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Zionism for Refugees

With Central American children at our borders, the United States, and the West, cannot just criticize Israel

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The blogger Andrew Sullivan, an English immigrant who is now an American citizen, was once a pretty down-the-middle Zionist, but he has become increasingly disillusioned with Israel. For several years now, he has been particularly frustrated by what he calls the “Greater Israel Lobby,” a term he chose in place of the more familiar, and anti-Semitic, “Jewish lobby.” A number of my friends and colleagues have decided that Sullivan is a vile bigot, a crypto-anti-Semite if not the real thing outright. I find such charges absurd; as somebody who has read his work almost daily for 15 years or so, I’ve been impressed by his searching honesty and his rigor about his own follies. So, it’s with a sense of hopefulness that I write to point out a recent folly of his, one that is I think characteristic of many who have taken up the quill against Israel, and one whose intellectual implications ping from Israel to Texas, from Honduras to France.

On July 28, Sullivan wrote a post about anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism and how to distinguish one from the other, especially when both are on the rise. Near the end of the post, he quoted a short piece by Jordan Chandler Hirsch that had just run in Tablet. (As it happens, I am guest-editing Tablet for four months, while our editor-in-chief is on maternity leave, but I had not read Hirsch’s words until I saw Sullivan link to them; our blog posts, while edited by staff, don’t need my approval.) Hirsch had argued that “[t]he case for Israel is now unfolding in the heart of Berlin,” where “an angry mob” had recently gathered to shout, “Jude, Jude feiges Schwein! Komm heraus und kampf allein!”—“Jew, Jew, cowardly swine, come out and fight on your own!” In other words, Hirsch argued, it was a bit rich to question the legitimacy of a Jewish state at a time when the necessity for its existence, the murderous intentions of people toward Jews, was being proven and re-proven in the heart of Europe.

Sullivan has never been cavalier about anti-Semitism, so I was surprised by what he wrote after Hirsch’s block quotation ended. Responding to the mob’s demand that Jews “come out and fight on [their] own,” Sullivan wrote, cheekily, “Or they can come, of course, come to America, where Jews are celebrated, integrated and free from rockets.” Well, zing! Almost like a short-range missile, but even more precise. The answer to anti-Semitic mass cheers in Berlin is not Israel, but the United States, a Jewish haven in a heartless world.

Let’s assume for the moment that Sullivan is comfortable with the historical irony at the heart of his claim: that the last time Jews needed to get out of Berlin, the United States was quite close-fisted with entry visas. I’ll concede that the United States is a different place today (as is Germany), and that we have probably learned some lessons from history. But there’s a bigger problem with Sullivan’s blithe come-hither invitation to America, a problem that he, as a gay, HIV-positive foreigner who has written eloquently about the inequities of our immigration policy, should have been on the lookout for.

The problem is, simply, that he is wrong about immigration policy. Jews who are afraid of anti-Semitism—say, because of the recent anti-Semitic chants in Germany, or the broken shop-windows in France—cannot simply immigrate to the United States because of it. The United States is a very difficult country to enter legally, and a generalized fear of persecution doesn’t pass muster as a valid reason with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or “ICE,” as our immigration authority is now aptly called. If you’re a grocer or pharmacist in a Paris suburb like Sarcelles, and your shop is vandalized in the course of what is clearly a wave of anti-Semitic violence—I’m citing events of this summer—you cannot just come to America. In fact, “no one, regardless of circumstances, can ‘just come,’ ” in the words of my friend Stephen Wizner, the former head of the immigration clinic at Yale Law School and a visiting professor of law at Tel Aviv University.

“In order to obtain asylum in the U.S.,” Wizner explained to me in an email, “a person needs to be a refugee. A refugee is a person defined as one who has suffered past persecution and/or has a well-founded fear of future persecution by officials of his home country, or by non-state actors whom the home country’s government is unable or unwilling to control, on account of political opinion, religion, race, nationality, or membership in a particular social group, and is afraid to return to his home country for that reason. Persecution means stuff like torture, harsh interrogation, being individually targeted for physical abuse, arrest, death threats, etc. Jews in France would not likely qualify for asylum in the U.S.”

The “well-founded fear of persecution” is language that many countries use, and it comes from the 1951 Geneva Conventions, but it generally refers to persecution by the government. So long as his government has not turned on him, a Frenchman’s vague, creeping sense that stuff is getting really bad for Jews in Paris, and the government can’t protect me, will not get him asylum in the United States. Nor, for that matter, will it get him into Canada. I asked the Australian human rights lawyer Julian Burnside, “If I were a Jew or a Muslim who felt threatened in my home country, how easy would it be to move to Australia?” Not very, he replied. “At present we are behaving very badly to refugees.”

Now, it’s likely that many French or German Jews would find other ways into the United States, if things got really bad at home. “If one has a special skill,” Wizner said, “that is in short supply in the U.S. employment market, and for which there is deemed to be a need in the U.S. economy, he or she can apply for an employment-based visa, which can eventually ripen into a green card and eventually citizenship.” Such a candidate needs an actual offer of employment, with a letter from the employer, but it’s likely that many, many such offers of employment would appear in the United States if European Jews were in clear danger. Jewish employers, and their more numerous evangelical Christian, Zionist friends, would make sure of it.

But the old regime that allowed Wizner’s father into the United States—which he summed up as “medical exam, lice inspection, name change, condescension, welcome to America”—has not existed since 1924, when in the grip of a xenophobic Red Scare the United States, theretofore a nation of immigrants, shut its doors nearly all the way. Since that time, we have occasionally made categorical exceptions for groups of battered, terrified refugees, but the exceptions have nearly always been driven by geopolitical concerns, rather than by the severity of persecution. The Cuban refugees after Castro, the Indochinese as the Vietnam War ran aground—they needed to get out, but were they any more desperate than Iraqi resistance allies whom we recently abandoned to their fate after our failed war? Were they more desperate than thousands of Syrians today? Was their need greater than that of Gazans in the recent crisis? When 750,000 Palestinians have spent time in Israeli prisons since 1967—“a number that amounts to 40 percent of the adult male population today,” according to Columbia professor Rashid Khalidi—surely some of them are political actors who have a “well-founded fear of persecution” in the future. But they aren’t about to gain access to our purple mountains’ majesties.

I’m not trying to put all the wretched of the earth into competition with one another; I don’t know how to judge a misery derby. Rather, I want to point out that the cavalier attitude, so useful to anti-Zionists, that the Jews can just “come to America,” where they “are celebrated, integrated, and free from rockets,” is outdated mythology. The United States was once that country, but it hasn’t been for nearly a hundred years. If you need to be persuaded, and you can’t find a Holocaust survivor to tell you how she had to hide in the French hills or in the Polish woods because the United States didn’t want her, then just buy a one-way ticket to Texas and talk to any one of the thousands of children, fearing violence in their home countries of Honduras or Guatemala, who need to get into the United States right now. In 1920, they all could have come in; today, we’re imprisoning and interrogating them and then sending most of them home.


Since Oct. 1 more than 45,000 unaccompanied minors have arrived in the United States from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. According to the New York Times, “Many of the children, particularly in Honduras, are believed to be fleeing dangerous street gangs, which forcibly recruit members and extort home and business owners.” So far the United States has arrived at no reasonable response to the crisis. One of the most compassionate dead-on-arrival bills, proposed by Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake, would increase the number of refugee visas by 5,000 for each country—enough to solve about a third of the problem, sending only 30,000 children back home to be drafted into street gangs or murdered. The Obama Administration has another plan, which would make it easier for children who do not qualify for refugee status to get “humanitarian parole.”

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Zionism for Refugees

With Central American children at our borders, the United States, and the West, cannot just criticize Israel