The dilemma of the Syrian migrants is a particularly difficult one for American Jews; for an American/Israeli/Jew the Syrian refugee crisis is even more difficult; for the son of an immigrant to the United States who arrived on America’s shores in 1936 fleeing Hitler’s Germany the plight of Syrian migrants is profoundly problematic.
Jews have always been at the forefront of the struggle for free immigration into the United States. First and foremost, it was the Jews who were targets of the restrictive immigration acts of 1922 and 1923. Jews fleeing Hitler found it exceptionally difficult to enter into the United States – although a very large number of German Jews (including my grandparents and my mother) were admitted. As Ariel Hurwitz, author of the newly published, “Jews Without Power” noted:
“A factor that prevented Jewish refugees from Germany from obtaining visas was the burgeoning anti-Semitism during those years. Public opinion polls showed a vast majority of Americans opposed expanding immigration for the refugees and Congress was not prepared to open up the gates of the country, even marginally…”
For this reason, Jews have always fought to keep the gates of the U.S. open to the huddled masses, yearning to breathe free. It is for that exact same reason I have been so disturbed for the last several years over our policy towards the African migrants in Israel.
These past few days it has been distressing to watch American politicians turn the recent attacks in Paris into a major campaign issue, with protests over the 20,000 Syrian immigrants the government wants to resettle in the United States. For a country built on shoulders of waves of newcomers, the rants concerning 20,000 immigrants – half of whom are children – are outrageous and unconscionable. Listening to abundant arguments against admitting Syrian refugees onto America’s shores is thoroughly disconcerting. Yet, the growing list of U.S. governors suddenly lining up to avow they will not accept any of refugees to their states is sincerely abhorrent. Moreover, some candidates’ calls to accept only Christian refugees is downright despicable and probably unconstitutional.
Of course, employment of the Syrian refugees in recent American political discourse cannot be separated from the greater exploitation of immigration as a political tool. This most recent upsurge of “anti-immigration fever” matches previous waves of nativism that struck America in the past, going all the way back to the 1850’s (when the backlash against German immigration created the first anti-immigrant parties in the U.S.) Some of the self-serving comments made by Jewish critics of immigration (e.g. that the Jews of Europe faced certain death, while these immigrants have other choices,) do not stand the test of of time. As only now in retrospect do we know that the Jews of Europe faced certain death. In 1938 and 1939, when debates were being held about Jewish immigration from Europe, no one could imagine the “Holocaust” awaiting Europe’s Jews.
Despite everything I have just written, the Israeli in me keeps flashing warning lights. I look around Europe and see the rising incidence of anti-Semitism; acts of violence and terror which has been carried out almost exclusively by Muslims. This new rash of anti-semitism seems to be accomplishing what Hitler did not achieve, i.e. making Europe free from Jews.
One does not have to look far to see the failed integration policies of Europe. Of course nothing better underscores that failure than the attacks in Paris, executed by second generation French-born Muslims – which gives me great pause. Stories I have heard from friends in New York regarding women wearing full-face Hijabs in public make me wonder if some of these religious customs are compatible with the American values of freedom and equality.
The American contract with its immigrants has always been simple – You are all welcome to come benefit from the bounty and freedoms of our United States, in return you must learn about our values and take a citizen test. I believe we should add an additional condition prior to conferring citizenship – i.e. To immigrate into America, whatever your religion, you must accept the underlying value concept that women have full equal rights to men. Women must receive equal education; women may not be married without their consent; women have equal rights in case of divorce; and women must be free to work, travel and dress the way they wish. This additional condition for receiving U.S. citizenship would apply equally to potential Muslim immigrants, as it would to Haredi Jews.
I understand that my suggestion is debatable. When womens’ rights meets 1st amendment religious protections, we enter into a very challenging place. Realize that France has been fighting what seems to be a losing battle on this front (outlawing the Hijab in public spaces) for the past few decades. Therefore, I do not suggest this battle be fought in the public square of the United States, (where if the government tried to act against individual religious beliefs it would be contravening the Constitution.) Rather, I propose that to be accepted as an immigrant in the United States you must show an understanding and acceptance of the concept of equality for women, and pledge (if you immigrate) to act accordingly. Recognizing women’s full equality should become a criteria of granting citizenship once in the United States.
I am not only the son of refugees from Nazis Germany, I am also the son of that same immigrant who became one of the first women Civil Engineers in the United States. America has always been a safe haven for those fleeing oppression and seeking a better life. However, America has always also been a beacon for freedom and more recently equality. If the United States is to continue being the exemplary nation it has always been, it must continue to be generous in settling refugees, while at the same time ensuring those refugees accept fundamental American values; values that today mean complete equality for women.