Where does American Jewry stand on the Obama administration’s admittance of 10,801 Syrian refugees to the United States in fiscal year 2016? A poll hasn’t been conducted, ostensibly because the mere conception of one would convey an improper presumption that Jews, by virtue of being Jews, should feel differently than other Americans about a predominantly Muslim wave of Middle Easterners arriving in the country. The Jewish community, though, has made it clear that opening America’s doors to Syrian refugees is one of its defining priorities. The recent attack at Ohio State University, however—perpetrated by a refugee who lived in Pakistan for seven years after leaving Somalia—is a sobering reminder of the unprecedented challenges informing a responsible 21st-century immigration policy.
On Nov. 17, 2015, four days after the coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris, 11 of America’s leading Jewish organizations tacked their names to a letter to Congress urging it to follow through on the then-plan to accept Syrian refugees. Among those that signed were HIAS, the ADL, the AJC, the National Council of Jewish Women, and the Union for Reform Judaism, the congregational arm of Reform Judaism, which is by far the largest Jewish denomination in America. Two days later, just as the House of Representatives voted 289-137 for a law that would augment restrictions on asylum-seekers, the Orthodox Union also entreated America to “get to yes” on admitting Syrian refugees. To celebrate the High Holidays this year, HIAS orchestrated a major campaign, centered in Conservative synagogues and Reform temples, advocating the admittance of additional Syrian refugees.
What’s more, Jewish Americans—as expected, given their liberal proclivities—broke heavily in the presidential contest for Hillary Clinton, who vowed to accept 65,000 Syrian refugees, a 550 percent increase from the current level. Following the election of Donald Trump, who promised on the campaign trail to strengthen immigration procedures, the Jewish-American community has virtually doubled down, as evidenced by, among other developments, a deluge of articles and op-eds in Jewish publications with titles like “Refugee crisis ‘not a tough sell’ for Jews,” “How to help refugees in a post-election U.S.,” and “Syrian refugees are just like us—it’s time we started welcoming them.”
Some Jewish Americans, on the other hand, have already suggested that backing Syrian resettlement in the U.S. is at variance with combating anti-Semitism, a sworn task of practically every Jewish organization in America. Morton A. Klein, national president of the Zionist Organization of America, for instance, has rebuked Jewish organizations for “supporting dangerous Syrian immigration” because “Syrian immigrants pose a grave danger to all Americans—and especially to American Jews and homosexuals.”
In response, nearly every Jewish organization that has supported Syrian resettlement has reflexively rolled out a Euclidean-like rejoinder, invoking Deuteronomy and the Hebrew prophets, which goes like this: “The Jewish tradition stresses compassion for ‘the stranger, the orphan, and the widow’ because they are the most vulnerable in society. And any society in which one is under threat, Jews too are necessarily under threat.”
OK, but what if the stranger, the orphan, or the widow hates you? Jewish liberals (and others on the left) have similarly programmatic retorts to that question, expressly with respect to the resettlement of Syrians. “How do you know that most Syrians (i.e., Muslims) are dangerous? How do you know that their outlook is so contrary to our own?” Well, we know that the overwhelming majority of Middle Easterners are anti-Semitic because the ADL tells us so. And what better authority to trust than “the world’s leading organization fighting anti-Semitism”?
The ADL, a tax-exempt nonprofit, expended a significant amount of its time and money to produce the (slick and interactive) “ADL Global 100: An Index of Anti-Semitism.” “The Global Anti-Semitism Index” is, according to the ADL:
the most extensive such poll ever conducted, involving 102 countries and territories. It provides important insights into national and regional attitudes toward Jews, the levels of acceptance of anti-Semitic stereotypes and knowledge of the Holocaust.
The index is wide-ranging, and was conducted in 96 languages and dialects in countries with significant Jewish populations, in countries which once had Jewish populations, and in countries which never had significant Jewish populations. The findings allow us to not only better understand the magnitude of anti-Semitism around the world, but to assess where it is most problematic, how pervasive it is in certain regions, and exactly which anti-Jewish beliefs are the most seriously entrenched.
The index’s scores were determined by asking adults whether particular stereotypes are “probably true” or “probably false.” Respondents who said that at least six out of the following 11 are “probably true” were “considered to harbor anti-Semitic attitudes”:
Jews are more loyal to Israel than to [this country/the countries they live in]
Jews have too much power in international financial markets
Jews have too much control over global affairs
Jews think they are better than other people
Jews have too much control over the global media
Jews are responsible for most of the world’s wars
Jews have too much power in the business world
Jews don’t care what happens to anyone but their own kind
People hate Jews because of the way Jews behave
Jews have too much control over the United States government
Jews still talk too much about what happened to them in the Holocaust
Alas, no findings were provided for Syria. One might presume this is due to the civil war that has raged in that country since 2011. Then again, Iraq, which has been beset by conflict since 2003, was included in the index. Still, the picture isn’t opaque because other groups have been able to carry out attitudinal assessments of the Syrian population. Last year, ORB International, a U.K.-based geospatial research firm, conducted a survey of 1,365 Syrians from all 14 of Syria’s governorates. Alarmingly, 21 percent of the respondents claimed that the Islamic State was either a “somewhat positive influence” or a “completely positive influence” while 50 percent either agreed or somewhat agreed that the Islamic State was “created by foreign countries to find a balance with Iran.”
As for the prevalence of anti-Semitism in Syria, it’s reasonable to assume we can get a fairly accurate picture based upon the ADL’s comprehensive findings from bordering countries.
• 92 percent of Iraqis, or 15 million individuals out of an adult population of 16.2 million, harbor anti-Semitic attitudes
• 81 percent of Jordanians, or 3.1 million individuals out of an adult population of 3.8 million, harbor anti-Semitic attitudes
• 78 percent of Lebanese, or 2.4 million individuals out of an adult population 3.0 million, harbor anti-Semitic attitudes
• 71 percent of Turks, or 35 million individuals out of an adult population of 49.1 million, harbor anti-Semitic attitudes
Given this information, it’s not farfetched to speculate that perhaps 80 percent of Syrians harbor anti-Semitic attitudes. Yet the ADL has been a steadfast proponent of Syrian resettlement in the U.S. and Europe. In 2013, the ADL joined with a number of other Jewish organizations to form the Jewish Coalition for Syrian Refugees, which not only supplies “refugees and relief workers with medical and other life-sustaining supplies,” but also provides “legal assistance with regard to resettlement applications.” In 2015, Jonathan A. Greenblatt, newly-appointed national director of the ADL, even knocked the timidity of his previous boss, President Barack Obama. Formerly special assistant and director of the office of social innovation and civic participation in the White House, Greenblatt slated the Obama administration’s plan to resettle 10,000 Syrians the following year as “inadequate” and called upon the U.S. to “pledge” to take in 100,000.
A diploma in advanced mathematics isn’t necessary to deduce that the percentages in the ADL’s own index are troubling when it comes to admitting 1,000 Syrian refugees, let alone 100,000—or 250,000 accepted by Germany last year. Is the ADL then prepared to make the candid argument that the federal government and, hence, the American taxpayer should be burdened with the vetting of, at a bare minimum, 500,000 individuals to reach its 100,000-person target?
And, let’s be frank. If a figure of even semi-significant import in America—a professor, a politician, or a businessperson—publicly suggested that merely one of the index’s 11 stereotypes was “probably true,” let alone six, the ADL would instantly launch a multifaceted campaign to stigmatize and have that person removed from his or her professional perch. The ADL’s tolerance for intolerance is so low that it added “Pepe the Frog,” an internet cartoon meme, to its online “Hate on Display” database, placing it alongside the swastika and the Ku Klux Klan’s “blood drop cross.”
I recently decided to “go local” just to get a sense of how well-thought-out American Jewry’s plans are for Syrian resettlement. My family resides in Oakland County, Michigan—home to about 58,000 Jews—so I contacted the JCRC/AJC, a local joint venture established in July between the Jewish Community Relations Council of Metropolitan Detroit, an influential local institution, and the AJC. For on Facebook, I had stumbled across a press release issued by Dr. Richard Krugel, president of the JCRC/AJC, urging Oakland County “to remain a welcoming home to refugees.” I reached the media contact for the JCRC/AJC and asked: 1) which type of vetting for refugees it deemed sufficient; 2) how many refugees it wished to see admitted; and; 3) where specifically it hoped to situate refugees within Oakland County. I was told merely that the press release was “positional” and that the JCRC/AJC fully stands behind the efforts of HIAS, the only Jewish organization designated by the federal government to resettle Syrians who have been admitted to the U.S. as refugees.
Since helping immigrants is HIAS’s job, it’s tough to criticize it for being actively engaged in efforts to resettle refugees. But what about refugees from persecution in Tibet, North Korea, or any other place that is not infamous for sky-high levels of anti-Semitism? Moreover, there are hundreds of thousands of Jews in countries such as France, Ukraine, Venezuela, and Ethiopia who are facing rising levels of anti-Jewish bigotry and civil violence. Apparently, it is morally suspect or compromising for Jewish-American organizations to actually help Jews. But why?
Given the disturbing information about Middle Eastern attitudes presented by the ADL—and corroborated by various other institutions—it might behoove American Jewry to consider the possibility that Syrian resettlement is incompatible with its interests and its values, which are very much American interests and values. Israel enjoys tremendous support in the U.S. It’s a pipe dream, nonetheless, for Jews to trust that most Syrian refugees will share America’s interest—and the Jewish community’s interest—in the future security of the Jewish state. It’s also a fantasy for Jews to imagine they’ll retain the same degree of influence within the Democratic Party once they are outnumbered by Muslim Americans with recent roots in the Middle East. It’s equally delusional to rationalize assisting immigrants who possess extreme biases against particular groups (e.g., gays, Jews, and women) as being in concert with a veneration of diversity.
But many in favor of Syrian resettlement are extraordinarily optimistic about the ability of Syrian refugees to assimilate. “[T]he Jewish immigrants that ultimately came to these shores fully adopted American values and have contributed greatly to the fabric of our great nation of immigrants,” read the Orthodox Union’s (OU) statement. Those in favor also readily draw upon “the lesson of the Holocaust.” “We are keenly aware of a time in American history,” wrote Dr. Richard Krugel, “when Jewish refugees were turned away from America’s shores, not able to land after glimpsing America’s symbolic welcoming figure, the Statue of Liberty. We must not return to those ugly times.” Yet European Jews were the objects of genocide rather than the collateral victims of civil war. While Syrian Christians have a legitimate claim to being targets of ethnic cleansing by radical Islamist groups like ISIS, they make up the one group of Syrian refugees that is pointedly not being resettled in America, with estimates in the low double-digits.
It would also be remiss not to mention that many Jews who insist that their community lead the charge to resettle Syrian refugees in the U.S. have also been exponents of the Obama administration’s foreign policy. The Iran nuclear deal and the unwillingness to enforce the “red line” afforded Bashar al-Assad and Ali Khamenei a free hand to bomb Syrian cities and towns to smithereens, turning millions of Syrian citizens into refugees. It’s possible that liberals are raring to atone for their sins, to accept a measure of moral responsibility for the carnage by bringing refugees to America. Regrettably, the sentiment behind their advocacy appears to be much simpler and far less savory: Championing the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the U.S. is a way of showing how eager the “good” Jews are to take another one for the progressive team.
What would a sensible “Jewish” immigration policy look like—meaning a policy that took both the welfare and the values of the Jewish-American community into account? It’s difficult to say, because there are today innumerable ways of defining Judaism. But the policy of “letting in more refugees” is hardly the necessary outcome of serious moral or ethical reasoning. His Holiness the Dalai Lama, that noted racist [sarcasm], avowed that Europe has let in “too many” refugees and that, “from a moral standpoint,” refugees should “only be accommodated temporarily” with the goal of them returning to their home countries to rebuild. While mainstream Jewish organizations broadly couched their support for Syrian resettlement in terms of tikkun olam, as might be expected, the OU refrained from citing theological sources to validate its stance. Arguably, though, a “stranger” who persecutes others forfeits the right to kindness because they are violating the spirit of the Noahide Laws, the seven imperatives that, as explained in Talmud, were given by God to all humanity.
Regardless, any sensible immigration policy would seek to benefit the home country by accepting people with desirable skills from a cultural background conducive to productive acculturation. It would also concede upfront—which the OU did, to its credit—that “security concerns must be paramount.” Such an admission, nevertheless, should also entail the recognition that a quota detached from on-the-ground realities—as quotas usually are—is reckless. Those who genuinely need help must genuinely be offered a chance to be helped. But setting a random target in advance for resettling a specific group of people in the U.S. within a specific span of time will invariably lead to an authority—in this case, the federal government—modifying the definition of who needs help in order to hit the target. That’s just the way quotas work.
The truth is that Syrian refugees can and ought to be aided abroad, in their own region, or in any of the 50 Muslim-majority countries, through a plethora of nongovernmental organizations. These organizations are able to and should also be supported by the U.S. government as well as by private organizations, including Jewish organizations. Yet resettling tens of thousands of poorly-vetted Syrian refugees in America by political fiat, in order to demonstrate moral virtue, isn’t a requisite or constructive policy choice; it’s the product of personal and political vanity.
Most Americans who have endorsed Syrian resettlement have muddled intentions. But one thing is clear: Those concerned about preserving and strengthening the values of liberal democracy need to take to heart the reality that all refugees are not created equal. The emotionally-driven yearning to demonstrate one’s own selflessness and righteousness is no excuse for jeopardizing the principles our civilization most cherishes, or endangering the lives of one’s fellow citizens. For dogmatic tolerance of dogmatic intolerance is not virtuous; it’s foolish.
You can help support Tablet’s unique brand of Jewish journalism. Click here to donate today.
Jonathan Bronitsky is a Washington, D.C.-based political historian. His Twitter feed is @jbronitsky.