It is critically important to state at the outset that this is neither to wax nostalgic (a culturally inconceivable stance) nor — Heaven forbid — to find redeeming features in the evil, xenophobic, anti-Semitic, and Red Menace-based Great Pause in the 1920s that trapped hundreds of thousands of Jews in Europe. My then-teenage father and his brothers, escaping the widespread bloody pogroms taking place throughout the Russian Empire during the civil war that followed the Revolution, were very nearly stranded by it and left to the tender mercies of General “Pogromchik” Petlyura’s Russian and Ukrainian Nationalist army. They managed to ship out of Danzig, walking to that Baltic port all the way from a small village outside Kiev, and get in just under the wire before the door slammed shut. Anyone familiar with the national/ethnic quotas that formed the basis for U.S. immigration policy in the years that followed will note not only their vilely discriminatory attitude toward Eastern and Southern Europeans (Jews most prominently), but also that even the tiny quotas allotted these undesirables were rarely met. So extreme was the anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic restrictionist attitude.
America’s vast moral failure to offer refuge to Jews fleeing Nazi persecution, a story told so powerfully by David S. Wyman in his two books and that of many subsequent historians, can never be forgotten. The story is told in the permanent exhibition of the United States Holocaust Museum, but with less prominence than it deserves, no doubt out of concern for appearing overly critical of the nation on whose national mall the museum stands. While the U.S. administration was fully informed how and where millions were being murdered in Europe, only a handful were grudgingly granted safety here. The story of the ship the St. Louis is perhaps the most poignant and widely known instance of this monstrous policy, but scores of Jews seeking refuge could tell equally appalling tales of grotesque treatment. Along with the trade in African slaves and the institution of slavery and the treatment of Native Americans, America’s abandonment of the Jews to Nazi annihilation is arguably the greatest moral failure in its history. This shameful, frightening history has formed, as it were, the sacred moral basis for mainstream Jewish support for generous legal immigration.
But Jewish memories of the failure of U.S. refugee policy and a national-origins immigration policy abandoned some 36 years ago should no longer, can no longer, serve as the basis for communal thinking on this issue. We are, in the first instance, not speaking here of refugees from tyranny or oppressed minorities, but of vast numbers of immigrants seeking economic betterment, and, secondly, we are not advocating an anti-immigration position — far from it — but rather a sensible one that is consonant with the American dream. Put simply, what we are advocating is a pro-immigrant policy of lower immigration.
Also, let’s confess it: It would be ridiculous to mistake the organized Jewish community’s hesitancy to address the subject of the great cultural transformation of America for genuine equanimity. We are, after all, standing on the edge of what is arguably the most profound social transformation in the nation’s history. It is a demographic transformation that, most experts believe, will result in a majority non-white population sometime before the end of the new century. A new American nation is coming into being before our very eyes, and many in the Jewish world are worried about it; some are even terrified.
For the most part we continue to mouth the traditional policy line affirming generous — really, unlimited — immigration and open borders, though our own constituency is deeply divided on the policy, supports it with diminished enthusiasm, and even our legislative advocates seem to do so without conviction. Doubt has been growing for some years now. For those familiar with the behavior of mainstream Jewish organizations within the landscape of Washington-based coalitions, or for anyone with any mother wit, it is a commonplace that Jews find themselves on the political right with regard to almost any issue one might name on cold days in hell. But this has been regularly the case for at least nearly a decade at meetings of the National Immigration Forum, the key lobbying group for large-scale immigration, a group in which the Jewish organizations present are often alone in opposing what is, in essence, a policy of open borders.
Yet, for the time being, as if on automatic pilot, Jewish organizations repeat the familiar mantras and continue with their uncritical “celebration” of diversity. (Diversity meaning, of course, diversity of race and ethnicity but not opinion.) Like sleepwalkers, we instinctively plod along the corridors in the familiar patterns and pursue old-fashioned attempts at “dialogue” with the new constellation of groups while we attempt to get our arms around the New America. (Dialogue frequently being a one-way street where we strive to please our partners at any price, often reinforce stereotypes of Jewish money-grubbing and privilege by promising entrepreneurs of color entrée to business insiders and frequently ask for little in the way of concrete support for our own agenda in return.) Sometimes it also seems as if we’re trying to look like value-free sociologists and not give the slightest outward signs of the intense vertigo we’re experiencing or the least hint that we may be prepared to reconsider policy. Though we undoubtedly appear green around the gills to those who know us well. For a community that has long advanced an ambitious and unapologetic public agenda, and not infrequently in a rambunctious, in-your-face style, this hesitancy is striking and does not go unnoticed. If unchanged, in the long run it may also prove dangerous.
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"This generation's Hillel." (Nathan Cofnas)