Shabbat Meditation: Immigration And Three Twitchy Jewish Nerves
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The Jewish Studies Program at my university recently sent an email that broke with usual practice. Rather than announce an upcoming lecture or religious observance, this email condemned President Trump’s Executive Order limiting immigration from countries with suspected terrorist activity. The Jewish Studies Program found the Order “inhumane and imprudent” and, yes, as night follows day, compared the Order to the Holocaust.

One wonders why the travel ban was so horrible to rouse the members of the Jewish Studies Program to such a fierce moral pitch. After all, despite a few partisan district court judges, most legal authorities (I am a law professor) consider both of Trump’s immigration Orders lawful. The second will likely be upheld. As to the Orders’ prudence, it is reasonable to believe that many terrorists seek to come to the U.S. posing as refugees, and many come from countries with no effective screening. Given Presidential discretion over immigration matters, reasonable minds can differ over President Trump’s Order without resort to argumentum ad Nazium.

Beyond the orders, the Program’s email raises a broader question of why limiting additional Muslim immigration from backward, war-torn countries warrants the Jewish Studies Program to indulge in Nazi comparisons. With globalization and automation, our economy has little need for more labor, and additional immigration imposes costs. Muslim immigrants and their children seem prone not only to terrorism but to cultural separatism. If those Michigan State faculty members drove an hour to Dearborn, they would see many Muslims eschewing American values and creating Sharia-compliant colonies, as have their co-religionists in Europe.

Further, if humanitarianism guides you, why help the handful of refugees who through luck, connections, or bribery wangle entrance visas—rather than work for improving conditions in the refugee camps in Turkey and elsewhere nearer their homes?

And, then there is our grandmothers’ question: But is it good for the Jews? Muslim immigration has made life for Western Europe’s Jews horrible. French Jewish synagogues and cultural institutions must receive constant police protection. In places like Malmö, Sweden, Jews have largely left, fearing Muslim violence.

In working towards a more clear-eyed view of Muslim immigration, Trump, at least arguably, is doing good for his country and its Jewish citizens. Michigan State Jewish Studies Program’s Nazi comparisons seems unwarranted—perhaps even a bit unhinged. What about immigration so deranges its august members?

Immigration debates touch three twitchy Jewish nerves.

  • Sentiment
Immigrants are all like Fiddler on the Roof’s Tevye.

This powerful myth blinds us to the reality that times have changed. Immigration no longer provides needed labor from individuals eager to adopt a new identity. The job prospects for unskilled immigrants are as dismal as that for unskilled Americans. Cellphones and the internet allow immigrants to be physically present in this country but keep emotional and personal connections with home, thereby diminishing incentives to integrate.

But there is deeper nerve:

  • Egalitarian dogma
Differences among religious, ethnic, or racial groups must originate in culture. Because immigration puts all groups in the same culture, it will eliminate harmful differences.

Thus debates about the merits or demerits of immigrants and immigration make little difference to the faculty of MSU’s Jewish Studies Program because liberal Jews, like all liberals, hold as a credo that immigrants and citizens are interchangeable.

The faux-diversity cult on American campuses salves any worry that this deduction may be false. Even if immigration does create cultural differences, we can only ritually celebrate them. To disagree is to be a hater and a heretic.

Needless, this is a bit hypocritical. Many liberal Jews are, of course, ardent Zionists. They would not want Israel to welcome the Syrian refugees President Trump seeks to exclude. Here, they would perhaps see how cultural and ethnic difference could destroy a nation.

And, this leads us to the third and final nerve:

  • Fear of exclusion
If American Jews qua Jews might agree that an onslaught of Syrian refugees would destroy the fabric of Israeli society, why do they not take the next logical step: an onslaught of Syrian refugees might harm American society? Because this step forces a realization that America is not infinitely culturally elastic. At some point, introducing individuals so distant from and resistant to Western values will destroy us.

And this places Jews in an uncomfortable position. If there are ethnic and racial parameters for a successful American society, on which side of the line do Jews fall?

While many immigration restrictionists, like Mark Krikorian, base their arguments mostly on economic policy, some restrictionists, notably on the so-called Alt Right, have a distinctly race-conscious position. Some of the most prominent, like John Derbyshire, formerly of the National Review, are certainly not anti-Semitic. But where other Alt Righters stand is less clear to me.

To sit down with nationalists who might want to slit our Jewish throats does not seem appealing. The tragedy of Wilhelmine Germany’s nationalist Jews, who identified fully and completely with the Fatherland, contributed mightily to its extraordinary cultural flowering, sent their sons to be slaughtered in the trenches of World War I—only to be annihilated by the Nazis—makes one hesitant. Fritz Haber, Edmund Husserl, Hermann Kantorowicz…the list is long.

But I believe that American Jews must do what’s best for America. And that includes a sensible immigration policy.

It’s also good for American Jews. If we embrace increased immigration from the Muslim world, we face the doom of Western European Jews. If we embrace American nationalism, we face the far less likely possibility of an anti-Semitic hypernationalist outbreak. More likely, we face a greater number of petty slights of a more acceptable anti-Semitism as “white Christian” America becomes more self-consciously so.

That might mean exclusion from WASPy country clubs. While their typically indifferent food probably is not to be mourned, their martinis might be missed.

But, in the end, such trivial slights are nothing compared to enduring, as do the French Jews, the need for constant police surveillance of synagogues, Hebrew schools, and cultural centers.

American Jews may not face an ideal choice. But it is a clear one.

Judd Benjamin (email him) is an American law professor.

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