing to the lessons of the Holocaust, Greenblatt explained that Jewish “history and heritage compel us to take a stand.” The organization has also criticized another Trump EO that threatens to defund so-called “sanctuary cities,” calling the move “wrong and dangerous.”

The generally staid American Jewish Committee (AJC) seems similarly aware that we are well past the time for mincing words. Rejecting two central Trumpian claims, AJC stated that the “terrorist threat attributed to refugees is a cruel and distracting fiction” and that the EO is “targeted primarily at Muslims fleeing violence and oppression” and “reinforc[es] anti-Muslim stereotypes.” Sadly, that other AJC, the American Jewish Congress, which has morphed over the last decades from a proud bastion of liberalism to a small, right-wing, Israel-centric clique, has not found the refugee issue important enough to comment upon.

ISRAEL-CENTRISM hasn’t stopped organizations on the liberal side of the spectrum from speaking out, though. The New Israel Fund, which supports grantee organizations in Israel that work with asylum-seekers, has called Trump’s ban “cruel and disgracefully un-American” and a betrayal of the Jewish value of welcoming the stranger. IfNotNow has been active at the various #NoBanNoWall airport rallies around the country and is asking its supporters to pressure the Jewish Federations of North America to join the opposition to the Executive Order. The non-Zionist, pro-BDS Jewish Voice for Peace has published an assortment of tools for resisting Trump’s Islamophobia.

The dovish pro-two-states lobby J Street has also sharply criticized the EO, calling the suspension of the U.S. refugee program “a profound affront to our values ... as Jews” and a “grave transgression of American values, as embodied by the words engraved on the Statute of Liberty.” It has been “crickets,” on the other hand, from J Street’s Republican-leaning opposite number, AIPAC, as was the case following Trump’s appointment of Steve Bannon, when the lobby conspicuously declined to weigh in despite the outrage being expressed all across the American Jewish community.

Remarkably, even the various denominations of religious Judaism have been able to form a meeting of the minds. Although they might clash on a host of important issues, including women’s rights, LGBT rights, and criticism of Israel’s settlement and occupation policy, Trump’s moves on immigration and refugees have found all the religious streams to be in complete agreement. Somewhat ironically, while the statements made by the Reconstructionist, Reform and Conservative movements have all cited the Torah’s repeated exhortation to “welcome the ger” – i.e., strangers and foreigners – the institutions of Orthodox Judaism offered no Jewish perspective on the matter. Instead, their rejection of the EO was based strictly on the principles of American democracy: “[D]iscrimination against any group based solely upon religion,” their statement reads, “is wrong and anathema to the great traditions of religious and personal freedoms upon which this country was founded.” Truah, which seeks to place rabbis and cantors at the vanguard of the Jewish struggle for human rights, also condemned Trump’s EO. The organization recalled that the 1924 Immigration Act was similarly designed to keep out “suspicious” and “dangerous” immigrants, including the many Jews who “perished after being ruthlessly turned away from our shores.”

AMID this near-consensus among American Jewish institutions, the major outlier has been the far-right Zionist Organization of America. Primarily an Israel-centric organization that supports an Israeli annexation of the Occupied Palestinian Territories, ZOA expressed strong praise for Trump’s steps, insisting that the current American vetting system for immigrants and refugees is “dysfunctional” and allows in “a significant number of ... terrorists and Jew haters.” Offering an alternative approach to Jewish law which even the Orthodox movement eschewed, ZOA cites Biblical references on the need for self-preservation and argues that Jewish scripture calls for “preventing immigration of those who endanger us.”

ZOA also defines Trump’s steps as “humane,” but it bases this claim on an early draft of his EO that had included a commitment to establish safe zones in and around Syria as an alternative to refugee admission. This commitment was later dropped by the White House and appears nowhere in the final text. And while Trump continues to say that he favors a safe zone option, implementation would not come fast: A draft order obtained by Reuters indicates that it would take the State Department three months just to produce a preliminary plan – a very long time to wait for the “vulnerable Syrian refugees” that the ZOA says it is concerned about.

The right-wing organization also disputes the strong sentiment in the Jewish community that today’s refugee-seekers are comparable to the European Jews fleeing the Nazis in the 1930s and ‘40s. Reinforcing the anti-Muslim stereotyping about which the AJC warned, ZOA tells its constituents that “[n]o Jewish immigrants flew airplanes into buildings, or massacred scores of innocent people at a holiday party or nightclub or marathon or drive trucks into innocent citizens.” “Most [Muslim refugees] hate Jews and Israel,” ZOA’s president, Morton Klein, has declared.

The atavistic, us-versus-them xenophobia in ZOA’s statement is part of a broader pattern, it’s important to note. Following the November 8 election, the organization vigorously defended Trump advisor, Steve Bannon, as an “American patriot” and “welcome[d] [his] appointment ... as chief strategist to the incoming Trump/Pence administration.” It has also regularly tarred as Nazis not only the Palestinian people as a whole, but President Obama as well, and it promotes the notion that the conflict between Jews and Arabs in Israel/Palestine is a winner-take-all, zero-sum game.

ZOA’s main benefactor, of course, is none other than casino magnate and multibillionaire Sheldon Adelson, a mega-donor for far-right Republican candidates who rejects that the Palestinians even exist as a distinct Arab people and is unconcerned by the possibility of Israel ceasing to be a democracy. In Israel, Adelson supports Binyamin Netanyahu, distributing a free daily, Israel HaYom, which trumpets the Prime Minister’s policies and talking points. The paper, launched in 2007, costs Adelson over $25 million per year. And though the billionaire was late in getting involved in last year’s presidential race, he ended up pouring tens of millions of dollars to help Donald Trump’s campaign.

Now that these dots are connected, it should come as no surprise that the ZOA would be the first American Jewish organization contacted by the Trump administration for a consultation.

It might also help explain why Israel’s Prime Minister inserted himself into the middle of Trump’s imbroglio with Mexico’s president, taking to Twitter to back Trump’s position on his proposed border wall. It remains to be seen whether, in his embrace of Trump, Netanyahu will, like Adelson and the ZOA, reveal himself as fundamentally incompatible, in terms of basic democratic and humanitarian values, with the vast majority of the American Jewish public for whom he often claims to speak.

Ron Skolnik is associate editor of
Jewish Currents. His writing has been published in Haaretz, The Jerusalem Report, Tikkun, Palestine-Israel Journal and elsewhere. He previously served as political adviser to the British Embassy in Israel and as director of Partners for Progressive Israel (formerly Meretz USA). You can follow Ron on Twitter at @Ron_Skolnik.