For Jewish groups, Syrian refugees are a reminder—not a threat

by | Dec 4, 2015 | Other News

WASHINGTON (JTA)—American Jewish organizations don’t see the Syrian refugees as a threat; they see them as a reminder.

With rare unanimity on an issue that has stirred partisan passion, a cross-section of the community has defended the Obama administration’s refugee policy in terms recalling the plight of Jews fleeing Nazi Europe who were refused entry into the United States.

“The Jewish community has an important perspective on this debate,” the Orthodox Union said in its statement. “Just a few decades ago, 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.”

Echoed the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly: “We can sadly remember all too well the Jews who were turned away when they sought refuge in the United States on the eve of, and during, World War II .”

Eleven Jewish organizations joined another 70 groups in pleading with Congress to keep open the Obama administration’s program, which would allow in 10,000 refugees over the next year from among the 200,000 to 300,000 in Europe. Neither the Orthodox Union nor the Rabbinical Assembly signed the letter.

Among the signatories were mainstream bodies like the the Reform movement, the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee and the National Council of Jewish Women, as well as HIAS, the lead Jewish body dealing with immigration issues, and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the umbrella body for Jewish public policy groups.

However, the parallels to the Nazi era raised hackles among some conservatives.

“The refugees from Syria are not fleeing a genocide, it’s a civil war,” says Matt Brooks, who directs the Republican Jewish Coalition.

Officials from the organizations that support allowing in the refugees say they were not likening the magnitudes of the two catastrophes, but could not help noting the reluctance in the 1930s, as now, to accept refugees and the accusations that the refugees posed a danger.

“It’s obviously a sensitive comparison, but it’s the right point to make,” says Nathan Diament, executive director of the Orthodox Union Advocacy Center.

The consensus among the three major streams of U.S. Jewry—Reform, Conservative and Orthodox—is derived from a shared understanding of Jewish scripture, says Rabbi Jonah Pesner, who directs the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center.

“Our role is to be the pure rabbinic voice that lifts people up beyond their narrow partisan views,” he says of rabbis.

Rabbi Steve Gutow, a Reconstructionist who is the outgoing president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, says sympathy for the refugee was written into the Jewish cultural genetic code.

“We’ve been facing the need to have refuge since we left Egypt,” he says. “To think about not speaking out flies in the face of who we are.”

There is not 100 percent agreement: The president of the Zionist Organization of America, Morton Klein, for one, spoke against allowing in the refugees at his group’s annual dinner in New York this week.

Still, the overwhelming consensus lines up the Jewish organizational world against the Republican Party.

A GOP-backed bill that would pause the refugee program passed overwhelmingly in the U.S. House of Representatives last month and virtually every Republican governor has said they do not want to allow in the refugees. At the same time, almost all of the Republican presidential candidates want it paused, if not reversed.

There appears to be popular opposition to the resettlement as well. An ABC/ Washington Post poll showed 54 percent of Americans oppose accepting refugees, while 43 percent support it. The margin of error was 3.5 percentage points.

by Ron Kampeas