Archive for the ‘Immigration Reform’ category

A Growing Fear in a Dark and Dangerous Time

November 29, 2017

I just have to say it. There comes a time when we have to recognize and admit that we are dealing with matters far beyond the normal boundaries of political discord; when what we are faced with is something far more distressing and dangerous than merely a clash of political ideologies; that there is a sickness present in our nation that has not only turned the American political scene toxic but threatens to upend the very stability of the planet. That time of recognition has long since passed.

Today, November 29, 2017, as I read this morning’s news, I was shaken by two reports that at any other time would seem completely distinct one from the other, but at this time in American history are inextricably linked. One was the report of the fact that North Korea’s latest missile test seems to indicate that they now have the capability of firing missiles that will reach the USA. The other was the report of Matt Lauer’s firing by NBC for a complaint of sexual misconduct.

While the situation that led to the firing of an American media icon such as Matt Lauer is saddening on so many levels, what was additionally deeply disturbing about the report was how President Trump once again jumped upon this opportunity to Tweet another attack on the mainstream media. One would think that a rational human being who has been accused of sexual misconduct by 16 women and who has been caught on tape personally bragging about having been engaged is such behaviors would not take every opportunity to rant about the sexual misconduct of his detractors and opponents while at the same time defending the sexual misconduct of his allies. One would think that a rational person in a similar situation as the President would choose the course of silence on this issue simply as a matter of self-preservation; simply out of a concern that the bullet he dodged in the past is still out there and may strike him down in the near future, re-directed straight at him by his own words. But that is not our President.  Rather, as if his own record was as clean as the freshly driven snow in matters of sexual misconduct, he has spared no efforts in his calls for the political undoing of opponents such as Al Franken because of the sexual misconduct for which they have been charged, while at the same time vigorously defending his allies such as Roy Moore against charges far more extensive and dark than those leveled against his opponents.  Even when, as reported in this morning’s news, NBC took a preemptive posture by firing Matt Lauer after 1 complaint and before the story broke in the press, instead of praising NBC for its taking swift and decisive action in defense of their code of professional conduct, he still sought a way to attack them because, in his distorted perceptions, they are what he has called “fake news.”

Once again President Trump has demonstrated himself to be a rather strange, sick, and dangerous combination of a false sense of invulnerability and invincibility, a near total lack of self-control, and an unrelenting narcissism, topped off with a malevolent bigotry against anyone who thinks, acts, feels, believes, or looks differently than himself, especially women.

And that brings us to the report about North Korean missile capabilities.  The very real nuclear threat posed by North Korea has been a challenge which at least 3 presidents before Trump have struggled.  Clinton, Bush, and Obama all have sought ways to keep the North Koreans in check in order to avoid what could easily turn into a nuclear holocaust.  Then along comes President Trump with his unearned and undeserved bravado, his delusion that no one can stand up to the United States of America, and his unrestrained mean spirited assaults on anyone who disagrees with him.  He intentionally pokes the bear with his threatening North Korea with total destruction as he personally insults its erratic leader, Kim Jong-un, calling him “Rocket Man” and doing so on the international stage of the U.N.  No wonder that this “Rocket Man” has sought to produce a missile with the capability of delivering a nuclear payload to our very shores.  At no time since the Cuban Missile Crisis have Americans found themselves more immediately under the threat of nuclear destruction than we do now.  Why?  Of course the North Koreans and Kim Jong-un have something to do with it, but not as much as does the actions and attitudes – and dare I say the mental instability – of our current President.  For it has been Donald Trump, with his over inflated ego and the ever-present bullying tactics that he has brought from the manner in which he conducted his businesses to the way he now conducts the business of our nation, who has brought us to the brink of a nuclear war.

This crisis with North Korea is but one instance of how America, and the world, have suffered as a result of the fundamental character and personality flaws of our President.  Literally in a world where every other nation has accepted as fact the science of climate change, the U.S. now stands alone in not signing onto the Paris Climate Accords.  Before he won the election, Donald Trump was a proponent of an American racism.  Whether or not he founded the “Birther Movement” he never relented in challenging Obama’s right to be President on the grounds that Obama was never a “true” American.  Since his election, in what only can be understood as a manifestation of a racist hatred of Obama, he has sought to undo every single accomplishment of the Obama administration, regardless of how many Americans he injures in the process. He simply seeks to erase Obama – the first black president – from the annals of American history.  Also, in yet another manifestation of racism, he has been seeking to purge the American society of what he considers to be foreign interlopers such as Muslims, Latinos, and most recently Haitian refugees.  When it came to the hurricane victims of Puerto Rico, his resistance to offer them the same unrestricted aid that the Florida and Texas victims received is a testimony as to how much it galled him that these Latinos were deserving of all the services available to those on the mainland because they, too, were and are full and legitimate American citizens.  When African American professional football players chose to respectfully kneel (as if in prayer) during the singing of the National Anthem – kneeling out of concern for the injustice of a “shoot first and ask questions later” attitude taken by too many of our law enforcement officers when it comes to African American suspects – our President was far more concerned with respect for a song than he was with respect for human lives, that is if those lives were black lives.  And who can forget that this was the man who referred to Neo-Nazis and White Supremacists as being “fine people”?  How can those who choose to embrace an ideology of hate and bigotry be defined as “fine people”?  Who would define them so?  Only those who share their beliefs.

There is a sickness in the White House which threatens all Americans and indeed, all the world.  It is not a matter of Republican vs. Democrat for it has nothing to do with political parties or with conservative vs. liberal political ideologies.  It is true that personally, I am a Democrat and a liberal, but as a Democrat and a liberal I have survived Conservative Republican administrations in the past.  I have lived through the Eisenhower, the Nixon, the Ford, the Reagan, and the Bush (Both Bushes) years.  Though those men may not have been my personal choices for President, they were the choice of the people, having been democratically elected.  That is what makes America great.  But this time is different.   The irresponsible actions and beliefs of the current occupant of the White House put us all in danger; in danger of destroying our world in so many ways, such as ecologically or physically.  But if that is too much to grasp or believe, how can one question but that he is in the process of destroying the very soul of our nation; our nations which has always sought to lift up the fallen, heal the sick, set free the captive, and welcome the stranger?  Yet today we are being led down many dark roads, whether they be in the directions our nation is taking when it comes to health care for all, the protection of our environment, our response to gun violence, our relationships with other nations, or our treatment of minorities and immigrants?

Is this a rant?  I guess it is.  But it is a rant born out of a deep seated and growing fear I possess for the very future of our nation and our planet if we continue along the path that President Trump has mapped out for our nation.  I SPEAK ONLY FOR MYSELF and not for any group or organization with which I am affiliated or associated, but I suspect that many others share my concerns.

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Bystanders

October 14, 2011

As most of you know, aside from serving as the rabbi of Temple Emanuel, for as long as I have lived in this community, I also have served on the faculty of the Theology Department at St. Ambrose University; a position I inherited from my predecessor, Rabbi Robert Benjamin, of blessed memory.  At St. Ambrose, I teach one Jewish studies course per semester.  While over the years I have taught many different courses, early on I made the decision to dedicate one semester a year to a course on the Holocaust.  It might interest you to know that the St. Ambrose administration supported, and continues to support, that decision, and one need only look at the heavy enrollment in my Holocaust classes to see that the students support it as well.

Back in rabbinical school, even though my major field of study was Jewish history, I never envisioned myself as any sort of Holocaust scholar.  My scholarly pursuits centered upon the period of Jewish history known as the Second Commonwealth; the time between the Maccabees and the destruction of the Second Temple and the fall of Masada.  I left Holocaust studies to my good friend, Peter Weintraub, who had the great privilege of doing some studying with none other than Eli Wiesel.  Ironically, all these years later, I find myself teaching the Holocaust and being invited to attend scholarly seminars at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum while several years ago, Peter chose to leave the rabbinate in favor of becoming a wealthy man, taking over his family’s very lucrative import-export business.  Life is funny that way.   It never plays out as we think it will.  It twists and turns and takes us to some of the most unexpected places.  So I have found myself living in Iowa, teaching the Holocaust.

There is an interesting thing about teaching a subject on a college level.  The more you teach the subject, the more you yourself learn about it.  It is not long before you start discovering that there are certain aspects of that subject, about which you did not give much thought before, but you come to realize that they happen to be very important.  Often, the public pays little attention to these aspects but you become convinced that it is precisely these aspects that should be receiving a lot of attention.

So it has been with my studying of the Holocaust.  While I could tick off for you a list of Holocaust issues which should receive more of our attention, I won’t.  Rather I want to spend some time this morning focusing on one such issue; the issue which has come to be known as “The Bystanders.”

Who were the Bystanders and why do I think that they are so important?

When most people think about the Holocaust and the groups of people that played a role in the Holocaust, they tend to focus their attention on two main groups, those groups being the “Perpetrators” – the evil Nazis who committed these atrocities – and the “Victims” – the innocent civilians who suffered horribly at the hands of the Nazis.  Indeed, even when it comes to the Victims, most of our attentions are directed toward the 6 million Jews who were slaughtered, while we tend to ignore or minimize the other 3 million non-Jewish victims; the mentally and physically disabled, the Roma – which is the appropriate title for what most people call Gypsies – the homosexuals, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Afro-Europeans, the Communists, and the political dissidents.

However, the cast of characters in the Holocaust was more complex than that.  The Holocaust was not just a matter of black-&-white; of bad guys and good guys; of Nazis and Jews.  There were shades of gray as well.  There was a continuum of players that need to be carefully considered.

On the Perpetrators’ side of the continuum, you also had the Collaborators.  These people were not Nazis.  Most of them were not even German.  They were of many nationalities.  Regardless of where they were born or where they lived, they shared a certain affinity with the Nazis, and particularly with the Nazis’ hatred of the Jews.  Therefore, when the Nazis invaded their countries, they did not resist the invaders but chose to actively assist them, particularly in their efforts to exterminate the Jews.  Accounts of the Holocaust are filled with testimonies of how Lithuanian and Ukranian collaborators and guards were even more brutal than the Nazis in their treatment of the victims.  The Arrow Cross, Hungary’s home grown Nazi-like fascists, were notorious for their cruelty.  In almost every occupied country there were those who were all too ready to lend the Nazis a helping hand, or if not a helping hand, at least to take full personal advantage of the suffering state of the victims.

On the Victims’ side of the continuum, you had the Rescuers; to whom Yad VaShem, the Israel Holocaust museum, has bestowed the title, the Righteous Among the Nations.  These people were not members of any of the targeted groups, yet they were driven by the call of their conscience.  Witnessing injustice, they felt impelled to act.  At the very real risk of their lives, they went out of their way to do all they possibly could to protect and save those who the Nazis had marked for imprisonment, suffering, and death.  Some of their names have become well known to us, like Raoul Wallenberg, Oskar Schindler, Miep Gies, Corrie Ten Boom, and Irena Sendler.  There are many whose names are known, but not nearly as well known.  And there are many whose names will never be known because they worked in secret and were caught and executed in secret, or because they worked in secret and never shared their secrets, even after the war.

Still there was another group who played a role in the Holocaust.  In fact, they were the biggest group of all, yet they are the ones we talk about the least.  They were the Bystanders.

The Bystanders were all those people who stood by in Germany and Austria, or during the Nazi occupation of their countries and elected to help neither the Perpetrators nor the Victims.  They were the ones who saw what was happening and chose to do nothing about it.  They watched as their neighbors and fellow countrymen were rounded up and sent away to the ghettos and the camps, or were taken out to the forests and shot.  They watched and said nothing.  They watched and did nothing.  After the war, they would claim innocence.  After all, they did not participate in the persecutions.  They did not lift a hand against the Victims.  But then again, neither did they lift a hand to help them.  “What could I do?” many would claim.  “If I tried to interfere, the Nazis would have punished me and my family.  I was powerless.  My first obligation was to my family and myself.  Sure, I felt bad about what was happening to those people.  It was horrible what they did to them!  But that was their problem, not mine.  I had problems of my own.”

Nor were the Bystanders only to be found under Nazi rule.  There were plenty of Bystanders here in America and in Great Britain as well.  They heard about what the Nazis were doing to their Victims and they kept silent.  They did not call upon their free governments to act; to save.  The entry gates to the United States, Great Britain, and Palestine, all were closed and locked.  The Victims were pleading to have those gates opened, and the American Bystanders and the British Bystanders said nothing; did nothing to help them.  “We’re just coming out of the Depression.  The job market is fragile.  We can’t let all those foreigners in.  They’ll steal our jobs!” were the cries so often heard in defense of doing nothing.  Sad to say, among those Bystanders were many Jews; Jews like you and me.

Were the Bystanders innocent, as they claimed to have been?  No.  Not by a long short.  They may not have lifted their hands to actively help the Perpetrators, but by their very choice to stand by, saying nothing, doing nothing, they in effect enabled the Perpetrators to do their worst.  They could do their worst because they knew that no one was going to stand up to them in opposition.  As Edmund Burke so astutely observed, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”  Those Bystanders; most of them were probably good men and women, but they chose to do nothing.

Could they have done something or was their paralyzing fear of the Nazis truly well founded?  Would helping have without question or doubt resulted in their destruction?  While many would say yes, one need look no further for another model than to countries like Denmark and Italy.  For in such countries, there were to be found enough good people who chose NOT to do nothing that a majority of the targeted Victims were in fact saved.  Practically the entire Jewish population of Denmark was saved because the Danish people chose to do something, and not nothing.  In Italy, 80% of the Jews survived because there were so many Italians who chose to do something, and not nothing.  In such countries, those who could have been Bystanders chose not to stand by, and in so choosing made all the difference in the world; and in so choosing, proved themselves to be beacons of justice and right and good.

Of all the players on the stage of the Holocaust, it is the Bystanders who have the most to say to us today.  And what they say is, “Don’t become like us!  Don’t carry on your souls, the sins we carry on ours!”

When my St. Ambrose students and I discuss the Bystanders, not all of them but many of them, perhaps most of them, are quick to declare that they could never have been a Bystander.  Indeed, they proclaim that they cannot fathom how anyone could have stood by and done nothing.  If they were there, they most certainly would have done something!  They claim that, but then I ask them, “Tell me.  What have you done to feed the hungry in our own community?  What have you done to help the homeless?  What did you do about the genocide that was taking place in Darfur?  What are you doing about the starving multitudes in Somalia and East Africa?  Did you ever see someone being bullied in school, whether it be this school or back when you were in high school?  What did you do to stop it?  What have you done to help stop human trafficking?  Do you even know what human trafficking is?  Have you ever actively protested against discrimination directed at homosexuals or people of color?  What have you done in response to ads – especially political ads – which demonize Muslims and immigrants, whether legal or undocumented?  What have you done to stand up against those states which have enacted laws permitting the profiling of certain groups of citizens, making them vulnerable to increased scrutiny and intolerable treatment?”  These questions most of them cannot comfortably answer, for while they talk about standing up, in reality they more often than not choose to stand by.

Now my students at St. Ambrose are not evil people.  They are part of Edmund Burke’s good people.  Nor are they alone, for they have plenty of company.  And in that company, if we are honest with ourselves, most of us can be numbered.

We consider ourselves to be good people, but still, when we hear or we read in the news about all those people in this world that are suffering, whether they are being denied food or clothing or shelter or equality or freedom, or even their lives, we may feel sorry for them, but how often do we do something to actually help them?  Their plight might be tragic, but they are so far away.  Their world is not our world, so it is easy for us to ignore them or forget them.  And there are so many of them, we cannot help them all.  There are so many problems out there.  It is beyond our ability to solve them all.  So we wind up convincing ourselves that since we cannot help them all, we need not help any of them; since we cannot begin to solve all those problems, we need not contribute to solving any of them.  We just need to get on with our lives.  It is tragic what is happening to them but we have our own problems.  Sound familiar?  It should.  For we have become the Bystanders.

Now wait a minute, Rabbi?  How can you compare us to all those people who passively stood by and watched as 9 million innocent souls perished at the hands of the Perpetrators of the Holocaust?  Well, perhaps you did not hear what I said during my Hunger Appeal on Rosh Hashanah.  There are 12 million innocent souls in East Africa, right now – not 70 years ago – who are in very real danger of perishing from starvation, and what have we done?  How much have we done?  Can we do more?  Or will we choose to go “tsk, tsk!” and then put it out of our minds.  East Africa is thousands of miles from the Quad Cities.

In the streets of Syria, people are being gunned downed by soldiers simply because they wish to protest in the name of freedom.  I know that the Syrians are not our friends, and as hostile as the current Syrian government is to Israel and the Jewish people, if a new government arises, there is a good chance that it may even prove to be more hostile.  But still, people should have a right to express their hunger for freedom.  It should not have to cost them their lives.  But what have we done in their defense?  We have watched it on the news and read about it in the papers and have done nothing.

On the very borders of our country, there are those who are desperate to flee from a life of poverty and deprivation.  They yearn to grasp the promise that has always been America’s promise.  The very same promise that brought our own ancestors to the shores of this country.  But in response to their aspirations, we build fences to keep them out, send out patrols to drive them back, and establish laws which enable the authorities to stop any Latino looking person on the street and arrest them if they cannot adequately prove that they are citizens of this great republic.  And what do we do about it.  We do little if anything to stop it, and there are those of us who encourage it and want it to increase.

It is true that as individuals, we cannot solve all the problems of the world.  By ourselves, we cannot eradicate poverty or disease or injustice.  But that in no way permits us to do nothing.  In PIRKE AVOT, Rabbi Tarfon is quoted as saying, “Lo Alecha Hamlacha Ligmor, V’lo Atah Ben Horeen L’hibatayl Mimena – While you are not required to complete the task, neither are you free to desist from it.”  In other words, we may not be able to do everything, but we ought to do something, for something is far better than nothing.  And you know, if I do a little something, and each of you do a little something, and our friends and neighbors decide to join us and do a little something, the next thing you know, we are Denmark!  For we have come together, each of us doing our little something, which when you put it all together adds up to something great.  The world can change – dramatically change for the better – if we but choose to stand up instead of stand by.  In a moral universe – and I would hope that you would join me in wanting to create a moral universe – there is simply no room for bystanders.

Why I Love Being a Reform Jew: Part 7

May 9, 2011

Back in December, when I wrote the last installment in this series of articles, little did I dream that it would be May before I would write the next.  For that, I apologize.  This has not been an easy winter for me.  I underwent major surgery and almost died from post surgical complications.  But now I definitely am on the mend and my return to writing for this series of articles is but one more testimony to my daily improving health.

As I stated at the end of my last article in this series, in this article I wish to turn my attention to the commitment the Reform movement has made to matters of Tikkun Olam or, as we used to call it, Social Action.

I remember as a child being told that Reform Judaism is Prophetic Judaism.  What is Prophetic Judaism?  When we call Reform Judaism Prophetic Judaism we mean that at its heart are the teachings of the biblical prophets, and that those teachings are primarily the teachings of social justice.  Like the biblical prophets, Reform Judaism holds that ritual observance is empty unless it is accompanied by deeds of loving kindness directed toward the less fortunate of society.  I remember, in my childhood congregation, how seriously we took Isaiah’s message of social justice when we read it as the Haftarah on Yom Kippur morning:  “Is such the fast that I have chosen?  The day for a man to afflict his soul?  Is it to bow down his head as a bulrush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him?  Wilt thou call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the Lord?  Is not this the fast that I have chosen?  To loose the fetters of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke?  Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou shalt bring the poor that are cast out to thy house?  When thou seest the naked, thou shalt cover him, and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh?  Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thy healing shall spring forth speedily; and thy righteousness shall go before thee, the glory of the Lord shall be thy rear-guard.”

I also remember that prayer in Shabbat evening service number 3 of the old UNION PRAYER BOOK, which read, “How much we owe to the labors of our brothers!  Day by day they dig far away from the sun that we may be warm.”  When I asked my rabbi to explain what that meant, he told about how our movement supported the efforts of the coal miners in their struggle to earn a living wage and to require their employers to establish safety standards for their working conditions.

I also remember how, when I was in my Confirmation year, the principal of our religious school arranged for our class to attend a weekend retreat with students from an Afro-American church (we called them “Negroes” at that time), co-sponsored by the NAACP and the Nation Conference of Christians and Jews.  Attending a predominantly Jewish public school, this was my first serious encounter with African Americans as a group.  It was on that weekend that I first learned the songs “We Shall Overcome” and “Go Down, Moses.”  It was on that weekend that I first became committed to the Civil Rights Movement.

I remember that it was from the pulpit of the Reform synagogue of my teenage years that I first heard a message opposing the war in Viet Nam; a message lifting up the principle of peace.  I have no doubt that marked the birth of my involvement in the anti-war movement; a movement which would have a serious impact upon my college years, including my decision – much to my parents’ chagrin – to turn in my graduation gown and join others in boycotting our college graduation in protest to the war.

As time marched on, in Reform Judaism, the terms “Social Justice” and “Social Action” were replaced by the Hebrew expression, “Tikkun Olam” meaning “Repair of the World.”  Yet while whatever we called it may have changed, Reform Judaism’s commitment to the values of making our world a better place to live for all people has remained constant for over well over a century.  One need only look at the long list of social justice resolutions passed by both the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis to witness how constant and how broad based was, and is, our commitment to the principle of Tikkun Olam.  Whenever injustice has reared its ugly head, either in our American society or in the world at large, our movement has not hesitated to stand up for what is right and decent.  More often than not, we have been among the first to do so.

Today, the Union for Reform Judaism can justifiably boast that it is the only Jewish congregational organization in North America that has established specific centers dedicated to the advancement of Tikkun Olam, both here in America – the Religious Action Center in Washington, D.C. – and in Israel – the Israel Religious Action Center in Jerusalem.  These two centers labor to keep all Reform Jews aware of the pressing social justice issues of our day and to engage us in the work of addressing those issues and righting those wrongs.

Indeed, I who am a person committed to the pursuit of Tikkun Olam, at times have to admit to feeling overwhelmed by all the issues which the Religious Action Center places before me and calls upon me to address.  There is just so much work to be done and our movement insists that we cannot ignore it.  If one were to go to the website of the Religious Action Center (http://rac.org/index.cfm?), they would find an extensive directory for “Key Topics” which would include issues concerning:  affirmative action, Africa, antisemitism & the Holocaust, arms control, bilingual education, bio-ethics, campaign finance reform, child soldiers, children’s issues, civil liberties, civil rights, conflict diamonds, crime & criminal justice, Darfur, death penalty, debt relief, disability rights, economic justice, education, election reform, environment, fair trade coffee, GLBT equality, global poverty, gun control, hate crimes, health care, HIV/Aids, housing and homelessness, human rights, human trafficking, hunger, immigration, intelligent design & creationism, interfaith affairs, Israel, judicial nominations, labor issues, living wage, mental health, privacy, race relations, religious liberty, religious persecution, reproductive rights, school prayer, school vouchers, separation of church & state, sexuality issues in public school, social security, socially responsible investment, stem cell research, substance abuse, torture, U.S. foreign policy, violence against women, welfare reform, women’s health, and world Jewry.  There is a list of equal length in regards to the work of the Israel Religious Action Center, with its focus being on Tikkun Olam issues particular to the State of Israel.

Orthodox, Conservative, Reform – we all agree that the father of modern Judaism was the great sage, Hillel the Elder, who lived in the first century B.C.E.  One of Hillel’s most famous sayings was:  “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?  But if I am only for myself, what am I?  And if not now, when?” (PIRKE AVOT 1:14)  Reform Judaism, through its commitment to Tikkun Olam, strives to live up to Hillel’s standards.  As Jews, we are for ourselves, striving to live our Jewish lives more fully.  But if we are only for ourselves, then we are nothing.  Therefore, through our pursuit of Tikkun Olam – by being for others as well – we bring meaning to our Jewish selves.  “If not now, when?”  Our answer is crystal clear.  Now, most assuredly now!  As Reform Jews, we can neither wait to repair the world nor can we expect others to do it for us.  In committing ourselves to the work of Tikkun Olam, we are not only fulfilling ourselves as Jews but are also partnering with God in the ongoing work of perfecting creation.

In part 8, I will reflect upon why it is important for synagogues to band together into an ideological family, and how the Union for Reform Judaism has enabled its member synagogue to maximize their pursuit of living a modern, liberal approach to their Judaism.

Wrestling With Immigration Reform

May 14, 2010

With Arizona’s governor, Jan Brewer, recently signing into law a very restrictive and controversial bill addressing the issue of illegal immigration in that state, the opening shot has been fired on our next major political battlefield – immigration reform.

At first blush, it would appear that the issue of immigration reform is one of those topics around which Americans are united, with the overwhelming majority agreeing across party lines that massive federal immigration reform is both necessary and long overdue.  However, appearances can be deceiving, for such agreement ends right there; with the belief that immigration reform is sorely needed.  Beyond that point, our nation is truly fractured between those who feel that our immigration policies must be liberalized and those who feel that they must be made more severe and be more diligently enforce.  A recent New York Times / CBS News Poll on reactions to the Arizona law indicate that 51% of those polled feel that the law is about right, with 9% saying that it does not go far enough, while 36% feel that it has gone too far and 4% having no opinion.

The new Arizona law obviously is a manifestation of the point of view of those who wish to see more restrictive immigration laws.  No sooner did Governor Brewer sign it into law than we started hearing from several political hopefuls across the land, seeking to gain mileage for their own campaigns by calling for their states to follow Arizona’s example.  Here in Iowa, two of the three candidates for the Republican gubernatorial nomination immediately jumped on that bandwagon.  The third – former governor, Terry Branstad – was not far behind, supporting the concept of sterner immigration laws but cautioning that since we are not a “border” state, we should not try to duplicate the Arizona law but rather tailor one to better meet our state’s particular needs.

It will come as no surprise to those who know me that regarding immigration reform, I fall on the liberal side of this issue.  However, what may come as a surprise to all is that as liberal as I am on this topic, I am not nearly as liberal as many of my fellow liberal allies would like me to be.  I find myself standing in an uncomfortable no man’s land; too liberal for the conservatives among us, and too conservative for the liberals.

So where do I stand?

First of all, I am distressed by the new Arizona law.  I, like all of its critics, fear that in spite of whatever assurances Governor Brewer may offer, still fundamentally, it is a racist law.  No matter how well trained the Arizona police may be, they still will not be able to avoid falling into the trap of racial profiling.  Indeed, the only way that they could avoid such profiling is by stopping and checking everyone’s citizenship credentials – and we all know that is never going to happen.  At the end of the day, the only individuals who they will stop and request documentation from will be Latinos.  That, in and of itself, is a litmus test to the law’s racial bias.  After all, here we see the underlying assumption that the only illegal aliens in our midst are Hispanic.  Could it not be possible that there might also be illegal aliens from Norway or Denmark or England or Italy, or dare I say, that threatening national entity on our northern border – Canada?  Of course there could be!  If there are people from those nations, and others like them, living in our country, it is only logical to assume that some of those people are living here illegally.  Yet to focus these stop-&-searches exclusively on Latinos is just as unjust and racially prejudice as when our nation, during World War II, chose to intern as enemy aliens only those of Japanese descent, and never even considered doing likewise to those of German or Italian descent.

“Absurd!” you may think.  But I turn your attention to a recent movie; “The Proposal.”  Of course this was a romantic comedy, but it did carry a sharp edged message, that message being that not all illegal immigrants need to come from south of the border.  Some can even come from Canada.  Yet when we identify the problems associated with illegal immigration as being solely Latino problems, whether we like to admit it or not, that is racism, pure and simple.

When I consider our current immigration laws, I cannot help but be troubled by how restrictive they are.  Somehow, we have forgotten that we are a nation of immigrants.  All those people who flocked to our shores in the 17th, 18th, 19th and the very beginning of the 20th centuries, who settled this land, founded this nation, and built it to be the world power it is today, were all immigrants or recent descendants of immigrants.  The Puritans at Plymouth Rock were immigrants.  The English in Jamestown and the Dutch in New Amsterdam were all immigrants.  Most Americans today do not have to search far on our family trees to find our immigrant ancestors.  My grandparents came to this country from Russia and the Austro-Hungarian empire at the beginning of the 20th century.  I expect that most of the readers of this blog can claim similar immigrant roots, going back to their great grandparents if not their grandparents.  Today, each and every one of us enjoy all the freedoms and pleasures of living in America because at one time, this country opened its doors to our immigrant ancestors.  In those days, it truly was the land of opportunity; what my Jewish ancestors referred to as Die Goldene Medina, “The Golden Land.”  They came here with nothing or next to nothing, started at the bottom of the social ladder and worked their way up.  It was hard going, but they did it.  They did it, primarily because they were permitted to do it.

But all that changed in the 1920’s.  Many forces coalesced to re-frame American immigration policies and attitudes.  Following World War I there was a renewed interest in isolationism; the desire to cut off America from involvement with the outside world.  As a result, in spite of the fact that President Woodrow Wilson was the primary architect of the League of Nations, our nation chose not to join it.  Then there was the Communist scare.  After the Russian Revolution, there was great fear in this country that the overthrow of America was next on the Communists’ agenda.  That fear was translated into a fear of immigrants being potential Communist agents.  There was even the growing popularity of the racist pseudo-science of eugenics.  In 1916, a man by the name of Madison Grant published a book entitled THE PASSING OF THE GREAT RACE which became  a very popular read in our nation.  This book went through many printings and by 1937 had sold over 1,600,000 copies in our country.  This book espoused the  eugenics racial hygiene theory, as it  proclaimed the superiority of the Northern European races, and warned of the racial threat posed by the admission to our country of people of inferior races.  Then, of course, there was the eternal concern about immigrant workers competing for jobs against “real Americans.”  As a result of these factors and others, in 1921, Congress passed the Immigrant Restriction Act, the goal of which was to maintain the racial balance of our country.  It intended to achieve this by limiting future immigration to a quota of a nation-by-nation maximum of 3% of the number of people from that nation who were living in this country in 1890.  This law was superseded by the more restrictive Immigration Act of 1924, which reduced the quota to 2% and also prohibited the immigration of East Asians.  In 1952, while the Immigration and Nationality Act did abolish the racial restrictions applying to immigration from East Asia, it did affirm the quota system in its 1924 form.  It should be noted that President Harry Truman vetoed the bill, speaking in his veto message of “the cruelty of carrying over into this year of 1952 the isolationist limitations of the 1924 bill.”  He further went on to say, “In no other realm of our national life are we so hampered and stultified by the dead hand of the past, as we are in this field of immigration.”  As a Jew, it does not go unnoticed that Truman’s objections to this bill were in good part based upon the understanding that its retention of the quota system was in fact an intentional continued refusal to open America’s doors to so many Eastern European Jews who survived the Holocaust.  Unfortunately, Truman’s veto was overridden by a vote of  278 to 113 in the House and 57 to 26 in the Senate.

I suspect that rarely has there been a time in our nation’s history when immigrant groups did not have to confront some sort of prejudice when coming to, or trying to come to our country.  There seems always to have been those Americans who have treated newcomers with fear and hatred.  It is  ironic that of all people, it was the Native Americans who served as a major exception to this rule. for they graciously welcomed the Pilgrim immigrants to their shores and aided them in their time of need.  Probably no groups in our society know of this hostility to newcomers to America better than the Jews and the Catholics.  It was home grown antisemitism which kept the immigration doors locked to all those European Jews who unsuccessfully sought an American refuge from Nazi persecution.  And as for the Catholics, starting in the 1850’s they suffered at the hands of the members of the Know Nothing Party, whose goal it was to put an end to immigration, particularly targeting Irish and Italian Roman Catholic immigration.  Such opposition to immigration and hatred of immigrants is nothing new in our country.  It is a challenge which we faced in the past, just as we must face it now.

Yet in spite of our nation’s disturbing history of resistance to newly arrived immigrant groups, I do not believe that such hostility is an accurate reflection of the American spirit.  Rather, I believe that while there have been those among us who have actively rejected and discriminated against the immigrants of their day, still the American ideal remained, and I pray still remains, that our land should be a safe haven and a land of opportunity for all newcomers.  As a Jew, I am profoundly proud of the fact that emblazoned on a plaque inside the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty are words of welcome, penned by a fellow Jew, the poetess Emma Lazarus.  I choose to believe that the words of her poem – “The New Colossus” – still remain America’s ultimate values statement on immigration to our shores:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles.  From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame,
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips.  “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.  Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.  I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”   It was in this spirit that my grandparents were welcomed to this land.  This was and should remain truly one of the most important of American values, fundamental to American life ever since the very first settlers crossed the Atlantic and set foot on our shores.  But somewhere along the way, there are those Americans  who seem to have forgotten this.  If the poll on the public response to the Arizona immigration law is correct, then somewhere along the way, not only has the flame on that famous lamp gone out, but the arm which proudly raised that lamp has been lowered and the lamp itself has been dropped.  Perhaps nothing has brought this sad fact into sharper relief for me than an experience I had while on the way to Postville, Iowa, to participate in a rally in support of the immigrant workers who were caught up in that now famous raid.  My wife, a friend, and I were just outside of Postville when we stopped at a gas station convenience store for a break.  Parked next to us were a carload of Chicagoans, one of whom was dressed up as the Statue of Liberty, complete with body makeup.  Seeing the “Statue” we assumed both that they were heading toward the rally and were coming as supporters.  However, as we approached them and engaged in conversation, while we learned that they indeed were heading to Postville, their purpose was to participate in a counter-rally.  It would seem that for them, the Statue of Liberty had somehow been transformed from its original symbol of welcome to immigrants to one which was intended to guard our shores against the invasion of immigrants.  When we Americans choose to forget our own immigrant roots and how we are the direct beneficiaries of our nation’s earlier open immigration policy, xenophobia – fear of strangers – becomes the order of the day.  While there are those today who try to crown it as a virtue, I cannot help but reflect upon the fact that in the Reform Jewish prayerbook for the High Holy Days, xenophobia is mentioned as one of the sins for which we are instructed to communally confess.

All of this particularly disturbs me as a Jew.  For Jewish tradition is very clear on this matter.  The Torah repeatedly charges us to treat the “stranger” in our midst as the “home-born”, with dignity, compassion, and justice.  It repeatedly reminds us to recall “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”  As we once suffered under the mistreatment of the Egyptians because we were strangers, we need to resolve to be better than that when we deal with the strangers in our midst.  There is no quota system in the Torah, nor is there a call for racial profiling to be found there.

Considering all these factors, I firmly believe that we need to pry open our nation’s  doors to immigration.  We need to return to a time when we were welcoming of newcomers and willing to share the American dream and hope with those so desperately in need of both.

Obviously, today is not the 19th century nor the very beginnings of the 20th.  Times have changed and situations have changed, and therefore, so must our approach to immigration.  We cannot simply re-open Ellis Island and hang out a generic welcome sign.  This, being the 21st century, we need to establish a 21st century response to our immigration challenges.

Of course, the first challenge we face today is the presence of so many illegal immigrants/undocumented workers residing within our borders.  The approach taken by the state of Arizona basically has been to round them all up and ship them all out.

I would take another approach.  I would like to see our nation offer each and every one of these illegal aliens an amnesty.  I say amnesty rather than citizenship because I believe that American citizenship is both a privilege and a responsibility, and therefore should neither be treated lightly or merely given away in the manner of a supermarket promotional.  While I believe that we must do a far better job in making the possibility of American citizenship available to as many people as possible who truly seek it, still that citizenship should be earned.  Ergo, I would offer amnesty, not citizenship.

I envision such amnesty as an opening of the path to citizenship.  While the amnesty would be open to all, yet if one accepts the amnesty, then they also must accept the responsibility to enter into the established process of naturalization.  Like all other immigrants, they must take the classes which teach about what it means to be an American, they must take and pass the tests, and of course, if they are successful in the process, they must take the oath of loyal citizenship to our nation.

Let me clarify what I mean when I say, “I believe that we must do a far better job in making the possibility of American citizenship available to as many people as possible who truly seek it.”  By making that possibility available, I am not just talking about offering classes.  I am also talking about offering whatever social supports are necessary to enable these individuals to be able to maintain their lives and their families while they are going through the naturalization process.  We need to do whatever is necessary to make this opportunity for these people a realistic opportunity and not just a symbolic one.

If there are those who refuse the amnesty, or who accept the amnesty but refuse to go through the naturalization process, then these individuals are truly illegal aliens, for they have been given the opportunity to become American citizens but have actively chosen to reject it.  It would appear to be their desire to reside in our nation, to take advantage of all the benefits offered by our nation, but not to become at one with our nation.  This is simply unacceptable.  If a person wants to enjoy the benefits of America, then that person has to accept the responsibilities that go hand-in-hand with being an American.  If they are unwilling to accept those responsibilities then they have no place in America.  While the opportunity to become an American should be open to as many as possible, still one must be an American, or an aspiring American, in order to enjoy the benefits of our country and reside within our midst.  For those who choose otherwise, then the door swings both ways.  Not only are they welcomed to leave but it is appropriate to usher them out.

Addressing the issue of the illegal aliens in our midst is only one of our challenges.  For there are plenty more potential illegal aliens where they came from; there are plenty of others who are and will be seeking entry into our country but who at this time still reside outside of our borders.   They are the potential illegal aliens of the future.  Well, the future begins now.  As we address the issue of dealing with the illegal aliens in our midst, we also have to address the issue of how to we prevent massive illegal immigration into our country in the future.

My response is not by building higher walls to keep them out but rather by establishing a better and more open and just system to responsibly welcome them in.  The first thing that must go is the quota system.  America should not be about trying to maintain some sort of ethnic balance from the past.  We should be about making America available to all those who desire and deserve to be Americans.

We need to develop a system which effectively screens potential immigrants.  It needs to be an accessible system so that it is very clear that legal immigration to America is indeed a very real possibility.  Yet at the same time it needs to be a system which does protect America.  It needs to be a system which screens out those who may pose a threat to our people, such as convicted felons (as defined by American law and not the perversion of law promulgated by some dictatorships) and those who carry contagious diseases.  It needs to be a system which screens out those who are unwilling to invest themselves in the process of obtaining American citizenship.   Such screening is not discrimination.  It is wisdom.  For while welcoming as many aspiring Americans as possible is the right thing to do to,  still it is the wise thing to try to assure that those whom we welcome will add to the strength and the character of our nation, and not detract from it.

Intimately tied to the issue of immigration has been the struggle over language.  For years now, “English Only” laws have been a center of much debate in our nation.  There are those who hold that such laws protect the very fabric of American culture, and there are those who hold that such laws are the essence of racism.  Personally, I have been torn by this debate.  I see both sides and stand uncomfortably in the middle.  English is our national language.  As such, I firmly believe that all those who aspire to American citizenship must learn to speak the language.  It is probably the most important key that opens the door to the fullness of American life.  To make believe that it is unnecessary for our aspiring immigrants to learn our language is pure folly.  Indeed, to minimize or deny our immigrants’ need of English skills is to condemn them to remaining on the lowest rungs of the American socioeconomic ladder.  Now that is discrimination!  I find it ironic that those who would work hardest to protect our immigrant population would at the same time promote an anti-English ideology which would in the end only hurt those they wish to protect.

That being said, I am not completely in favor of English Only laws.  I do suspect that those who promote them are doing so for less than idealistic reasons; that there is an underlying prejudice embedded within them.  While I do believe, for example, that an electoral ballot should only be published in English, for English skills should be a prerequisite for American citizenship, while voting is a privilege of citizenship, I do not believe that such things as exams for a drivers license should be only published in English.  These people are going to drive on our streets, and they are not necessarily going to wait until they pass their citizenship exam to do so.  Indeed, if they are living in a community like mine, they need to drive to survive, for in such communities one cannot depend upon public transportation.  Simply as a matter of public safety, I would prefer that they be permitted to take their driving exams in whatever language they speak so that they can become licensed drivers, and hopefully safe drivers.  The same would go for access to medical care.  Regardless of language, people get sick.  Everyone deserves to be able to communicate what ails them to medical professionals.  Therefore, when it comes to the question of English and immigration, while we need to be assertive about the importance of acquiring a working knowledge of our national language, we should not be absolute.  We need to seek out the appropriate middle ground; something the advocates on both sides of this issue have refused to do.

No presentation on immigration would be complete if it did not address the issue of employment.  For almost as long as immigrants have flocked to America, there have been those Americans who have opposed immigration on the grounds that the new immigrants would be taking away their jobs.  Yet when we look at the history of American immigration, and when we look at the immigrant situation in our nation today, we can clearly see that such a charge is patently false.  It is rare indeed when new immigrants enter our society and find themselves somewhere in the middle or top of the employment food chain.  Far more often than not, they are on the bottom of that chain, doing work that other Americans prefer not to do.  So it is today.  Our immigrant, and particularly our illegal immigrant population are deeply involved in what might be called menial labor.  They are janitors.  They are dishwashers.  They are maids.  They work in such difficult industries as meat packing.  Theirs are jobs that the overwhelming majority of Americans would never consider doing unless their situation was absolutely desperate.  Rather than “stealing” jobs in our society, they are filling a very real need.  This has been the way with all American immigrants.  The first generation does whatever needs to be done in order to keep their family fed.  They send their children to school and it is that next generation that starts to take their group up the socioeconomic ladder.

In successfully addressing the issue of immigration reform, when it comes to jobs, we also address another serious flaw in our current system.  That flaw is the abuse of illegal immigrants by unscrupulous employers.  There are those who enjoy the financial benefits of maintaining a significant population of illegal immigrants in our nation.  These illegal immigrants are nothing more than the victims of such employers.  These employers pay them substandard wages and provide them with little or no benefits.  Worse yet, they hold them captive, enslaving them with the threat of being turned over to the immigration authorities.  As the raid on the Agriprocessors kosher meat processing plant in Postville, Iowa revealed, this system subjects these illegal immigrants to all sorts of collateral abuses, including sexual abuse and the flagrant violation of child labor laws.  All this would be brought to a grinding halt if these people were not forced to live under the radar in our country.  If they could be granted official status and with that, official protection.  Indeed, such an elimination of an illegal immigration work force would force such employers to offer legitimate wages, benefits, and working conditions.  It would create a more open and competitive jobs market.  Yes, prices would go up, but is it not about time that the money we Americans save due to lower prices stop being blood money?

Emma Lazarus, the Statue of Liberty poetess, is one of my American Jewish heroes.  Part of me is happy that she is not around today to see what our country has done to its immigrants.  It would break her heart!  Yet another part of me wishes that she was among us still for she would not be one to stand idly by on this issue.  She would be a strong voice reminding us of our immigrant heritage and of our responsibility to offer to others today the blessing which our ancestors received when they arrived on these shores.