Since the November 13 terrorist attacks in Paris by the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS, Republican presidential candidates, led by Donald Trump, have mainstreamed everything from proposals for registering Muslims nationwide to setting up Christians-only religious tests for Syrian refugees. But on November 19, even the Orthodox Union — a group that has often opposed the Obama administration — clearly articulated the theme driving many Jewish groups to oppose such measures.
“Just a few decades ago,” the group noted in a statement, “refugees from the terror and violence in Hitler’s Europe sought refuge in the United States and were turned away due to suspicions about their nationality.” Anti-Semitism was common at the time, and tied frequently to fears about letting socialists, communists and anarchists into the country. But “in fact,” the OU noted, “the Jewish immigrants that ultimately came to these shores fully adopted American values and have contributed greatly” to the country. Responding to the November 19 passage of a bill in the House of Representatives that would effectively halt the resettlement of refugees from Syria and Iraq, the OU urged Congress to work with the president to iron out any problems in the U.S. vetting system with the aim of “getting to yes” on a bipartisan admissions program.
“We’re not saying ‘open the doors wide and come one, come all,’” said Jason Isaacson, associate executive director of the American Jewish Committee, which also joined in the communal consensus. “But to say that people fleeing persecution cannot escape to the United States after they are properly checked, that is cruel.”
The measure must now also be approved by the Senate, and President Obama has threatened to veto it if it reaches his desk. But in the House vote, Jewish members showed the same sense of solidarity as Jewish communal groups — and often cited the same reasons.
Still, there, too, exceptions existed.
“My No. 1 priority is to keep New Yorkers safe,” said Rep. Steve Israel, a Jewish Democrat in New York, explaining his vote in favor of the House bill. “To do that, we must defeat ISIS to protect our national security and prevent the hateful terrorist attacks.”
Israel, a member of the House’s Democratic leadership who represents a district in Long Island, and Representative Jared Polis of Colorado were the only two Jewish Democrats to support the legislation out of 18 total. Together they constituted 11% of the House’s Democratic Jewish members. That compared with some 25% of Democrats overall who voted for the measure. Many cited fears stoked by the Paris attacks and the discourse from GOP presidential candidates, which sparked a spike in constituent pressure to block the refugees. Representative Lee Zedlin of upstate New York, the body’s sole Jewish Republican, also backed the bill, which passed overwhelmingly, 289 to 137.
But for the majority of Jewish lawmakers, there was no dilemma. If anything, there was anger at those who tried to tie the Paris attacks to President Obama’s plan to settle 30,000 Syrian refugees in America over the next two years. This would be above and beyond their much smaller presence in the planned total of 70,000 refugees worldwide to be admitted to the United States during this period.
“I am appalled by the actions of this House and by some of the words of my colleagues today,” New York Democrat Jerrold Nadler said on the House floor. Asked later by the Forward how he views the vote of fellow Jewish Democrats Israel and Polis, Nadler said: “I was frankly surprised when I saw those votes.”
…Jewish activists did not dispute the notion that Syrian refugees coming to America are likely to be biased against Israel and possibly against Jews, mainly because of their upbringing under the Assad dictatorship, which promoted such ideas.
Isaacson argued that proper integration of refugees in their new homelands could help uproot any hostile sentiments they might carry with them from the country they are fleeing.
“Before we turn our back on a humanitarian crisis, let’s be serious about the need to integrate migrants in the society,” he said.
As the anti-refugee bill moves to the Senate its opponents hope that “cooler heads will prevail” and that the legislation will be prevented from moving forward. Jewish groups, including AJC, the Anti-Defamation League and HIAS, the largest Jewish immigration and resettlement agency, as well as the Reform Movement, have been speaking to members of Congress and to governors and state legislators in an effort to counter the current wave. Most continue to believe that the bill will never become law and that its House passage was no more than a political statement.
If the current wave indeed subsides, the Jewish community will, in fact, return to its previous immigration priority: significantly increasing the quota for resettlement of Syrian refugees beyond Obama’s plan.
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