September 20, 2018

Episode 104 – Back in the USSR

In the 1990’s the Iron Curtain finally came down, making it possible for approximately 1 million Russian Speaking Jews to flee and immigrate to Israel. It was the biggest single immigration wave in Israel since the 1950’s.

But many things have changed since Israel began accepting immigrants – or Olim as they are called in Hebrew, in the golden years of the 50’s. Then, the concept of the melting pot, embraced by Ben Gurion in the hope of creating one homogenous Israeli culture – kept the Israeli society from disintegrating into secluded factions, by enforcing severe pressure to erase the past completely and assimilate at any cost.

But that policy has dissipated over time. The result was, and in many ways still is – a cultural chaos.

Amidst this chaos enters Alex Rif, a daughter to Russian-speaking parents. Alex was raised as an Israeli, but realized that something inside her longs for her ancestors’ Russian culture. She formed the group Generation 1.5, in the goal of bringing new life to the Russian-Israeli culture. Alex joins 2NJB to speak about her struggles, hopes and initiatives.

Director Defends ‘Anne Frank’ Production

An upcoming Los Angeles production of “The Diary of Anne Frank” has come under fire in the wake of reports that the Holocaust-themed drama had replaced Nazis with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials as the villains.

The play, based on the famous teenage Shoah victim’s diary and published in 1947, is set in a hidden “secret annex” in Amsterdam where the Frank family and others hid for two years before they were betrayed to the Gestapo.

Director Stan Zimmerman appeared on CNN to set the record straight, explaining that although he has cast predominantly Latino and Latina actors, it has not morphed into an undocumented immigration story. “If you come to the production looking for ICE members you will be disappointed,” he said.

Zimmerman explained that the casting was inspired by a CNN report about a Jewish woman from Los Angeles who sheltered an undocumented Latina woman and her U.S.-born daughters after her husband was deported and she feared the same fate. The Jewish woman who created a safe house for the family anonymously told CNN, “What was done to us cannot happen to other people.”

Zimmerman emphasized that the production, which will run at the Dorie Theatre at The Complex from Sept. 6-23, is “a word for word presentation of the 1997 Broadway production that Natalie Portman starred in. No words will be changed. We are not replacing the Nazis with ICE. The only parallel I’m making is that there is a safe house here in L.A. today [like] there were safe houses in Amsterdam and other places. The rest is art. People will interpret it the way they will.”

The director noted that Genesis Ochoa, 16, who plays Anne and David Gurrola, 15, who portrays Peter Van Daan, were not aware of Anne Frank’s story before they auditioned for the play. “Today it’s not part of the curriculum, which is a sad fact,” he said, especially since according to a New York Times survey, the memory of the Holocaust is fading,

Zimmerman hopes to reach and educate a new audience with the production, but underscored that it’s being done “out of love and honor for her story. I want people to know that as a Jew, I would never demean her story.”

“The Diary of Anne Frank” runs at the Dorie Theatre at The Complex from Sept. 6-23. Tickets are $25 online/$30 door and can be purchased at www.brownpapertickets.com

What This Rabbi Saw in Tijuana

Screenshot from Twitter.

Imagine being separated from your children, sent to another country and then able only to communicate with them via Skype. As you talk to them for the first time in weeks, they call out, “Mama Mama, when are you coming back?” and place their hands on the computer screen as if to touch you.

That’s what happened to Maria, one of the many women living temporarily in Tijuana’s Migrant Center Instituto Madre, a shelter that is coping with an influx of newly deported mothers struggling to reunite their families. After living in the United States for many years, Maria was deported to Mexico without her children, who are U.S. citizens. For weeks, she was so distraught that she cried unceasingly.  Finally, the migrant center obtained a computer, and set up a video call for Maria and her children.

Maria’s story is just one of several heartbreaking accounts I heard on Tuesday, when I was visiting Tijuana with more than 25 rabbis and cantors from T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, in a special visit organized by T’ruah and the Jewish refugee organization HIAS. We went there to bear witness and to experience for ourselves what it’s like to go back and forth between the borders.

Our primary goal was to put a human face on the women, children and men we have been reading about, seeing in television reports, and hearing on the radio.

We spent the day immersed in the brokenness that is our country’s immigration system, learning about the the quagmire of legalities and administrative processes that I’m not sure I could navigate. Every single hour of this long day, a new wrinkle or complication was thrown into the already overwhelming situation.

The people at these shelters in Tijuana represent global immigration trends as well as those tragically affected by the current Zero Tolerance policy of the Trump administration.

Some, like Maria, have been deported from the United States, rounded up in a raid or arrested for a misdemeanor (such as expired vehicle tags).

Others have come up from southern Mexico, Central and South America. These are mostly women and children, who are escaping violence after their  husbands and brothers have been murdered by gangs. They seek asylum in the United States — not an easy process.

Once upon a time, there was a free and easy flow of movement, for both work and tourism, at our southern border. But we learned from the shelter directors how the U.S. immigration policy has undergone severe shifts over the years, and what once was a thriving relationship along the border with Mexico, with people easily crossing to work in the United States US from Mexico, and tourists from the United States US coming over to visit, is now like a militarized zone, complete with iron fences topped with barbed wire, and men with machine guns.

There is no question that under the Trump administration’s policies, the immigration system, which has been dysfunctional for years, has gone even farther, imposing inhumane and cruel practices that devastate the lives of real human beings.

It doesn’t have to be like this: We can’t get rid of immigration laws altogether, but we can make them more compassionate and easier to navigate — and there’s no rational reason to be cutting the number of legal immigrants allowed or going after all undocumented people.

In the Torah, Judaism’s sacred text, the single most repeated commandment has to do with our relationship with the stranger. Over the course of the Torah, the commandment gets more refined. It begins with “do not oppress the stranger” for “we were strangers in a strange land” but then it moves to “welcome the stranger” and culminates in “loving the stranger.”

At the video reunion of Maria and her children, the children cried, as their hands touching the computer screen failed to bring their mama back to them.  Maria created a distraction, by telling them about the cake she was baking at the shelter. She ran to the kitchen, grabbed the cake, showed it, and, for a moment, her babies smiled.

In this month that we celebrate the founding of this country, our country built by immigrants, it’s unconscionable that the Trump administration is causing such needless suffering. I promise I will not rest until this suffering is stopped.


Rabbi Jill Berkson Zimmerman teaches spiritual and mindful approaches to Judaism. She is an active member of the group T’ruah, the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, and the Orange County Jewish Coalition for Refugees.

Jewish Same-Sex Couple Sues U.S. Over Twins’ Citizenship

Elad (left) and Andrew Dvash-Banks with their twin sons Aidan and Ethan. Photocourtesy of Immigration Equality

Same-sex couple Andrew and Elad Dvash-Banks filed a lawsuit against the State Department this week for giving United States citizenship to one of their year-old twin boys but not the other.

The suit, also filed with a female same-sex couple in a similar situation, lists both the State Department and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson as defendants.

Los Angeles-born Andrew and Tel Aviv-born Elad had hoped to marry in the U.S., but in 2010, the Defense of Marriage Act was still in existence, so the couple moved to Toronto, where Andrew also has citizenship and gay marriage was legal.

The couple married in 2011 and knew they wanted a family. After finding a surrogate, they used sperm from both men, and the Dvash-Bankses were thrilled when their sons, Aidan and Ethan, were born. Aidan is Andrew’s biological son and Ethan is Elad’s biological son.

In a video put out by Immigration Equality, Andrew said, “When the twins were born and we saw our children take their first breath, their first cry, it was just amazing.”

“How are we going to explain this to [Ethan] when he grows up? [Aidan] is a U.S. citizen at birth and you’re not?” — Elad Dvash-Banks

When same-sex marriage was finally legalized in the United States in 2015, the couple planned to move back to Los Angeles, with Andrew sponsoring Elad’s green card. They returned in August 2017 to Los Angeles, where Elad works at IKAR as the organization’s development manager.

However, immigration authorities demanded DNA testing for the twins, and determined that because Aidan was the only child biologically related to Andrew, he alone would be granted U.S. citizenship.

His twin brother, Ethan, also is a plaintiff in the lawsuit as he was allowed into the country only on a tourist visa, but that expired on Dec. 23, 2017.

The lawsuit states, “All of Andrew and Elad’s professional, personal and familial commitments are in constant jeopardy of being undone if the Department of Homeland Security deports Ethan.”

While the State Department has not officially responded to any requests to discuss the lawsuit, its website states that children born overseas via “Assisted Reproductive Technology” can be granted citizenship at birth only if they are “biologically related to a U.S. citizen parent.”

Andrew and Elad were shocked when they were asked to perform a DNA test on their children. They queried if they had been a straight couple — an American husband and an Israeli wife — would they ever have been asked to perform a DNA test or questioned if they had used a surrogate.

The lawsuit also argues, “The State Department’s policy is arbitrary and capricious and serves no rational, legitimate, or substantial governmental interest. The State Department’s policy drives families apart by treating the children of the same married parents differently depending upon which father’s sperm was used during fertilization.”

“Being a father is everything to me. It’s really important for us that our kids can fulfill their full potential,” Elad said. “All we want is a healthy, happy family. How are we going to explain this to [Ethan] when he grows up? [Aidan] is a U.S. citizen at birth and you’re not?”

“[Ethan] should be treated like any other child born to a U.S. citizen,” Andrew said. “Like his twin brother or like any other child born to a U.S. citizen abroad. None of it makes sense. It’s not right and we know it’s not right.”

Bigotry in Context—the Dangers of Trump

The media “sh*tstorm” is perpetual. Donald Trump has managed to suck up the media oxygen virtually 24/7. If it isn’t his “sh*thole” comments about much of Africa, Haiti and El Salvador, it’s his tweets about compromises in Congress or his unrelenting dismissal of opponents with derisive diminutives.

The media has little choice but to report, analyze and comment on the daily distractions. What the media should do, but usually don’t, is put Trump’s actions and words into perspective. Admittedly, there is little precedent for the narcissistic self-aggrandizing occupant of the White House—what president has come close to his performance and personality? Historians suggest that he is truly sui generis. But an effort should be made to educate Americans as to what might transpire were his prescriptions to be enacted.

There are historic precedents for the kind of jingoistic, ethnocentric bigotry that has emanated from this administration regarding immigration and its implications—short term and long term—are pretty ugly.

For starters, we should all be reminded—-as the Bible admonishes—-to never forget from whence we come, “remember that you were slaves in Egypt”(Deuteronomy 15:15).

We were almost all immigrants at one point in the not too distant past. The kind of hostility and simple-mindedness that Trump (and his attorney general) have demonstrated should chill every thinking American. But the impact is attenuated by the historic ignorance that abounds.

A partial curative emerged today from one of the bulliest pulpits in the land short of the White House—The New York Times. Bret Stephens, the Times’ Pulitzer Prize winning columnist has a brilliant column reminding us all that bigotry, fear, lies and distortions are  nothing new in the immigration debate. In fact, virtually every one of the “America First” tactics of the Trump administration has been employed before against different sets of immigrants—what’s new is the administration’s ability to reach tens of millions with their hate and lies.

The target cohort that Stephens chose as an example of historically similar nativism is Jewish immigrants to the US of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

Not unlike today’s targets (El Salvadorans, Iranians, Haitians, et al.) Jews were decried as purveyors of crime (the NYPD police commissioner falsely asserted that half of all crime in New York City was committed by Jews); Jews were viewed as socially undesirable (“social discards”) as compared to northern Europeans (sound familiar?); Jews were attacked as “moral cripples” “reeking of the ghetto” who were unprepared for citizenship, and on and on.

The list of accusations from a century ago is extensive and the ring of familiarity is chilling. What Stephens brilliantly does is ask the question, what if the bigots had prevailed? What would America be missing if those of supposed “genetic inferiority” had been denied admission, if the restrictionists had prevailed?

A question that our historical perspective allows us to answer. A media bound to today’s headlines can’t ask what would America be missing if we pulled up the gangplanks and closed our ports of entry. We have only history as a guide, and it suggests that Trump’s ethnocentric fears are insidious foolishness.

Yet imagine if the United States had followed the advice of the immigration restrictionists in the late 19th century and banned Jewish immigrants, at least from Central Europe and Russia, on what they perceived to be some genetic inferiority. What, in terms of enterprisegeniusimagination, and philanthropy would have been lost to America as a country? And what, in terms of human tragedy, would have ultimately weighed on our conscience?

Today, American Jews are widely considered the model minority, so thoroughly assimilated that organizational Jewish energies are now largely devoted to protecting our religious and cultural distinctiveness. Someone might ask Jeff Sessions and other eternal bigots what makes an El Salvadoran, Iranian or Haitian any different.

Stephens’ piece is powerful and right on target. Today’s bigots see the world through their distorted prism, it takes reason, logic and some historical context to counteract their warping of reality.

Bravo Bret, an important piece that should be mandatory reading in every home in America!

Immigration Lessons: How Other Countries Handle Immigration

Today, we are witnessing an incredible wave of migrations. According to the statistics provided by the UN, currently, there are around 244 million international migrants living abroad. Warfare certainly plays a role here, given the fact many of migrants are actually refugees seeking shelter in foreign countries. Then, there are others who moved hoping for a better life standard and job opportunities. Whatever the reason behind migrations may be, different countries have different legislation when it comes to granting citizenship to newcomers. Various immigration policies have shown themselves more or less successful.

Canada

 

Canada is globally known as a country that welcomes immigrants and there is a good reason for that. Apart from being very affirmative when it comes to the idea of diversity, this country has been struggling with the lack of skilled workforce ever since its economic growth in the 1970’. Statistics from 2013 say that foreign-born population is now around 20% of the total population in Canada. Canadian government showed a kind, human face to the numerous cases of illegal immigrants in the U.S. who were fleeing the war and ended up hiding from the law. The country welcomed refugees and offered asylum, although the Canadian citizens were not that pleased with the sudden influx of immigrants, fearing that this decision might lead towards making their homeland less safe.

Singapore

 

Singapore is one of the countries that have tightened their immigration policies, mainly by limiting the number of accepted foreigners. Since 2009, this number got cut down to a half. The application process became more complex as Singapore government wanted to take a more rational approach towards country’s resources and relieve the infrastructural strain. The criteria have become more strict, but there are consultancy companies such as Immigration Solutions that support immigrants in getting their permanent residence license by helping them achieve up to 90% approval. Aligning all documents and forms with the ICA accepted standards remains a challenge for those seeking to move to this country.

Denmark

 

Denmark is known for being very culturally closed, which is perceived by others as a bit controversial given the fact we live in the age where concepts like multiculturalism and the sense of global unity are celebrated. Nevertheless, Denmark is very protective of its tradition and homogenous structure. The center-right government even offered £12,000 to immigrants who cannot assimilate into Danish culture, to go back to their homelands. Denmark is also known for its 24-year rule which states that a foreign person who is married to a Danish citizen can get citizenship only if both are at least 24 years old. The government stated the main purpose of this law is to prevent forced and fake marriages. However, it has drawn negative criticism as many perceive this legislation as a violation of human rights and an act of discrimination.

Sweden

 

Unlike its neighbor country, Sweden is known for its friendly openness towards foreigners: it even ranked number one among other 38 countries in the Migrant Integration Policy Index, in 2014. The country welcomed Muslim war refugees from Iraq, Somalia, and Syria, without any prejudices. Swedish migration policy has been praised as it thoroughly covers refugee and immigration policies, as well as the questions of repatriation and the support for repatriation. The country has collaborated with EU and UNHCR and made the immigration policies far less restrictive compared to the period of 1980’ and before. The reason why Sweden took such a tolerant position might hide behind the values nurtured by its Social democratic government, as well as the positive experiences the country had during the labor force migrations in the 1960’s.

There can be numerous factors influencing the migration policy of a country: from the economic position, culture, and type of civic society in question to historical experiences and ruling political ideologies. Undoubtedly, governments face a challenging task of finding a balance between keeping their countries safe and persevering the cultural heritage, while also helping those in need and opening doors to foreigners, that is – focusing on human relationships on a much higher level that goes beyond borders.

War at the Book Club

Photo from Salvador Litvak.

At a recent meeting of our book club, we were discussing a novel about a self-loathing comedian when the conversation veered into politics. The guys in the club all are Jewish and about the same age, though our careers and backgrounds vary broadly.

Our host, whom we’ll call “Larry,” turned to “Jake,” who’d just defended President Donald Trump, and said, “You sound like the yahoos we fly over.”

I said, “Larry, you can’t mean that. You’re insulting half the country just to belittle Jake.”

“Sure, I can. They voted for the chief yahoo.”

“Let’s stick to the debate,” I replied. “We all understand that you disagree with Jake on Trump’s immigration policy. I challenge you to articulate Jake’s best argument in a manner to which Jake will say, ‘Yes, that’s my belief.’ ”

“Why would I do that?”

“Because that’s the only way you’ll ever get Jake to listen to your best argument with an open mind.”

“Exactly,” chimed in another guy.

“That’s ridiculous,” Larry said. “I’m not going to argue for the opposite of what I believe.”

“Come on, Larry,” said our oldest member, “you can do it.”

Did Larry argue the other side? Would you if you were in his shoes?

The stakes have never been higher. Americans are passionately divided over a growing number of issues. Friendships are ending and family ties are bursting because we fear for the country’s future. It seems everyone has a core issue — or two or three — that they’re ready to shout and fight about.

At a time like this, we can benefit greatly by recalling a 2,000-year-old episode from the Talmud:

R’Abba said in the name of Shmuel: for three years the followers of Shammai and the followers of the Hillel debated each other. These said the law follows their view and those said the law follows their view.

Keep in mind that this was not an academic argument. The disputants believed the destinies of their countrymen’s eternal souls were at stake.

A heavenly voice went forth and declared: Both these and those are words of the living God, but the Law follows the House of Hillel.

Now, if these and those are both the words of the living God, why did the House of Hillel merit to fix the Law according to their view?

Because they were easy and forbearing, and they would study both their opinion and the opinion of the House of Shammai. And not only that, but they would state the opinion of the House of Shammai before their own (Eruvin 13b, B. Talmud).

Now, maybe we hold like Larry in a debate of national importance, or maybe we hold like Jake. Either way, if our purpose is to do more than vent, virtue-signal or commiserate with the choir, it would behoove us to advocate like the House of Hillel. This means catching the attention of folks across the aisle by demonstrating that we’ve heard, understood and considered their best arguments. Only then will our own views have a chance to be heard, understood and considered by the people we think must hear those views. That, in my view, is where progress begins.

As for what happened at the book club, Larry declined to state Jake’s opinion with anything but sarcasm — the least effective strategy for opening any heart or mind.

Two weeks later, however, Larry and I were playing golf. As we walked up a fairway, he said, out of nowhere, “I’ve been thinking about your challenge at the book club. I was nothing but belligerent, and I missed an opportunity. Next time, I’ll articulate the other side.”

May our community merit to evolve as much as my friend Larry.


Salvador Litvak shares Jewish wisdom with his followers every day as the Accidental Talmudist (accidentaltalmudist.org).

The untold story of DACA’s Israeli recipients

Picture in your mind a “Dreamer,” an immigrant brought to the United States as a child and now living without documentation in this country. Chances are you’re not picturing an Israeli. But here in Los Angeles, young undocumented Jews from Israel are among those facing the looming threat of deportation.

President Donald Trump’s administration recently rescinded the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA, with a six-month delay to provide time for Congress to plan a path for DACA recipients to gain permanent legal status. Whether that pronouncement sticks remains unclear. 

After a meeting with Democratic leaders and a swirl of messages out of the White House, some of them contradictory, Trump said on Sept. 14 he supports legislation to protect the Dreamers, and further consideration of a wall on the southern border would be done separately.

The policy was created during President Barack Obama’s administration in 2012 as a temporary reprieve to shield young undocumented immigrants from deportation. Trump’s Sept. 5 announcement has been roundly criticized by Democrats, many Republicans and Conservative, Reform and unaffiliated Jewish organizations.

There are an estimated 800,000 DACA recipients, the vast majority of them Latino, with 79 percent coming from Mexico. More than a quarter of the total live in California. At a Sept. 10 rally, hundreds of pro-immigration demonstrators gathered in Los Angeles’ MacArthur Park, many holding signs written in Spanish and waving Mexican flags.

Israel isn’t among the two dozen countries where most DACA recipients originate. But for various reasons — often having to do with fraudulent legal advice given to their parents — these young Jews are caught in a legal limbo, unable to receive federal student aid or travel outside the country.

While their status is identical to that of other Dreamers, they are different in subtle ways, as their individual stories suggest. For example, because the number of Latinos facing deportation is so much larger, they tend to feel more comfortable sharing their concerns and anxieties with one another.

Not so for Jewish Dreamers. For many, their status is an embarrassing stigma, something they would just as soon hide from even their closest friends. 

On the other hand, because Jews are often lighter-skinned than Latinos, they tend not to be subjected to the stares and derision from citizens who support the administration’s decision to eliminate DACA protections.

Furthermore, Jewish Dreamers tend to be better off financially than those from other countries, a distinction that provides securities — even if temporary — that others might not have.

In the end, however, all Dreamers are equal in the eyes of a government policy that would remove them unless a change is forthcoming from a Congress that is deeply divided on immigration issues.

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), one of more than a dozen Jewish House members, is among those who favor continuing protections for all Dreamers, including those from Israel.

“The history of the Jewish people is characterized by migration in search of safety and a better future, and I believe our own experience teaches us to empathize with the Dreamers, although relatively few are Jewish or came here from places like Israel,” he said in an email to the Journal. “The administration would treat these young people as unwanted guests in the only country they know. But I view Dreamers as part of the fabric of our nation and believe Congress must act to ensure these young people can continue to live and work in the United States without fear.”

Below are stories of a few undocumented Israeli immigrants. They agreed to share details of their lives with the Journal under the condition that their last names not be used, and in some cases, that their first names be changed to protect their identities. Although the specifics of their cases differ, they share a feeling of being Americans first and foremost, and face an uncertain future.

‘I don’t even remember what Israel looks like’

Bar, a 16-year-old high school junior in the San Fernando Valley, has known for her entire life that she was undocumented.

“It did suck not to be able to go to Israel and visit when all my friends would go,” she said. “All my family is in Israel.”

A resident of Sherman Oaks, her parents arrived on a tourist visa in 2001, when she was 6 months old. Their visas expired a year after they arrived.

“We were hoping we could fix everything before becoming illegal. We had other people giving us suggestions and it was wrong … bad advice, and we didn’t have the money at that point to fix it,” her father, Ron, said.

Ron ran a clothing factory in downtown Los Angeles and insisted on manufacturing in the U.S. but had to shutter the facility because of the high cost of labor.

“We’re paying all the debts that society is asking to pay, and we’re getting zero benefit out of it,” he said.

“I’m from L.A. This is where I’ve lived my whole life. I don’t even remember what Israel looks like.” — Bar

Undocumented immigrants pay taxes but can’t collect benefits. He now runs a printing and packaging company that outsources to Mexico and China.

Bar’s mother, Karen, works for a catering business, serving and cooking food for weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs, and other big events.

Bar joined the DACA program late last year. Some of her friends know she’s undocumented and hope one day she’ll be able to join them on trips to Israel and Mexico. She took a driver education course and hopes to get a license soon but might need to apply for an AB 60 license, available for California residents regardless of immigration status, if her DACA status expires.

She’s been a member of the Tzofim movement (Israel’s scouts program) since seventh grade. Her younger sister and brother are scouts, too. They were born in the U.S. and are citizens.

Bar counsels younger kids in Tzofim. “They all tell me before summer starts, ‘We’re going to Israel,’ and I ask them how is that. Even the youngest kids tell me about their experiences in Israel and their family. I’m very excited to be able to go,” she said.

Bar works for a birthday party business where she paints little kids’ faces, dances with them and dresses up as characters from the popular Israeli children‘s show “Yuval Hamebulbal,” a dinosaur and a fire-fighting dog. After she graduates from high school, she expects to go to community college and transfer to a four-year university to study business and fashion design.

If the DACA program is canceled, putting her at risk of deportation, she said it would be “really, really upsetting.”

“I’m from L.A. This is where I’ve lived my whole life. I don’t even remember what Israel looks like,” she said.

‘This affects kids who are pretty much American in every way’

Eli grew up in Beverly Hills and describes himself as “a typical Persian-Jewish kid” in all ways but one: He’s in the country illegally. He was born in Tel Aviv and came here in 1991, when he was 8 years old. His parents overstayed their visa when their green card application was denied.

He earned a degree from UCLA, paying his tuition out of his own pocket, and hoped to go to law school but knew he wouldn’t be allowed to practice. He struggled for years with low-paying jobs.

“A soon as I got my DACA [status] in December 2013, three months later I got hired by a Fortune 500 company,” he said. “I knew I had the ability all along but I couldn’t prove it, because I didn’t have access to a real job.”

Now in his mid-30s, he owns his own business, offering “professional services” to corporate clients.

Outside of a small group of friends and his girlfriend, nobody knows about his status.

“I don’t want to jeopardize my business or do anything that can cause harm to that. In the Persian-Jewish community people talk, and I don’t want that information out,” he said.

Eli is a fitness enthusiast, spending hours a day at the gym training in Brazilian jiu jitsu. He considers himself a hard worker, a self-made entrepreneur, and can’t understand why people wouldn’t want him to be a citizen. After all, he said, he had no say in his parents’ decision to come to the U.S. and overstay their visa.

“You can’t blame somebody who didn’t commit the crime,” he said. “If you pull somebody over and their grandson is in the backseat, you don’t give the grandson in the backseat a ticket.”

He knows plenty of Iranian-American Jews who support Trump, and he doesn’t fault them for it.

“None of them go to KKK or neo-Nazi rallies or anti-immigration rallies. They’re pro-Trump mostly because of his pro-Israel stance, and they make good money and want tax breaks,” he said.

But he said he thinks a lot of them do have a racial bias.

“They look down on Mexican immigrants as low-skilled labor. They mow their lawn and garden their backyard and take care of their kids. … A lot of them probably think we should send them back to Mexico. They don’t understand this affects kids who are pretty much American in every way other than the fact that they don’t have their citizenship here, don’t have their green card.”

‘I’ll take my American education and I’ll go somewhere else’

Rebecca’s parents came to the U.S. when she was 12 years old. They planned to return to Israel after their B-2 tourist visa expired.

“When we got here, we started to feel like we wanted to stay here,” she said. They hired a lawyer who “ended up being a crook,” and their visa expired, she said.

Now 23, Rebecca has spent roughly half her life in the United States.

“My heart is in two different places. It’s hard every day to make the choice to be here. And it’s still a choice, despite all the inconveniences of being undocumented,” she said.

When she gained DACA status in 2012, “everything really changed.” The California Dream Act enabled her to receive state financial aid at UCLA, where she graduated with a double major in anthropology and Arabic.

While at UCLA, she participated in UndocuBruins, a research grant program for undocumented students and received funding to work with a South L.A. nonprofit that trains previously incarcerated people to work on urban farms in “food deserts.”

After she “decided that urban farming is really cool,” Rebecca completed a three-month fellowship at a Jewish community farm in Berkeley called Urban Adamah. Much like a kibbutz, the fellows live and farm together. This summer she worked as a garden educator at a Jewish summer camp in northern California and is now working with other UCLA grads at a startup nonprofit called COMPASS for Youth, which provides counseling for at-risk and homeless youth in Los Angeles.

Her undocumented status has inspired her to help others.

“I feel really blessed for that, because it’s opened my eyes and made me empathetic toward the stories of so many people that I wouldn’t have been able to empathize with beforehand,” she said.

“A lot of doors have been closed on me, and I had to push through a lot of doors. I got a lot of help [and] a lot of community support. … I’m grateful.”— Rebecca

While at UCLA, she was active at Hillel and in the Jewish community, but she had to navigate her place among the mostly Latino undocumented students and the feeling of guilt that accompanies a recognition of privilege.

“Ironically, my dad is also a construction worker, just like the dads of many of the undocumented folks that I know … [but] my dad’s been able to be more successful because he has resources, and he’s not Mexican, so he’s not looked at in a particular way. I look like a white person, so I don’t experience the sort of racist reality that comes with being undocumented in America.”

Rebecca’s mother is a self-published writer of poetry in Hebrew and English.

“A lot of [the poems] are about being away from home and being separated from her family. Her dad passed away while we were here, a few years into being here. So she wasn’t able to see him for the few last years of his life, and then not at his death, not at his funeral, and not now, many years later,” she said.

Rebecca was afraid of deportation, but becoming a DACA recipient “has given me breathing room,” she said. She’d rather move to Israel on her own terms than be deported, but hopes to stay here. She’s trying to make the world a better place in her own way.

“If America doesn’t want that, too bad,” she said. “I’ll take my American education and I’ll go somewhere else.”

Despite the fear that comes with being undocumented, “the immigrant experience is the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” she said.

“I was totally uprooted and I had to cope, and assimilated to something that was 100 percent foreign to me. And that was really hard,” she added. “A lot of doors have been closed on me, and I had to push through a lot of doors. I got a lot of help [and] a lot of community support. … I’m grateful.”

‘The dreams come true here’

In the heart of affluent Beverly Hills, 17-year-old Jason harbors a secret. His family came from Israel when he was 5, and someone posing as a lawyer botched their citizenship applications and disappeared. Their work permits expired, and now Jason, his parents, and his younger brother live in the shadows.

His friends don’t know. Neither did his girlfriend, whom he considered marrying in order to gain a path to legal status. His parents actually pressured him to propose even though he knew “she would freak out, like, big time” if she found out he was undocumented.

Jason became a DACA recipient in 2015.

“I had no idea what it was,” he said. In fact, until that point, his parents hadn’t told him or his younger brother about their immigration status.

“They didn’t know we were illegal because we didn’t want them to talk to their friends,” his father, Avi, said. “Only when the DACA program came out, after talking to Neil [Sheff, their immigration lawyer], only then we told the kids.”

Jason plays guitar and plans to enroll in a music program after graduating from Beverly Hills High School. But his immigration status has complicated his plans.

“I do want to travel at some point, and if I’m not documented I can’t do that,” he said.

Returning to Israel is not an option, his parents say.

“I have nothing to do in Israel,” his mother, Ravital, said. “It’s hard to live there. Here, it’s an easier life. The dreams come true here.”

Daniel, their 13-year-old son, wants to be an actor. Because he’s too young to gain DACA status, he can’t get a work permit and audition for roles.

“Now that [Trump] canceled it, it’s a lot harder. It’s impossible, unless I get married to an American girl,” Daniel said with a laugh.

Ravital owns a skin care company, and Avi works in software development. “We do everything by the book, and we find a way to pay taxes on time,” Ravital said.

“We probably pay more taxes than Trump,” Avi added.

Many of their Israeli and Orthodox Jewish friends are Trump supporters, and they fear social alienation if their immigration status is discovered. “Before you called, we closed all the windows around the house,” Avi admitted. “The stigma of people who are illegal here is very bad.”

‘Remember the stranger and the foreigner in your land’

There’s a disconnect between Jews and undocumented immigrants, says Beverly Hills immigration attorney Neil Sheff, who speaks Hebrew and Spanish fluently. About half of his clients are Israeli, and he hears a lot of rhetoric against immigration reform from his fellow Jews, even those born in other countries.

“Their responses are usually, ‘We came here the legal way.’ When many of the Jewish immigrants came here, the immigration laws were so relaxed and the process was so much easier, everyone could come here the legal way,” he said.

“Their plight isn’t really acknowledged by the greater Jewish community, especially the Orthodox Jewish community.” – Neil Sheff

Sheff believes there are many Israelis living in L.A. without documentation, as well as Jews from South Africa, Russia and an increasing number from France, looking to escape their country’s rising tide of anti-Semitism.

“Their plight isn’t really acknowledged by the greater Jewish community, especially the Orthodox Jewish community,” which supports Trump because they consider him to be pro-Israel, Sheff said.

The Torah extolls Jews 36 times to treat strangers well, “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:21).

“It’s part and parcel of who we are as Jews to remember the stranger and the foreigner in your land,” Sheff said. “That should translate immediately to empathy for the immigrants here, whether they are immigrants who have been here for generations or just arrived.”

A Jewish ‘Dreamer’ is scared, but refuses to despair

Elias Rosenfeld, a sophomore at Brandeis University, speaking at a rally at Boston’s Faneuil Hall hours after President Trump announced he was rescinding DACA protections for some 800,000 young people on Sept. 5. Photo by Jeremy Burton/JCRC of Greater Boston

At 15, Elias Rosenfeld became a “Dreamer.”

At the time, the Venezuela native was attending Dr. Michael M. Krop Senior High School in Miami, where he had lived since he was 6 years old, when his Jewish family moved to South Florida from Caracas. His mother was a media executive and they traveled to the United States on an L1 visa, which allows specialized, managerial employees to work for the U.S. office of a parent company.

But tragedy struck the family: When Rosenfeld was in the fifth grade, his mother was diagnosed with kidney cancer. She died two years later.

In high school, Rosenfeld applied for a driver’s permit, only to find out that he lacked the required legal papers. He discovered that his mother’s death  voided her visa. He and his older sister were undocumented.

“It was an embarrassing moment for me,” Rosenfeld recalled more than five years later.

Within five months, in June 2012, President Barack Obama signed an executive order, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, granting temporary, renewable legal status to young unauthorized immigrants who had been brought to America by their parents as children.

Known as DACA, the order opened up a world of opportunities for some 800,000 young people who were now able to apply for driver’s licenses, temporary work permits and college. “Dreamers” refers to a bipartisan bill, known as the Dream Act, that would have offered them a path to legal residency.

“It was the power of one order that can so directly change one’s life,” Rosenfeld said. “That launched me. I became an advocate.”

He launched United Student Immigrants, a nonprofit to assist undocumented students that has been credited with raising tens of thousands of dollars for help with scholarships and applications.

Rosenfeld, now a 20-year-old sophomore at Brandeis University on a full scholarship, spoke with JTA at a rally Tuesday outside of this city’s Faneuil Hall, just hours after President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced they would rescind DACA. The president gave Congress a six-month window to preserve the program through legislation. Or not.

The Boston protest was organized by the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, where Rosenfeld is an intern. He shared his story with several hundred people at the quickly organized rally.

He explained that DACA enabled him to drive, buy his first car, and apply for internships, jobs and scholarships.

“Today’s news was cruel and devastating. Now is not the time of despair, however, but to put our energy towards effective action,” he said, urging the crowd to work for protective legislation at the federal and state levels. There are some 8,000 DACA residents in Massachusetts.

Several Jewish communal leaders attended the rally, including Jeremy Burton, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, and Jerry Rubin, president of Jewish Vocational Services. Representatives from the New England Jewish Labor Committee, which helped spread the word of the rally, held signs in the crowd.

Another Dreamer, Filipe Zamborlini, who came to the U.S. from Brazil when he was 12 and now works as a career coach at Jewish Vocational Services, also spoke.

“We’re going to mourn today,” Zamborlini, 28, told the assembly.

The New England Jewish Labor Committee helped spread the word about a rally in Boston in support of DACA, Sept. 5, 2017. (Marion Davis/Massachusetts Immigrant & Refugee Advocacy Coalition)

Rosenfeld said the Trump administration’s decision was disturbing and unsettling.

“There’s a high level of fear and anxiety in DACA communities,” he told JTA.

Rosenfeld recalls too well the sting and uncertainty of being undocumented.

“It means you can’t do everything your peers and your friends are doing. You feel American, but you are suffering these consequences from choices you didn’t make,” he said.

But he also sounded a note of optimism, pointing out that Trump called on Congress to act.

“We hope Congress follows their president’s word now and does the job of passing one of the many pieces of legislation” before them, Rosenfeld said.

He readily admits to feeling scared and anxious.

“But I’m also feeling empowered and motivated from seeing the outpouring of support,” locally and across the country, he said.

To DACA opponents, including Jewish supporters of Trump, Rosenfeld asks them to look at the facts and the stories of people like himself.

“I don’t think it aligns with our values, with Jewish values and the Jewish community,” he said of a policy that would essentially strip a generation of people raised here of official recognition.

Rosenfeld cited the activism of a group called Torah Trumps Hate, which opposes policies that it considers anathema to values contained in Jewish teachings.

Growing up, his family attended synagogue often and celebrated Shabbat and Jewish holidays.

Despite the hardships he faced following his mother’s death, Rosenfeld excelled in high school. He completed 13 Advanced Placement courses and ranked among the top 10 percent of his graduating class, according to a Miami-Dade County school bulletin. Rosenfeld was widely recognized as a student leader, receiving several awards and honors. During the presidential campaign, he volunteered for the Hillary Clinton campaign.

Many students who were undocumented live in constant fear, even after receiving temporary legal status under DACA, Rosenfeld said.

“There is fear behind the shadows,” he said. “We are always behind the shadows.”

Earlier in the day, before the president’s announcement, Brandeis President Ron Liebowitz sent a letter to Trump urging him not to undo DACA.

“Here at Brandeis University, we value our DACA students, who enrich our campus in many ways and are integral to our community,” the letter said. “Reversing DACA inflicts harsh punishment on the innocent. As a nation founded by immigrants, we can, should, and must do better.”

Rosenfeld was attracted to Brandeis both for its academics and its commitment to social justice. He is studying political science, sociology and law, with plans to continue his advocacy work on behalf of immigrants. He hopes one day to attend law school and work in politics or practice law.

With a full schedule of courses and volunteer work, Rosenfeld gets by without much sleep, he acknowledged with an easy laugh.

The Brandeis administration has been supportive, he said, and there is a meeting later this week on campus to discuss school policy on the issue.

Asked what America means to him, Rosenfeld does not hesitate.

“It means my country. It’s my home. There’s a connection. I want to contribute,” he said. “I just don’t think it’s valuable to want to kick out people that want to contribute to this country.”

Jewish groups attack Trump’s DACA decision as immoral

Demonstrators protest in front of the White House after the Trump administration scrapped the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program on Sept. 5. Photo by Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

An array of Jewish groups and lawmakers attacked as immoral President Donald Trump’s move to end an Obama-era program granting protections to undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States as children.

The Trump administration said Sept. 5 that it would end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in six months. President Barack Obama had launched DACA in 2011 after multiple attempts failed in Congress to pass an immigration bill that would settle the status of 11 million undocumented immigrants. The program protected those who arrived as children from deportation and granted them limited legal status.

In statements, Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the principal objection to Obama’s so-called Dreamers program was that it was unconstitutional because it was established by an executive order, and indicated that Trump was ready to sign any congressional legislation that would accommodate the “Dreamers.” It was unclear what would happen in the meantime or, should Congress not pass legislation, what would happen to the 800,000 people who have sought and received DACA’s protections.

Trump, in a statement, said his hand was forced by attorneys general from conservative states who plan to sue to kill DACA.

“The attorney general of the United States, the attorneys general of many states and virtually all other top legal experts have advised that the program is unlawful and unconstitutional and cannot be successfully defended in court,” he said.

Republican leaders in Congress have expressed a willingness to pass the legislation necessary to protect the affected immigrants, but Jewish groups and lawmakers said ending the program presented immoral perils, given the failures of Congress in the past to agree on comprehensive immigration reform.

“DACA recognized these individuals for who they are: Americans in everything but paperwork,” Melanie Nezer, the vice president for public affairs of HIAS, a major Jewish immigrant advocacy group. “Their hopes and dreams are no different from kids who are born here, and there is no legitimate reason for inflicting this needless suffering on them and their families.”

The Reform movement called the action “morally misguided” and demanded that Congress act to redress the rescission.

“It is imperative that Congress step up in support of these young people who grew up in the United States and who want to give back to the only country they know as home,” said Rabbi Jonah Pesner, who directs the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center. “We call on Congress to protect DACA recipients from deportation by immediately passing a clean bipartisan Dream Act of 2017 — and on the president to support it.”

Richard Foltin, the American Jewish Committee’s director of government affairs, called the decision “devastating,” and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) said it was one of “a long list of actions and policies by this administration that have deeply hurt immigrants and their families.” The ADL noted the pardoning last month of Joe Arpaio, a former Arizona sheriff who had been convicted of discriminatory practices against Latinos, and the threat to withdraw funding from cities offering sanctuary to undocumented immigrants.

Other Jewish organizations condemning the decision included Bend the Arc, J Street, the National Council of Jewish Women, T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, the Shalom Center and the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect. Bend the Arc listed rallies across the country it would join to oppose the decision.

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the umbrella body for public policy, said it “strongly opposed” the decision and called on Congress to act to protect the “Dreamers.”

“The Jewish community has a long history of active engagement in the struggles of new immigrants and in development of our nation’s immigration policy,” it said. “We believe that Congress must enact a permanent solution and we call on lawmakers to act immediately to protect immigrant youth by passing the ‘Dream Act of 2017,’ bipartisan legislation that would replace fear and uncertainty with permanent protection.”

Jewish Democrats also slammed the decision.

“Terminating #DACA now puts 800,000 talented young #DREAMers who love, contribute to, and live in America officially at risk of deportation,” Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), the top Democrat on the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, said on Twitter.

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Engel’s counterpart on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the decision was “clearly written with little thought of the human consequences.”

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, called the decision “cruel and arbitrary.”

Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.), one of two Jewish Republicans in Congress, in a long and anguished statement, said he supported Trump’s decision but added that he would work to pass legislation to protect the undocumented immigrants.

“I am very much willing to work with any of my colleagues on either side of the aisle on this issue and others to find common ground however possible,” he said. “Working together productively and substantively, I am hugely confident that long overdue progress can absolutely be achieved at least in part to move the needle more in the right direction.”

Dreamers and their supporters on the night of Sept. 4 held a candlelight vigil outside the home of Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, the daughter and son-in-law of the president. The couple, who both serve as advisers to the president, reportedly advocated for continuing DACA.

Arpaio pardon is a travesty of justice

Then Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump with Sheriff Joe Arpaio at a campaign rally in Marshalltown, Iowa, on Jan. 26, 2016. Photo b yBrian Snyder/Reuters

Since biblical times, reverence for the rule of law has fueled our community. When Moses was given the law on Mount Sinai and then presented it to our ancestors, a great tradition was born, one from which a profound adherence to justice has never wavered. President Donald J. Trump’s pardon of Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio breaks from the basic tenets of democracy and the premise and promise of our nation’s history.

The president, of course, has the constitutional authority to issue such a pardon. But we argue that he cannot do so with moral impunity, and his actions must not be met with silence — again — on the part of Jewish communal institutions, which too frequently have chosen fiscal discretion over ethical valor.

This pardon, issued on the eve of a massive natural and human catastrophe, is but the latest in a series of assaults on civil liberties, civil rights and a free press. It is but another example of the president’s evident disregard for the rule of law and his willingness to reward political friends despite their history of attacks on our constitutional protections. Accordingly, when a symbol of racism is honored by this administration, which seems so intent on dividing rather than uniting our country, we raise our voices in protest, in the name of a Jewish community that is increasingly vocal in its criticism of this administration.

What Arpaio did was to engage in evil and anarchy. He used his position of authority as sheriff toward unconstitutional, racially discriminatory ends. The Phoenix New Times reported that, for the past two decades, many judges have criticized Arpaio’s practices as being “unconstitutional and abusive” and in violation of a range of antidiscrimination laws.   Arpaio’s racial preferences happened to disfavor Latinos who, irrespective of whether they were suspected of committing a crime, were detained in what Arpaio called “concentration camps.” Arpaio’s sinister conduct and the president’s sanctioning of that conduct erode the very foundation of our Constitution.

This travesty of justice and its implications for our democracy should send shivers up and down the spine of every American Jew. 

This is not a subtle point. The president of the United States blessed a sheriff’s refusal to accept that the Constitution required him to keep his racial prejudices and categorizations at bay and, further, blessed that sheriff’s refusal to accept the legitimacy of a court order. A sheriff endangered and harmed the very people he was entrusted to protect, and this year he was found guilty of contempt of court. And for this, Trump called Arpaio “a great American patriot” and rewarded him with a presidential pardon. Republicans and Democrats alike certainly can agree that a person in a position of authority who, as Arpaio has done, degrades and humiliates inmates, places inmates in subhuman conditions of extreme heat and extreme cold without adequate supplies of water and food, and is racially biased as he executes his job, is anything but a patriot. Alas, he is a criminal. And by pardoning such a criminal, the president has abused his power, thereby promoting division, bigotry and cronyism.

This travesty of justice and its implications for our democracy should send shivers up and down the spine of every American Jew. 

In addition, this pardon sets a dangerous precedent for other reasons. It could frustrate the investigations of the president and his administration that are now underway, if witnesses and persons of interest believe they need not cooperate because the president could absolve them of criminal culpability by pardoning them. It could keep the American people from knowing the extent of possible abuses of power and obstructions of justice. Although James Madison wrote that abuse of the authority to pardon would be grounds for impeachment, we fear the opposite — that this president could use it to preserve himself in office.

It must offend our core values as Americans and as Jews that this president has evidently bartered fundamental constitutional rights and protections for personal political gain.

The pardon Trump issued — late on a Friday afternoon as Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas — usurps a system that protects all of us. Left unprotested and unchecked, this pardon threatens to wash away our history, to undermine our democracy, to upend due process and to erode the rule of law.  And, as Jews, this disregard of the rule of law should bear special meaning.

The Hebrew prophets warned against the absolute rule and rapacity of kings. The people ignored them in the name of political convenience, and suffered the consequences. We refuse to ignore this travesty of a pardon, which is no less than an attack on justice itself.


JANICE KAMENIR-REZNIK is co-chair of Jews United for Democracy and Justice (JUDJ); and MEL LEVINE, a former congressman, and ZEV YAROSLAVSKY, a former Los Angeles County supervisor, are members of the executive committee of JUDJ, a grass-roots movement of citizens dedicated to the principles of Torah, justice and democracy.

Standing up for immigrants represents of our values as Jews and Californians

A demonstrator holds a sign to protest against the refugee ban on Feb. 4. Photo by Tom Mihalek/Reuters

Few states exemplify the adage that the United States is a nation of immigrants more than California.  There is virtually no ethnicity, religion, race or nationality that isn’t represented here.  Those of us who live in and love California, as my family does, benefit in a multitude of ways from the richness and diversity of California’s immigrant community.  Without these communities, the nature of our lives in California would be significantly different, and worse for it.  This is but one of the reasons that Reform CA and many members of the Reform Jewish community of California support Senate Bill 54, The California Values Act, sponsored by Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León.

The main benefit of SB 54 is that it balances the precarious situation of California’s immigrant residents with the safety and security needs of all Californians. Ensuring that our state’s immigrant residents feel safe at schools, hospitals and courthouses is a crucial part of this.  For example, SB 54 protects our immigrant residents from being reported to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents if they come forward to assist law enforcement in criminal investigations, if they are stopped for minor traffic infractions and importantly, if they themselves are victims of a crime.  This benefits all members of our community, regardless of immigration status. At the same time, SB 54 empowers local law enforcement to communicate with federal immigration officials in the identification and apprehension of serious and serial felons and violent immigrant criminals.  The bill also allows local law enforcement to work on taskforces with federal authorities.

This legislation represents one of the most important values the Jewish tradition esteems: offering kindness and respect to strangers.  Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik suggests that whenever the Torah wishes to teach us about compassion for the oppressed, it reminds us Jews of our once-lowly status as strangers in Egypt.  For this reason writes Soloveitchik, the Torah commands us 36 times to treat the stranger kindly.

More than 100 years ago, my great grandparents made the decision to leave Kiev and make the long voyage to the United States, along with my grandfather who was only a toddler at the time. They showed up not speaking a word of English and without a penny in their pockets. This story resonates today because this is the narrative of virtually every Jew and, indeed, virtually everybody in this country.

When I speak to my congregation, comprised of roughly 800 of families, I often preach that in many ways the United States of America has been the land of milk and honey for Jews.  This is because America welcomed Jews from around the world by giving us safe harbor and sheltering us from the persecution our ancestors left behind.  I want to offer the same gift of freedom and opportunity that was bequeathed to my family to the immigrants arriving in California today.  This is why my community will join the California Reform Jewish community in Sacramento on August 22 to advocate that our lawmakers pass SB 54 this legislative session.


Rabbi Joshua M. Aaronson serves as senior rabbi at Temple Judea in Tarzana

Rabbis, other clergy gather in support of sanctuary bill

Demonstrators show support for immigrants outside the Hall of Justice. Photo by Nicholas Cheng.

About 100 protesters from Jewish and other faith groups gathered outside the Hall of Justice on Temple Street to call for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD) to end cooperation with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and to support the so-called sanctuary bill.

The demonstrators banged drums and chanted in Spanish and English on the building’s steps, as an elaborate ice sculpture of the word ICE melted under the afternoon sun. Their message to L.A. County Sheriff Jim McDonnell was clear: Stop working with ICE.

“My grandfather crossed the Canadian border to come here illegally in 1920. Under [President Donald] Trump’s ICE regime, he would have been sent back to Europe and I would have died in the Holocaust,” said Aryeh Cohen, Rabbi-in-Residence for Bend the Arc.

“We are all immigrants. We know what it’s like to feel vulnerable in a strange land,” said Rabbi Joel Simonds, the Jewish Center for Justice’s executive director. “We want the sheriff to protect us and to advocate for bills that would make us safer.”

Senate Bill 54, scheduled for a State Assembly vote later this month, would limit the information that could be provided to ICE agents on county jail inmates and disallow local law enforcement from sharing information with immigration officials. The bill was introduced in response to the Trump administration’s broadened deportation efforts of undocumented immigrants.

McDonnell opposes the bill, saying that it would hinder custody transfer of violent criminals to federal authorities. The LASD did not respond to requests for comment.

Bill Brown, the Santa Barbara County Sheriff and president of the California State Sheriffs’ Association, said SB 54 would sever local enforcers from federal resources that they rely on to keep dangerous and violent criminals from returning to the streets.

“I think they [the protestors] should know we are certainly sensitive to the plight of the immigrant community who are law abiding. It is a small element within that community with the express goal to commit crime that we are talking about,” he said.

But Guillermo Torres, senior organizer for Clergy & Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE), said immigrants with no criminal backgrounds have been targeted by ICE — such as Romulo Avelica-Gonzalez, 49, who was picked up by agents after dropping off his daughter for school in Lincoln Heights. Avelica-Gonzalez, a Mexican citizen who has lived illegally in the United States for 25 years, had two misdemeanor convictions at the time of his arrest: a DUI in 2008 and another for receipt of stolen car tags in 1998, when a friend gave him a vehicle registration tag that was not issued by the Department of Motor Vehicles. ICE officials cited those convictions as reason for detaining and deporting him. In June, his lawyers settled Avelica-Gonzalez’s misdemeanor convictions, the Los Angeles Times reported.

“Why would the sheriff want to collaborate with an agency that wants to separate mothers and fathers from their children?” Torres said, before marching with other faith leaders to present a letter to the LASD.

Also at the protest was a smaller group of anti-SB 54 protestors who argued that the bill would protect criminal undocumented immigrants who could do harm.

“We want legal immigrants,” said Robin Hvidston, executive director for Claremont-based We the People Rising, an anti-undocumented immigration group. “Return to your home country and then come to this country, legally.”

Stephen Miller and Julia Hahn have a past

White House senior policy advisor Stephen Miller discusses immigration policy at the daily press briefing at the White House on Aug. 2. Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

We already discovered that Special Assistant to the President Stephen Miller wouldn’t be living in the United States, pushing a law to cut legal immigration by half, if not for liberal immigration laws that allowed his great-grandfather Sam Glosser into this country in the first place.

The fact is, his family tree would have withered and died long ago—in the pogroms, in the Holocaust, in the gulag – if at the turn of the century the United States didn’t allow his poor, non-English-speaking great-grandfather in.

That bit of irony doesn’t on its own make the law Miller pushed in front of a suitably skeptical press corps last Wednesday bad policy. The reason the bill won’t work — why it will actually hurt American workers and American productivity — can  be found in his own family history.

In fact, it’s all about family.

The Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment, or RAISE Act, replaces a system that favors immigrants with relatives already here with a “merit-based” system that grants legal residency green cards based on skills, education and English language ability. Under the bill, immigrants could no longer sponsor visas for extended family members and adult children.

If your aim is to halve the number of legal immigrants to the United States, cutting out family visas should do the trick. In 2014, fully 64 percent of immigrants admitted with legal residency were immediate relatives of American citizens or sponsored by family members

But if the aim of the bill’s sponsors, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AK) and David Perdue (R-GA), is to strengthen the economy, local communities and the country, it’s a big mistake.

Why should Miller of all people know that? Because of his family, the Glossers.

Nison (Max) Miller, Stephen Miller’s great-grandfather, was denied naturalization in 1932 on account of “Ignorance.”

Wolf Glosser, Miller’s great-great grandfather, escaped poverty and persecution in Russia and came to Ellis Island on January 7, 1903 aboard the German ship the S.S. Moltke. He had $8.00 in his pocket.

How did Wolf survive? His brother-in-law, Samuel Levine, who had already established himself in New York, helped him get started with a pushcart in the Lower East Side. Soon Wolf’s son Nathan joined him, escaping the misery of Poland. The two migrated up to Pennsylvania, where Wolf’s brother Moses had started a business. Nathan liked Johnstown, he stayed, and Morris Cohen, another Jewish immigrant, loaned him $200 to buy Cohen’s tailor shop, where Nathan was working.

Wolf joined Nathan. Then, on July 9, 1906, Saul, Bella, their mother Bessie and 13-year-old Sam Glosser sailed to America to join their family, and work in the business.

Sam, who was Stephen Miller’s great-grandfather, would eventually run Glossers Department Store—which went on to serve and employ thousands of Americans for generations.

As Robert Jeschonek writes in Long Live Glosser’s, had this Russian Jewish family not been reunited in America, “We might never have had that institution at the heart of our community for eighty years.”

That history shows two fallacies in the RAISE Act.

Limiting family immigration is bad business. Immigrants don’t just build America, families and communities build America.

Cultural and familial ties matter in business because they lower transaction costs, the sociologist Joel Kotkin wrote in Forbes, “Tribal loyalty fosters trust. Cultural affinity supercharges communication. Reading a contract is useful, but you also need to be able to read people. Even as free trade and electronic communications bring the world closer together, kinship still counts. Indians in Silicon Valley team up with other Indians; Chinese-Americans do business with Taiwan and Shanghai.”

In his book Tribes, Kotkin demonstrated how Jewish immigrants tossed into a hostile diaspora, spurned as “elitists” and “cosmopolitans,” were able to thrive: by using trusted bonds of family and community to create strong businesses.

He quotes Ibn Khaldun, a 14th-century Arab historian: “Only tribes held together by a group feeling can survive in a desert.”

By cutting family visas, you cut off the very thing businesses and communities need to grow strong. There is plenty of evidence to show that immigrant families and the ethno-religious tribes they belong to don’t take jobs, but, like the Glosser brothers, create jobs. According to the U.S. Bureau of the Census, about 90 percent of American businesses are family-owned or controlled.

If Miller et. al. want to switch to a point system, fine—but family and even tribal relations must count.

The other fallacy is that immigrants should speak English. Again, look at the Glossers: they arrived not speaking a word, and they did just fine.

A point system that accurately predicts which immigrants will succeed and contribute to American society could be a fine thing indeed. But as the conservative The Federalist pointed out, if it really works– then why limit immigration at all? Would Tom Cotton really mind if Arkansas, which is ranked #43 for business in the country, imported 50,000 young Sam Glossers?

Aside from Miller, there’s another RAISE Act booster whose family history also demonstrates the proposed law’s flaws.

In 1906 a young Russian Jew named Hyman Korman fled poverty and anti-Semitism in his home country and immigrated to the United States– which took him in.

Hyman settled northeast of Philadelphia. After 14 years, Hyman, according to the editors of Philadelphia Jewish Life, was “still mastering English.” But when a new road sliced through his farm, he saw an opportunity. He bought up surrounding land and began building houses for the expanding city. He turned to family members and fellow Russian Jews to grow the business.

The Kormans grew into one of America’s wealthiest and most philanthropic families. They married with the Honickmans, another incredible Jewish immigrant family success story. Businesswoman and philanthropist Lynne Honickman is the grandmother of Special Assistant to the President Julia Hahn, the former Breitbart staffer who teamed with Miller at the White House to support and promote the RAISE Act. What’s with these two?

Of course there should be effective immigration standards and laws. But Miller and Hahn are both the offspring of very wealthy families because government officials let their extended families in, and because they didn’t use poor English as a reason to deny naturalization.

Well, sort of. It turns out that Miller’s great-grandfather on his father’s side, Nison (Max) Miller, first applied for naturalization in Detroit in 1932. On Nov. 14 of that year he received his reply: “The said petition is hereby denied.”

The officer only stated a one-word reason: “Ignorance.”

Order of Court denying Nison Miller naturalization in 1932.

White House aide Stephen Miller doesn’t think the Statue of Liberty has much to do with immigration

White House senior policy advisor Stephen Miller discusses immigration policy at the daily press briefing at the White House on Aug. 2. Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Isabel Belarsky arrived in New York in 1930 fleeing anti-Semitic persecution in Russia. Eighty-one years later, she recalled what it was like, as an immigrant, to see the Statue of Liberty as her ship approached New York Harbor.

“It was a wonderful sight,” she told CNN in 2011.
Sorry, Isabel: If you think Lady Liberty was welcoming immigrants like you, the Trump administration thinks you may have have misinterpreted her message.
Explaining President Trump’s immigration policies Wednesday, White House aide Stephen Miller told reporters that the famous pro-immigration poem associated with the Statue of Liberty “doesn’t matter” since it was attached to the site years after the statue was erected.

The poem, “The New Colossus,” was written by the Jewish poet Emma Lazarus in 1883, eight years after construction began on the statue and three years before its dedication. It includes lines long associated with America’s embrace of immigrants: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

When CNN’s Jim Acosta asked Miller whether a new immigration bill favoring English-speaking applicants and vetting potential immigrants according to their skill sets is “keeping with American tradition” and the spirit of the Lazarus poem, Miller said that the poem doesn’t matter since it was “added later” to the statue.

“I don’t want to get off into a whole thing about history here, but the Statue of Liberty is a symbol of liberty and lighting in the world; it’s a symbol of American liberty lighting the world,” Miller argued. “The poem that you’re referring to was added later. It’s not actually part of the Statue of Liberty.”

Although not an immigrant herself, Lazarus, the daughter of a family that traced its roots to America’s first Portuguese Jewish settlers, wrote the poem about the statue and in response to what her biographer, Esther Schor, called the “pain of the world’s exiles.” Although a plaque inscribed with the poem wasn’t placed at the site until 1903 — six years after Lazarus’ death at age 38 — its message and the statue’s orientation near what would become, starting in 1892, the nation’s busiest entry point for new immigrants became inseparable.

“The Statue of Liberty was not conceived and sculpted as a symbol of immigration, but it quickly became so as immigrant ships passed under the torch and the shining face, heading toward Ellis Island,” wrote John T. Cunningham in a history of nearby Ellis Island. “However, it was [Lazarus’s poem] that permanently stamped on Miss Liberty the role of unofficial greeter of incoming immigrants.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson were among the presidents who gave pro-immigration speeches at the base of the statue.

Twitter wasn’t kind to Miller’s appraisal of the poem. “WHAT?!! advisor Stephen Miller says Emma Lazarus poem on Statue of Liberty ‘meaningless.’ Stephen, you are a Statue of Arrogance,” tweeted the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect.

Peter Sagal — host of the NPR quiz show “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!” — seemed flabbergasted by Miller’s assertion (which, to be fair, is technically true).

And some termed it ironic that Miller’s own great-grandfather, Sam Glosser, immigrated to America from his native Belarus.

And if the statue is no longer what Lazarus called the “Mother of Exiles,” someone may want to notify the National Park Service: Its web site refers to Lady Liberty as “The Immigrant’s Statue.”

For refugee families, Miry’s List is an angel in America

Miry Whitehill-Ben Atar (center) with the Alawad family, from Syria, in El Cajon. The nonprofit organization she created, Miry’s List, helps newly arrived immigrants settle in the Los Angeles area. Photo by Danny Liao Photography

When Miry Whitehill-Ben Atar visited a Syrian family newly arrived to Los Angeles about a year ago, with a friend who knew them through church, the 31-year-old mother of two noticed that the refugee family shared much in common with hers: The Syrian woman was her age with a baby her son’s age. But she also noticed a striking difference in their home — the apartment was almost empty.

Whitehill-Ben Atar drove home, pulled a crib from her garage and stuffed it into the trunk of her car.

“Why did I have two cribs when their family had none?” the Eagle Rock resident said. “I felt like I could help them.”

The refugee family members didn’t speak English, but when they saw Whitehill-Ben Atar pushing a crib into their apartment, they couldn’t hide their smiles.

Shortly after setting up the crib in the couple’s bedroom, Whitehill-Ben Atar and the young parents developed a list of missing household supplies they would need, including an iron, blender, clothes and books in Arabic and English.

That list became the first of many that Whitehill-Ben Atar and her team, known as Miry’s List, composed in the following months. Since then, the group has grown into a nonprofit organization with a network of friends, neighbors and volunteers that helps resettle newly arrived immigrants.

Whitehill-Ben Atar grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family in Potomac, Md. But despite her religious upbringing, she struggled to connect with Judaism.

That changed after she moved to Israel in 2008 to work for a technology company. A few months later, she left the job but stayed in Tel Aviv.

She leased an apartment near the beach and spent her days learning Hebrew, exploring her neighborhood and chatting with market vendors. She also started dating an Israeli.

Back then, she learned that being a stranger in a foreign country could be either terrifying or rewarding, depending on whether one has a support system. She eventually got a job in L.A., married her Israeli boyfriend and move to California.

When Whitehill-Ben Atar met the Syrian family last summer, she shared the list of needed clothes, furniture and household supplies with her Facebook friends. A wave of responses popped up on her computer screen from people offering help.

“There are a lot of things that [refugee]families were missing,” she said. “We have a surplus of those things. It was that simple.”

In the next few weeks, Whitehill-Ben Atar visited the family every other day with a trunk packed with furniture, electronics and food. She didn’t speak Arabic and the Syrian family didn’t understand English, but they found a way to communicate, cooking a meal together and watching their children play.

“It was inspirational to be involved with them,” Whitehill-Ben Atar said. “It opened my eyes to reality with families when they move here from Iraq and Afghanistan.”

After Whitehill-Ben Atar delivered the first supplies, she reached out to immigration case workers and asked them to connect her with other recent arrivals. At first, she worked with one family a month; then two. Within a few months, she was working with six.

Soon, the formula Whitehill-Ben Atar discovered with the first Syrian refugees became a model. Her team met a family, determined their needs, created a list and shared it with donors. Team members also shared a dinner with the refugee family.

At first, Whitehill-Ben Atar felt awkward sitting at a dinner table with strangers, unable to communicate in their native language. But she learned to embrace frustration.

“For these families, coming here with no English forces them to deal with awkwardness all the time,” she said. “That’s just their reality, but they don’t have to be in that awkwardness alone.”

When families arrive, the team gives them a few days to relax and get accustomed to their new lives. Then volunteers come and bring the newcomers a Department of Motor Vehicles book in their native language, educate them about apartment prices in their neighborhood and help them navigate public transportation.

One of Miry’s List’s recent arrivals was Bashir Kashefi, 45, who moved from Afghanistan, where he worked as a translator with the United States Army units that handled bomb detonation.

Kashefi arrived in March with his 2-year-old daughter and a pregnant wife. They stayed with a former colleague’s family, nine people in a one-bedroom apartment. A few days later, the colleague asked Kashefi and his family to leave.

The Kashefis spent three nights sleeping on the street, their young daughter curled up in her father’s lap.

One afternoon, Kashefi started a conversation with a woman who happened to be one of Whitehill-Ben Atar’s volunteers, who spoke Pashto, his native language. The woman offered help.

A few days later, Miry’s List’s team placed the family into a hotel room where they spent two days. Whitehill-Ben Atar brought them breakfast and lunch until the family was transferred to her friend’s house in Pasadena. A month later, the family moved into an apartment in Anaheim.

“If not for Miry, it was impossible for us to live here,” Kashefi said. “We didn’t have money to live here.”

Since last June, Whitehill-Ben Atar and her team have worked with more than 100 families, helping them with household supplies, emotional support and housing. Miry’s List has expanded into a network of three full-time employees, 40 volunteers and 12 translators, who speak several languages, including Arabic, Pashto and Farsi. 

Earlier this month, the Los Angeles City Council honored Whitehill-Ben Atar for her work.

“I don’t have millions of dollars,” she said. “I don’t have connections, but I use my network of moms and families to solve those problems.”

Whitehill-Ben Atar says dealing with recent arrivals might be difficult and frustrating, but she never doubts the importance of her work.

“Those families need to know that someone would stand by them no matter what,” she said. “We are here to serve them. We don’t want them to wonder if they should go back to Aleppo.”

Give ‘dreamers’ the protection they were promised

A demonstrator holds a sign to protest against the refugee ban on Feb. 4. Photo by Tom Mihalek/Reuters

In recent weeks, President Donald Trump has adopted an increasingly sympathetic tone toward the young undocumented immigrants — known as Dreamers — who have been granted renewable two-year protection from deportation under former President Barack Obama’s administration program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. Trump has promised to “show great heart” in dealing with these “incredible kids” and has encouraged them to “rest easy.” Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly has likewise characterized DACA as “a commitment” by the government that must be honored.

While such statements are encouraging, recent incidents have called into question whether Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents are hearing the same message. In February, our client — a young father and two-time DACA recipient named Daniel Ramirez Medina — was swept up during a raid targeting another individual and detained without justification for more than six weeks. Federal agents also recently detained a 22-year-old Dreamer in Mississippi after she publicly criticized the government, and summarily deported a 23-year-old California man with a cognitive disability despite the fact that twice he had been granted protection under DACA.

The government established DACA in 2012 in recognition of the special circumstances surrounding “young people who were brought to this country as children and know only this country as home.” To qualify for DACA, eligible individuals are required to pay a substantial fee, provide the government with highly sensitive personal information and pass a rigorous background check. Understanding that many Dreamers might be reluctant to voluntarily come forward, the government coaxed these young people out of the shadows by promising that they would be free from arrest, detention and deportation as long as they played by the rules, and by assuring them that any information they disclosed would not be used for immigration enforcement purposes.

The government’s arrest and detention of Ramirez represents a clear breach of these promises. Although federal agents initially suggested that Ramirez was a gang member, the government quickly abandoned that allegation, and now asserts only that he supposedly “hangs out” with gang members — a charge he vigorously denies, and which is not grounds for revoking DACA. And rather than acknowledge that it made a mistake in arresting him, the government summarily stripped Ramirez of his DACA status, locked him up, and is seeking to have him deported, despite the fact that he has passed multiple DHS background checks and is not accused of any crime.

Given these extraordinary circumstances, our legal team filed a habeas corpus petition and several emergency motions seeking to have Ramirez released from custody. Rather than defend its conduct, the government sought to evade judicial review by arguing that the court lacked jurisdiction to consider the matter, adopting a position at odds with the Constitution and hundreds of years of well-settled law. Thankfully, our team was able to secure Ramirez’s release on bond after the government was forced to admit that there is no evidence he poses any risk to public safety.

Last month, our team filed a new complaint against the government. In addition to reinstatement of Ramirez’s DACA status and work authorization, we are seeking a judicial declaration that DACA cannot be revoked — and Dreamers cannot be arrested, detained or deported — without basic procedural safeguards such as notice and an opportunity to be heard. Fundamental fairness and the due process rights enshrined in the Constitution require no less.

Treating Dreamers and other undocumented immigrants with fairness and compassion also is consistent with Jewish values. More than any other commandment, and no fewer than 36 times, the Torah teaches us that we must act compassionately toward the “strangers” who live among us because we “were strangers in the Land of Egypt.” Citing this commandment and the great rabbis of the Talmud, the Jewish Theological Seminary explained earlier this year that “there is no religious obligation more central to Judaism than the protection of refugees and immigrants.”

Beyond its moral dimensions and constitutional significance, honoring the DACA promise has important implications for our society. In addition to its essential humanitarian benefits, DACA has helped unleash the potential of nearly 800,000 young people who have long called our country home. It has enabled them to attend universities, open bank accounts, start businesses, buy homes and cars, and — for Luis Cortes Romero, one of my co-counsels in the Ramirez case — graduate from law school and pass the bar exam. The right-leaning Cato Institute has estimated that DACA will add $280 billion to the U.S. economy over the next decade.

As the Obama administration acknowledged in establishing DACA, the program does not create any substantive rights or entitle Dreamers to permanent lawful status, as only Congress can grant those privileges. But the government did promise these young people that they would be entitled to basic protections if they came out of the shadows and played by the rules. As Americans and as Jews, we should do everything in our power to ensure that our government continues to honor that promise.


JESSE GABRIEL is a senior associate at the law firm of Gibson Dunn & Crutcher LLP and serves on the board of directors of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

Ellis Island: Gateway and holding cell

Inside the tuberculosis ward at Ellis Island. Photo by Stephen Wilkes.

When photographer Stephen Wilkes first visited the sprawling abandoned hospital complex on Ellis Island almost two decades ago, he became obsessed with the wards where more than 1 million immigrants languished from 1892 to 1954. The émigrés had been detained — and prevented from entering the United States — for suffering illnesses including trachoma and tuberculosis.

It was “a place where the huddled masses yearning to breathe free remained huddled … yearning, many permanently, just inches short of the Promised Land,” Wilkes writes in his 2006 photography book, “Ellis Island:  Ghosts of Freedom.”

More than 30 pictures from that project are on display at the Peter Fetterman Gallery at Bergamot Station in Santa Monica through May 27.

During Wilkes’ initial visit to the decaying hospital in 1998, he discovered “the shoes of immigrants long forgotten; shards of mirror, remnants of beds … [and] a chamber where tuberculosis-infected mattresses were sterilized with scorching heat. … A surreal sculpture of vines, leaves and moss, mingled with shattered plaster, curling paint and rusted iron, meandered through empty corridors and dead rooms.”

Wilkes, 59, who lives in Westport, Conn., was mesmerized not only by the juxtaposition of thriving plants and detritus but also, he said in a recent telephone interview, by “the palpable sense of humanity that was in these ruins. I felt the presence and the energy of our ancestors.”

Wilkes’ own mother passed through the Great Hall at Ellis Island after fleeing Nazi-occupied Vienna in 1939. Traveling alone at the age of 9, she clutched a homemade teddy bear into which her mother had sewn the family’s bonds and jewels. While she bypassed the medical facility, Wilkes said, “The island always had for me this connection to her. So [the project] was quite powerful for me personally.”

In fact, he said, he was so moved after his first journey to the hospital that he couldn’t sleep for two weeks afterward. He returned to the site more than 75 times over the next five years to capture luminous images of every corner and crevice.

In a measles ward, he photographed burnt-yellow light illuminating a single chair that “was such a powerful, almost physical presence in the way it was directly in my face as soon as I opened the door,” Wilkes recalled. “I felt it was like a family member — my mother or my grandmother — waiting for me to come home.”

Above two grimy sinks in a tuberculosis wing, Wilkes shot a mirror reflecting the Statue of Liberty from a nearby window. “I got chills because I just had this vision of an Eastern European woman, very much like my grandmother, who saw the statue every morning when she got out of bed to spit or wash her face,” he said. “She would be literally so close and yet so far from freedom.”

In a room covered with peeling green paint in the psychiatric hospital, Wilkes captured an old desk that appears to dominate an adjacent chair — as if a menacing psychiatrist were interrogating a patient. A stack of chairs in another chamber is reminiscent of the huddled masses. And a study of a light switch against a wall of crumbling blue paint reminded Wilkes of a map as well as the sea traversed by the émigré patients.

Wilkes’ photos, as well as a video he produced on the complex, helped convince Congress to spend $6 million toward stabilizing the structure some years ago. “It will never again look like it does in my photographs,” he said.

Approximately 12 million immigrants passed through Ellis Island, one quarter of them Jewish. Wilkes himself grew up in a family of Jewish émigrés, in Great Neck, N.Y.  His mother’s immediate relatives had managed to flee the Holocaust, while his father survived Buchenwald before escaping the camp and hiding in a bakery for the duration of the war.

It was the photographer at Wilkes’ Conservative bar mitzvah who first introduced him, in earnest, to the craft; the boy was riveted by the man’s portrait of Stephen and his identical twin brother that had been taken by candlelight. Wilkes went on to apprentice with the photographer for almost a year, then opened his own business, in his mid-teens, photographing weddings and bar mitzvahs.

After attending Syracuse University, Wilkes published photographs in Time magazine, Vanity Fair, The New York Times Magazine and other periodicals. In between those assignments, he embarked upon fine art exhibitions such as his “Day to Night” project, which captures cityscapes from a fixed camera angle over time, and a show on the rapidly changing country of China.

His “Ellis Island:  Ghosts of Freedom” was named by Time magazine as one of the five best photography books of the year in 2006.

That project began when one of Wilkes’ former editors from Life magazine asked him to capture images of Ellis Island’s moldering hospital. Wilkes jumped at the chance while braving dangerously rotting floorboards and donning a respirator to prevent poisoning from asbestos and toxic lead paint still clinging to the walls.

Like the legendary Lewis Hine, who photographed immigrants at Ellis Island in the early 20th century, Wilkes used only available light to shoot his pictures. Transparency film enabled him to capture “the subtleties and the nuances, the depth and the richness of lead paint along with the magical, extraordinary highlights and shadow detail that I saw in those rooms,” he said.

“I try to bring viewers in with the beauty, the texture and the light, but what I’m really interested in is having people connect with the history of the people who lived in a particular room,” he added.

At a time when immigrants again are under siege, Wilkes said he hopes his photographs will create increased empathy for new Americans.

“Each one of us has a direct DNA connection to an immigrant, and that’s something these pictures speak to,” he said. “It’s my hope that they inspire others to feel that
connection.

For more information about the exhibition, contact the Peter Fetterman Gallery at (310) 453-6463. 

Letters to the Editor: Immigration ban responses, kudos to the Journal, reactions to anti-semitism

An Addition to Online Parenting Resources

I just read with interest your article “Two Online Parenting Resources Provide Community and More” (Feb. 24) and was pleased to see Peachhead and Jen’s List receiving well-deserved recognition.

Your readers should know that the Jewish community in Los Angeles also has a wonderful resource for parents: JKidLA.com. This JKidLA is a website created in 2009 by Builders of Jewish Education (BJE). It is designed to provide families with everything they are looking for in the Jewish community with programs for children ages newborn to 18 years old.

Rachel Kaplan, BJE JKidLA Concierge

Trump’s Immigration Policy

I was encouraged to write after reading so many letters that expressed disagreement with President Donald Trump’s new immigration policy, especially David N. Myers’ article reminding us what could happen, even in America, to law-abiding citizens like the Japanese Americans during World War II (“Remembering Korematsu Today: A Jewish Obligation,” Feb. 24).

I, as a young child arriving with my family, was a refugee, with thousands of others in Europe during the rise of fascism. My father, a rabbi, was fortunate to see the writing on the wall in Europe and got support from the HIAS to get to America. I always remember landing in New York, seeing the Statue of Liberty welcoming us: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” These words reflect the great American values and approach toward immigrants we should reclaim and live by again. .

Leila Bronner, Los Angeles

An Admirer of Bernard-Henri Levy

It was fascinating to read about French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy (“Bernard-Henri Levy Bares His Jewish Soul,” Jan. 13). I admire and praise his strong moral defense of Israel and his defense of the ultra-Orthodox while condemning the occasional wrongdoings of some individuals. I admire his view that Jews must be committed to a moral concern for others and for the outside world in general. To those who condemn all the ultra-devout, we can ask: Do you condemn all the secular when one commits murder? As a fellow philosopher, I see his longtime admiration of and fascination with the ultra-Orthodox faithful as his balance to the ever-questioning, primarily secular, uncertainties of philosophy.

Bob Kirk, Santa Barbara 

Kudos to the Journal, From Israel

I can’t say I’m a Jewish Journal junkie, but I try to pick it up when I’m within arm’s reach of a copy, or occasionally online. As a former Orange County kid, and a UCLA student, it still feels a bit like my hometown outlet.

What good fortune I had this week, when I was in Los Angeles and Orange County, and my mom gave me your 30th anniversary edition and the one after (Jan. 27 and Feb. 3) — what a treat. 

I wish I had the funds to take out one of those congratulatory ads but hope this email can suffice. 

I’m back in Israel now and will pass around the copies at a big Shabbat dinner we’re hosting tonight. 

The refugee/immigrant spread, with photos and long captions, is particularly powerful. I also very much enjoyed the Leon Wieseltier interview, taking some amusement at his comments about foundations and donors while noticing there were a few with ads on the opposite page and around his interview!

It’s not just an important corner of the Jewish media that you occupy, but you are clearly at the leading edge.

May you, your staff and the Journal go from strength to strength.

Scott Lasensky via email

The Rise of Anti-Semitism

Rob Eshman sounds just like the complaining Jews who angered God and Moshe (“5 Ways to Fight Back,” March 3). Candles before burning out shine much higher and then they die. So the rise of anti-Semites is definitely not because of Donald Trump; it’s a reaction to the soon-to-come termination of their existence. 

Soraya Ghalchi via email

As a conservative and a Jew, I am virtually always disappointed by Rob Eshman’s columns. However, given the importance of the issue of anti-Semitism, I feel compelled to comment on “5 Ways to Fight Back.” Eshman simply could not refrain from his gratuitous attacks on President Trump and other conservatives. Eshman’s unremitting, left-wing ideology prevents him from seeing anti-Semitism for the danger that it is — a danger that affects all Jews — right, left and center.  

When the anti-Semites attack, they do not bother to inquire if the Jewish people they attack are Democrats or Republicans, or if they are liberals or conservatives. They do not care if the cemeteries that they desecrate are filled with Democrats or Republicans. Something, perhaps, for Eshman to ponder.

Michael H. Pinchak, Tarzana

Mayor Garcetti on the future of Los Angeles, his faith and Trump

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti visits the Journal office for a wide-ranging interview. Photos by Lynn Pelkey

No one can escape the challenges of Los Angeles — not even the mayor.

As voters prepare to take a stand on ballot initiatives that aim to impact homelessness, development and, yes, L.A.’s infamous traffic, no one can say Mayor Eric Garcetti can’t relate. Just last week, he found himself ensnarled in gridlock, 20 minutes late for an interview at the Journal’s Koreatown office.

In the midst of a re-election campaign, Garcetti — the city’s first elected Jewish mayor — said he’s looking at the long-term. So while he’s confident that Los Angeles is moving in the right direction, he promised no quick fixes.

“I never approached my first term as, you know, I have four years to change this city,” he said in a freewheeling interview that covered topics as varied as city services to the city’s response to President Donald Trump’s executive orders to his own spiritual journey. “I think from the beginning, I’ve approached this job as an Angeleno, a lifelong Angeleno. And I kind of looked at the next decade to 50 years as the time horizon I wanted to influence. So I think my second term is very much similar to the first term, about being able to reach for great opportunities and address pressing challenges.”

Garcetti, who faces seven challengers in this election, talked about his role in raising the minimum wage, and putting the heft of City Hall behind last November’s successful ballot initiatives to fund transportation and homeless efforts to the tune of billions of dollars. Now he is campaigning for Los Angeles County Measure H on the March 7 ballot, which would raise the sales tax by 0.25 percent to provide drug and mental illness rehabilitation and prevention programs for the homeless. He’s also come out against Measure S, the initiative that aims to reform land use, saying it would negatively impact affordable housing in the city.

The mayor — son of a Jewish mother and a father of Mexican and Italian heritage, former District Attorney Gil Garcetti — had plenty to say about his increased spirituality, as well, and how it’s informed his response to recent events on a national level. (Garcetti has pledged to fight Trump’s effort to deport undocumented immigrants, who number about 11 million nationwide, with 850,000 of them in Los Angeles County.)

In a roundtable discussion, arranged by Journal columnist Bill Boyarsky, Garcetti discussed all this and more. An edited version of that conversation follows; for the full transcript, go to this story at jewishjournal.com.

JEWISH JOURNAL: Six years from now, what’s traffic going to be like in L.A. if you’re the mayor?

ERIC GARCETTI: We’ll be on the way to relieving traffic, no doubt. I don’t think it will be much better in six years. … It’s impossible to undo, you know, 40 to 50 years of urban planning in that short period of time. But I think the 10- to 20-year horizon is actually incredibly hopeful. We will build, you know, Measure M, $120 billion, about half of that to new capital [projects]. To boil that down, that’s 15 new lines or extensions of existing lines — the biggest, I think, physical change to this county since water came here. I don’t think it’s overstating.

JJ: What is homelessness going to be like at the end of the next term?

EG: I think we’ll be more than halfway home. … The biggest thing, I think, to end street homelessness is we need an army of social workers out there. I go out with these outreach teams all the time. I don’t know if a mayor’s done that before, but I go out as regularly as I can. I know people by their first names on the street now. I know their stories. And we had 15 people, trying to talk to 28,000 homeless Angelenos in the city of L.A. when I started. Just do the math. I’ve gotten that up to 80 through some city funds that I kind of have scraped along, but the reason I’m so passionate about Measure H is we probably need 500 or 600 — then we could really make an impact.

JJ: Talk about the deportations advocated by Trump. What are you prepared to do, and are you prepared to pay the price that you and the city might have to pay?

EG: Chief Justice [John] Roberts said [in a previous case that] the federal government cannot force you to do one thing in order to get money for another thing. … It’s very clear you can’t take port money because my cops won’t be turned into immigration officers. I’m not kidding myself that they won’t potentially try to take some dollars from us: Bring that fight on. I mean, what are you going to do? Take away radiological and biological weapons detectors at the port? You’re going to take away the vouchers that go to homeless vets that are now being housed and take away their rents?

I think this is a moment when [you should] stand up for your values, and we’re prepared to do that politically, legally and economically.

JJ: What obligations do you feel to Los Angeles’ very large Jewish community?

EG: I feel a deep one. I feel my values have been informed by both sides of my family. When I look at something like my responsibilities to the Jewish community, [they] are both direct in what I can do to serve them, but also in what we can do to activate each other. [Like] when a moment comes like people turned away from our airport because of their religion or the country of their origin. I re-read the [S.S.] St. Louis history, which, the one aspect I didn’t realize was, St. Louis wasn’t just turned away [in 1939] because it was refugees and Jews. They actually said they were worried there was a national security threat of Nazi spies on there, which is like so much a mirror of what the justification is right now for Syria and Somalia and other places.

JJ: Have you talked to law enforcement about the threats against Jewish facilities?

EG: Yes, I’ve talked to LAPD about it. Absolutely.

JJ: Is it a major concern of yours?

EG: It’s a concern. I’ve watched too many of us say the sky is falling before it actually falls, with this new administration and the change. I think we have to be really precise so that we don’t let anything go under-commented on but we don’t stoke the fears, as well. We’ve seen a doubling of hate incidents since the elections.

JJ: In Los Angeles? In the country?

EG: In Los Angeles. And that’s not just anti-Semitic.

JJ: According to the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD)?

EG: Yeah. LAPD statistics. So that’s what’s been reported. I get [reports] once a month, and I’ve asked them to add hate incidents since the election so I can track it more carefully.

JJ: Last question: What have you learned from your text studies with Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR that’s made you become a better mayor of Los Angeles?

EG: Well, you know, it’s funny, like most good talmudic studies, you just sit around and gossip a lot. … I’ve learned a lot. It’s funny, I love being, for instance, in a Black church in South L.A. and bringing up the lessons she taught me about, you know, for instance that it was a sin in the olden days to pray in a room that was windowless, because you had to reflect the divinity. … God isn’t about going inward; it’s about reflecting outward that divinity. And so I use that as a metaphor for what our responsibilities are — for us to not just close into our communities and close into our issues but actually reflect that divinity off of us. …

It’s not just with Sharon but with other folks as I’ve kind of come to more faith and spent a lot more time going to services. I actually love the High Holidays. I get to hear some really brilliant thinking that, you know, rabbis have tried to encapsulate an entire year. And there’s, I would say, a real split right now between those who see this moment as a moment to stand up and be urgent and to possibly offend some folks that are in their congregations, and others who are playing it safer and saying look, we have diverse views, I can’t get involved in that, but let me just talk about internal things. And, you know, I personally err toward the former. Whether you’re a religious or a political leader, we’re called on in these moments to stand up.

Immigration and the image of God

Surprisingly – or maybe not – many of our current debates were foreshadowed by ancient rabbinical disputes.

One such foreshadowed debate was our national conundrum about immigration, legal and otherwise.

In his book Judaism’s Ten Best Ideas, our Hebrew College professor Art Green recounts an argument between Rabbi Akiva and Simeon ben Azzai:

“What is Judaism’s most important teaching? Rabbi Akiva had a ready answer: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ (Lev. 19: 18) is the basic rule of Torah.’ His friend Simeon ben Azzai disagreed. ‘I know a more basic rule than that,’ he said. And he quoted: ‘This is the book of human generations: On the day God created humans, He created them in the image of God (tzelem elohim); male and female He created them, blessing them and calling them humans on the day they were created’ (Gen. 5: 1– 2).”

Ben Azzai found Akiva’s answer about loving our neighbor unconvincing for two reasons.

First, he didn’t see how we could be commanded to love others. He thought of love as a feeling: we either have it or we don’t. Moreover, some people are unlovable, either because they are obnoxious or evil. To solve that problem, he argued that what’s required is not a feeling, but a recognition that all people are made in the image of God. That basic level of respect is what we owe to everyone.

His second reason followed from the first. If all people are created in the image of God, then it applies whether or not they are our neighbors. We owe all people at least that same basic level of respect. We should not treat people as less than they are merely because they’re unfamiliar to us.

Ben Azzai had the better argument because he based it not on involuntary feelings, but on things we could control. We can recognize the truth that every person is sacred, and we can act consistently with that truth.

However, Akiva also raised an important question: Do we have the same obligations to everyone, or do we have greater obligations to our “neighbor” than to total strangers?

Ben Azzai’s argument does not answer Akiva’s question. He’s right that we should respect all people as embodying the image of God. He’s right that we should consider their welfare important. He’s right that other things being equal, we should avoid harming them and sometimes try to help them.

What about when other things are not equal? Do our “neighbors” have a greater claim on us than other people?

Moral psychologists have a story called “the trolley dilemma.” A runaway trolley car is about to hit five people, but you can save their lives by pushing one person off a bridge onto the tracks. What should you do?

Most of us recoil in horror at the thought of pushing a person off the bridge, even if it would result in a net saving of four lives. Such cold-blooded utilitarian calculation seems repulsive.

But what if the person on the bridge was a stranger, and the five people on the tracks were your family? Then the decision becomes much tougher – agonizing so.

In the abstract, the two cases are the same: kill one person to save five people. But in the two cases, the people involved are not the same, and that makes a lot of difference.

The trolley dilemma presents a situation where the costs and benefits are known with certainty. In real life, we rarely have that much certainty. And it balances the welfare of a complete stranger, for whom we have no personal feelings, against the welfare of people we love.

Maybe some of us would kill the stranger in both cases. But for those of us who wouldn’t, it’s a much tougher decision when it could save our family. The point is that even if all people deserve a basic level of respect, our moral intuitions say that some people deserve more.

After that point, our moral intuitions are less helpful. Which people? Why? How much more respect? And what about cases where costs and benefits are uncertain? In most real-life situations, we deal with probabilities, not certainties. We rely on subjective judgments, not only about risks but about values.

Consider the immigration debate. Both sides can probably agree on these facts:

– Most immigrants pose no physical threat to Americans.

– Most immigrants are not refugees, but are economic migrants.

– A tiny minority of immigrants pose a physical threat to Americans.

Beyond that, the debate is no longer about facts. It’s about our moral duty to prospective immigrants, our moral duty to our fellow Americans, and our subjective assessment of the costs, benefits, and risks involved. The last factor is less important than we think, because our assessment of the costs, benefits, and risks is heavily biased by our pre-existing moral feelings.

I don’t have a provable answer, because there isn’t one. People who are equally intelligent, educated, and morally conscientious are on every side of that particular debate.

It’s not quite like the old joke about asking two Jews and getting three answers. In this case, we get a thousand answers, and we find people at each other’s throats about which of the thousand answers is absolutely and totally right. Such disputes are best resolved through the democratic process and, where applicable, through the decentralized decision-making that was a vital feature of the U.S. Constitution.

Broad-based L.A. Jewish coalition forms to respond to Trump actions

President Donald Trump signs an executive order restricting immigration. Photo by Carlos Barria/Reuters

A Los Angeles-based coalition of more than 1,800 self-identified Jews launched this week by releasing a statement that responds to executive actions on immigration and refugees and affirms a commitment to Jewish and American values.

“Frankly, I’ve never seen in my life in L.A. a coalition this broad, that’s come together for this single purpose,” said former L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, one of six members of the organizing committee at the helm of the new group calling itself Jews United for Democracy and Justice (JUDJ).

The other committee members are former L.A. Congressman Mel Levine, civics scholar and social entrepreneur Shawn Landres, UCLA Jewish history professor David Myers, political consultant Dan Loeterman and attorney Janice Kamenir-Reznik.

On Feb. 28, the six organizers sat down over breakfast in Myers’ Pico-Robertson home, the coalition’s impromptu command center, to explain the group’s goals to a reporter.

“We’re not aspiring to be another Jewish organization in the alphabet soup of Jewish organizations. … We certainly imagine ourselves not displacing, but working alongside other organizations that are engaged in the same kind of work,” Myers said.

The group’s statement of principles doesn’t mention President Donald Trump by name, but addresses a perceived threat to democratic institutions posed by his administration.

“JUDJ is deeply concerned about rising threats to religious tolerance, equal rights, a free and fair press, human dignity, and long-held norms of decency and civil society,” the statement reads. “We will speak out and take action when our shared Jewish values require us to counter those threats.”

It lays out, in broad strokes, values it sees as threatened by the executive branch, including “America is a nation of laws” and “America is a nation of immigrants.”

“There’s an almost daily assault on one or another foundation of our democratic tradition — kind of aerial bombardment,” Myers said. “And I think what we’re saying is that in the midst of the confusion that is sown, we want to be a voice of clarity.”

The coalition came together after a Feb. 5 meeting of Jewish leaders in Myers’ living room, called in response to a Jan. 27 executive order by Trump that restricted admissions of refugees to the United States. After that meeting, members formed five working groups: immigration, long-term strategy, coalition building, lawyers and rabbis.

The statement of principles, first circulated widely on Feb. 24, represents the coalition’s public debut. By Feb. 28, the list of signatories included more than 110 clergy members, 55 current and former elected officials and 270 board officers and senior executives of Jewish communal groups and philanthropies.

The list incorporated members of the board of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles, as well as other Jewish membership organizations; elected officials in Sacramento and Washington, D.C.; all three citywide elected officials in Los Angeles, City Attorney Mike Feuer, Controller Ron Galperin and Mayor Eric Garcetti; philanthropists; university professors; and clergy from every major denomination.

The move to establish a new coalition comes as some members of the Jewish community see a lack of organized leadership opposed to Trump’s actions. After Federation President and CEO Jay Sanderson sent a community-wide email that addressed the refugee order without denouncing it, for instance, alumni of Federation’s Rautenberg New Leaders Project wrote a letter expressing their disappointment and requesting that he take a stronger stance.

But members of the JUDJ organizing committee insisted the group wouldn’t compete with Federation or any other Jewish organization, but rather lend political capital to groups that can use it.

“We are not in competition with anybody else,” Levine said. “We’re inclusive and draw people from all of these organizations.”

Levine said one of the primary purposes of the coalition would be to support and join with communities targeted by the administration, naming in particular the Muslim and Hispanic communities. But it also seeks to unite Jews across political and demographic lines in support of democratic values.

“A lot of people in my generation weren’t around for the fights that Zev was around for,” said Loeterman, who is 28. “We weren’t around for the fights that David and Janice and Shawn and Mel were around for. … They see this as kind of our generation’s chance to join with other generations.”

Trump order flouts American principles

Activists gather at Portland International Airport on Jan. 29. Photo by Steve Dipaola

Like most Jews whose family history features flights from persecution, I have a soft spot for refugees, the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” welcomed to our shores by Emma Lazarus’ famous poem engraved on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. But there have always been those who felt differently.

President Donald Trump’s recent executive order suspending the State Department’s Refugee Assistance Program and restricting visa entry from seven Muslim-majority countries is one in a long line of racist, anti-immigrant measures, from the Naturalization Act of 1790 (limiting naturalization to whites) and Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 (prohibiting Chinese laborers) to the Immigration Act of 1924 (enacting national origin quotas to reduce the number of Jews and Italians, and exclude Arabs and Asians), which have influenced our immigration policies up to the present day. As President Harry S. Truman said in vetoing the similarly problematic Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, “In no other realm of our national life are we so hampered and stultified by the dead hand of the past, as we are in this field of immigration.” Congress overrode his veto. President John F. Kennedy was so disturbed by the racist and discriminatory nature of our immigration laws that he even wrote a book about it, “A Nation of Immigrants,” in which he warned that “emotions of xenophobia — hatred of foreigners — and of nativism — the policy of keeping America ‘pure’ … continue to thrive.”

Trump campaigned largely on xenophobic rhetoric aimed at Latinos, Asians and Muslims, here and abroad. For example, on Nov. 6, just days before the election, he called the community of 25,000 Somali refugees in Minnesota a “disaster,” and promised not to admit more refugees without the approval of the community. It is therefore hardly surprising that the new president used his broad executive authority to stop admitting refugees and restrict entry to the United States by individuals from countries like Somalia, which he believes may be sources of radical Islamic terrorism. I expect there will be many more of these types of orders in the days to come, and, in my view, the president likely will succeed in implementing these policies.

To be sure, Trump’s first executive order on immigration has caused a great outcry, even among those who generally support strong anti-terrorism efforts, mainly because it was so poorly conceived and executed. In just the first days, hundreds of travelers were caught in limbo, and attorneys working over the weekend obtained a temporary stay of certain elements of the order, some of which, like the refusal of entry to valid green card holders, may have already been retracted by the administration. There seem to be no exceptions made for properly vetted visitors, including students or scientists attending conferences on tourist visas, or even people who have assisted our armed forces. No doubt there will be protracted litigation over some of the more objectionable parts of the order, such as the instruction to prioritize refugee claims made by members of “a minority religion” (i.e., Christians). Singling out seven countries might also run afoul of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which barred discrimination against immigrants (but not visitors) on the basis of national origin (unless permitted by Congress). But the upshot is that Trump is pulling up the welcome mat. The huddled masses are no longer going to be welcome. That is the message he is sending to his constituents, and to those living abroad.

Rather than focus on the legality of Trump’s executive order, which has already disrupted the lives of thousands of people, we should be focusing on the underlying policy issue. Is this the country that we want to be? Do we really want to admit no students, no scientists, no tourists, no visiting family members, no artists, no musicians, and no skilled employees from these seven countries? What exactly was wrong with the existing vetting procedures? Why were these seven countries chosen, and not others, such as Saudi Arabia, with a history of exporting terrorists to our shores? A strict reading of the executive order would bar any non-American citizen “from” Iran from obtaining a tourist visa, meaning that many of the relatives of our Persian Jewish community living abroad in Israel or Europe can no longer come to visit. Does that make anyone safer?

With regard to refugees, there is an even more fundamental question. Should we close off our country to even the most persecuted refugees? There are thousands of refugees, families with children, who have been waiting for years while their applications were vetted and who now are blocked. Some argue that we need to set up high barriers to entry to prevent terrorists from entering the country. Almost 80 years ago, when the United States faced a far greater threat than we do today, and Jews were the ones clamoring to get in, Americans made the same argument. “How do we know there won’t be Nazi spies among the refugees?” they asked. Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long ordered all consular officials “to put every obstacle in the way” to delay and stop granting visas to Jewish refugees. As a result, 90 percent of the quota spots were left unfilled, and the Jews trapped in Europe, our relatives, were murdered.

I see little or no difference between the “America First” policy of President Trump, and the similarly named nativist policy that informed Breckinridge Long. We can do better, I think, than defying our own principles in the name of security.


RANDY SCHOENBERG is an attorney and a law lecturer at USC.

Trump ban does not invalidate US visas for Israelis born in banned countries

Protesters outside the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv on Jan. 29. Photo by Baz Ratner/Reuters

U.S. visas held by Israeli citizens born in the seven Muslim-majority countries covered under President Donald Trump’s travel ban remain valid, the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv has confirmed.

A statement about the visas was posted Tuesday on the embassy’s website.

“If you have a currently valid U.S. visa in your Israeli passport and were born in Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, or Yemen, and do not have a valid passport from one of these countries, your visa was not cancelled and remains valid,” the statement said. “Similarly, we continue to process visa applications for applicants born in those countries, so long as they do not have a valid passport from one of those countries and have not otherwise declared themselves to be a national of one of those countries.”

It added, however: “Authorization to enter the United States is always determined at the port of entry. We have no further information at this time.”

Asked about the issue Monday by the French news agency AFP, the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem referred the question to the State Department, which could not answer the question several hours after it was posed.

Some 140,000 Israelis were born in the seven countries covered in the 90-day travel ban imposed by the executive order signed Friday by Trump. About 45,000 were born in Iran and 53,000 in Iraq, according to AFP, citing official statistics. Most are older than 65 and did not retain citizenship in their birth countries.

Make America just (again)

Demonstrators protests outside Terminal 4 at San Francisco International Airport on Jan. 28. Photo by Kate Munsch/Reuters

At the height of the escape from Egypt, the Israelites are encamped on the banks of the Reed Sea and the Egyptians are bearing down on them. The Israelites and Moses are crying out to God. In a surprising twist God answers Moses: “Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to go forward!” Rabbi Eliezer expands God’s words thus: “The Holy One of Blessing said to Moses: ‘Moses, my children are in trouble! The sea is closing in on them, and the enemy is chasing them, and you are standing and praying?!!’”

There is a time for prayer and a time for action. We are now in a time that demands action.

Donald Trump has made immigration, refugees, and immigrants a target since the beginning of his candidacy. He now seems to be fulfilling his promises to build a wall (which the American taxpayer and not Mexico will end up paying for); deny entry to refugees based on their religious belief; establish a belief and values test for entry; empower local police to act as immigration and deportation agents; renew and expand contracts with private prisons to imprison immigrants without trial or representation for the sole “crime” of being undocumented.

This is all inimical to Jewish tradition and American values.

The great 12th century philosopher and jurist, Moses Maimonides, OBM, taught that the commandment to not return a runaway slave to his master (“You shall not turn over to his master a slave who seeks refuge with you from his master. He shall live with you in any place he may choose among the settlements in your midst, wherever he pleases; you must not ill-treat him.” (Deut. 23:16)) is given to “makes us protect and defend those who seek our protection and not deliver them over to those from whom they have fled. It is not even enough to protect those who seek your protection, for you are under another obligation toward him: you must consider his interest, be beneficent toward him, and not pain his heart by speech.” Maimonides further taught that this law is imposed upon us in regard to all who seek refuge regardless of their relative status in society. (Guide for the Perplexed III:39)

While the history of the United States is spotty at best in regard to welcoming strangers, and giving comfort to the weak—Native Americans were subjected to genocidal treatment; Africans were brought to this country by force as chattel to produce wealth for their masters and die—the ideals of the country give hope for its perfectibility. The preamble of the Constitution sets out as its task the creation of a more perfect Union—that is, the admission that the current Union is not perfect but perfectible. The first way that this more perfect Union might be established is by establishing Justice. Justice might reasonably be defined in line with the Declaration of Independence as: “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” When one group is discriminated against systemically, by denying them entry to the country or by denying them the privileges of citizenship once they are in the country, the country is no longer pursuing justice. To quote Martin Luther King “America has defaulted on this promissory note [which guarantees these unalienable rights].” However we must with King “refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.”

In order to walk in the way of righteousness and prove that the bank of justice is not bankrupt, the Jewish community must stand with all right-minded communities to

– Support the creation of “Sanctuary Cities” across the country which will not cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in the involuntary deportation of undocumented residents;

– Urge cities and states to set aside resources which will guarantee access to counsel to insure due process for all those involved in deportation proceedings;

– Support the permanent extension of DACA until such time as a path to citizenship is created;

– Support a broad immigration reform which would allow eleven million undocumented residents of this country a path to becoming US citizens;

– Oppose the creation of a deportation force, or the channeling of extra funds to ICE or the Border Patrol so that they act as a deportation force;

– Support the closing of detention centers where immigrants are held in prison-like conditions despite the fact that they are not charged with any crime;

– Oppose the use of private prisons in general and specifically for incarcerating undocumented immigrants.

We have entered upon dark times, but we cannot despair. We must act justly and then “God will cause your vindication to shine forth like the light, the justice of your case, like the noonday sun.” (Psalms 37:6) This is how we make America great.


Rabbi Dr. Aryeh Cohen is Professor of Rabbinic Literature at the American Jewish University and Rabbi in Residence at Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice.

Trump deserves credit for forcing a necessary immigration debate

President Donald Trump signs an executive order to impose tighter vetting of travelers entering the United States on Jan. 27. Photo by Carlos Barria/Reuters

There is nothing immoral about building a wall. A wall is a tool. Its aim is to separate between neighbors. To stop a ball from flying into your precious garden, to make it tougher for anyone to peep into your house, to prevent a child from walking without care into your swimming pool. Or to stop illegal immigrants from entering a country such as the United States.

There is also nothing immoral about a country wanting to keep tab on the people entering it. A country is defined by its citizenry and by its laws and by its borders. If there are no borders, there are no countries. Would a world with no countries be better than the one we have now? I doubt that. But even if the answer to this question is positive, no one can force a certain country to be the first one to forgo its borders – and test the proposition that a world without countries is a better world.

There is nothing immoral about a country having an immigration policy. In fact, all countries have immigration policies. Some stricter, some more loose. Some emphasize cultural characteristics; some emphasize economic abilities. Moreover: a country can alter its immigration policies – if its citizens, represented by their political leaders, decide that a new era requires a new policy.

Even using harsh language is not always a bad idea. At times, it is necessary to signal that the intentions of a leader are serious. At times, it is necessary for people in other countries to understand that they better look for options other than the country they thought about if they wish to immigrate.

Banning immigration from a certain country or region, banning immigration of people who speak a certain language, have a certain color, believe in a certain God, is what sovereign countries often do explicitly or implicitly. Of course, if a country bans black people, or Jews, or poor people, or Muslims, or citizens of Mexico, from entering it – this country tells us something about itself: that it favors a certain religion, or a certain race, or an economic status. That it has a prejudice against a religion, or a race, or an economic status. In other words: the rules with which a country governs its entry gate reflect on the country no less than they reflect on the people barred (or allowed) from getting in.

The Trump administration seems to want to reduce the number of people from certain backgrounds who enter the US. It also seems to want to make it harder for anyone to enter the US illegally. Both goals could be legitimate. Are possibly wise. Are arguably feasible.

Still, there is a debate – and as usual, it is confused, and noisy, and chaotic. In fact, no less chaotic than Trump himself.

What’s the debate all about?

In truth, the debate is about (or ought to be about) two important things and one unimportant (but potentially important) thing:

1. Important: Is the policy advocated by the Trump administration wise? Is it wise to limit the number of immigrants? And is it wise to limit the number of immigrants from Yemen or Iraq?

2. Important: Does the policy – the way it is devised, and even more so the way it is sold and advertised – reflect the values America stands for?

3. Not so important: Was the Trump administration efficient and savvy in implementing the new policy in the way it did?

Obviously, the debate about the third question is the easiest debate, and the most common. That is, because we all tend to argue about the things we see before our eyes. For example, a family that already seems to have its license to enter the US when it is stopped at the airport. For example, a court having to deal with a blunder at airports.

And, of course, for a certain family, or a certain person, the question of efficiency can make a huge difference. But for the nation the question of a policy’s initial efficiency is not the most important. We witnessed this with the initial blunder of the Obamacare website, and we witness it again today, with Trump’s initial immigration policy blunder. There is a tendency to confuse a debate about a policy with a debate about competence.

But these two debates are different. That is why you hardly ever see people who argue that Obamacare is great, only the Obama administration was not the right administration to implement it – and that is why you will hardly ever see people arguing that the Trump policy is great, only that the Trump administration is not the right administration to implement it. Generally speaking, the people who become angry with the implementation of a plan, with the competence, or lack thereof, of the administration, are the same people who oppose the policy to begin with. Only it is more convenient for many of them to talk about competence than to talk about their real motives – to oppose the policy itself.

So leaving competence aside (it is pretty clear that competence was not quite there when the president implemented his hastily crafted plan) we are still left with the two important questions: is the Trump policy on immigration wise? does the Trump policy on immigration reflect the values of America?

Is it wise?

In some ways, it certainly is. Walls work. Making immigration more difficult stops people from coming in. In some ways, questions remain: why Yemen and not Pakistan? Why Iraq and not Saudi Arabia? In some ways, it depends on one’s goals: Is it Trump’s goal to prevent excellent Muslim engineers from coming to work in the US? This is a question of weighing priorities. One could say: This is not economically wise (because the people of the US want good engineers to come to the country). One could also say: This is culturally wise (because the people of the US want to preserve a certain cultural coherence – and a large Muslim community disrupts such coherence).

Does it reflect America’s values?

In some ways, it certainly does. America voted for Donald Trump knowing full well what he intends to do. If the values of America are the values of Americans – and if Americans voted for the exact policy Trump is currently implementing – then the policy reflects what are currently the values of the American people.

In some ways, questions remain: Does current-day America believe in profiling groups rather than looking at specific persons? Does it judge people by their religious beliefs and life circumstances rather than their behavior? Does it speak in such a dismissive way about other people, who were not lucky enough to be born American citizens? Half of America doesn’t seem to want to do these things, and their values are also American values.

In some ways, it depends not strictly on values but rather on one’s evaluation of risks: All Americans want to save American lives, and all Americans feel for the refugees from war-torn Syria, but not all Americans agree about the level of risk America would be taking, or ought to be taking, in letting refugees from Syria enter the country. The values – keeping America safe and helping refuges – are shared. The risk assessment makes the difference.

So what is the bottom line of all of these points?

A. That immigration policy is complicated. In fact, it is one of the most complicated acts of any government. Crafting an immigration policy is a balancing act for any society. The debate about immigration can be harsh, but at bottom it is a healthy debate, because it helps clarify for the people of any country what is the cultural environment they prefer as they envision the future of their country. With all the many problems that rightly alarm the critics of Trump, the new president deserves some credit for refusing to let the current status quo (and more than an ounce of intellectual and bureaucratic laziness) shape America’s cultural future.

B. That hollow slogans cannot capture the complexity of this matter – neither Trump’s slogans, nor his critics’. Trump, by being blunt and contrarian, makes it hard to agree with his policies which seem to be lacking in thoughtfulness and compassion and respect for people whose only sin is to want to join the American bandwagon. His harshest critics, by failing to differentiate between what is reasonable (having a secure border) and what is questionable (talking derogatively about Muslims), also make it hard for Americans to trust their judgment.

8 great bipartisan goals for Donald Trump

We are all witnesses to the inauguration of our 45th president. He wasn’t my first choice (for that matter, he was safely well outside of my “top 10”). In the Republican primary, I voted for John Kasich. When Donald Trump became the nominee, I opted to support Hillary Clinton because she seemed the opposite of Trump’s lack of seriousness, inadequate knowledge of history and policy, and simplistic conclusions about complex issues, all seemingly without introspection or retrospection. 

But here we are, contemplating the unknowns that such an unconventional — and so far, unsettling — administration portends. While many are focusing on Trump’s daily tweets and outrageous behaviors, and they seem to be legion, we instead should put this election behind us and work on the serious business of working together. Perhaps by being so unconventional, Trump can be the agent for real “out-of-the-box” change. In short, It’s time to get to work.

We all attest to want middle-class economic relief, a better health plan, more employment, tax reform, compassionate immigration policy and a stable world. Here is some advice to the new president in areas where bipartisanship might prevail, where Republicans and Democrats can work together to move the country forward. 

Immigration reform  

Mr. Trump, I think you know that a  wall between the United States and Mexico is unrealistic and ludicrously costly, but there are more sensible ways to secure our borders and reform our immigration system. Politicians from both parties support vigilantly protecting our borders and enhancing background checks. So go ahead and build a metaphorical wall — but, when it comes to undocumented people already living in this country, you also must demonstrate your humanity. You should promise the children of immigrants that they can remain and grant those who immigrated here illegally a pathway to citizenship. This is largely the plan devised by a bipartisan group of senators in 2013; let’s revisit it now.

Tax reform

Everybody wants to fix the inequities and complexities of the current system, but no one wants their own ox gored. Let’s shake up the tax code and get four things done quickly, most of which have the support of a majority of public opinion and Congress: a) Lower corporate tax rates, currently the highest among the 35 countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, to the median of that organization; b) Roll back marginal tax rates by increasing the income level at which income taxes kick in, expanding the lowest brackets and rolling the highest bracket back to 35 percent; c) Phase out the home mortgage interest deduction, which has contributed to the accumulation of debt, exacerbated the global financial crisis and benefited owners at the expense of renters; and d) Eliminate some of the largest tax loopholes, starting with the carried interest deduction, the ethanol subsidy and the biggest corporate giveaways.

Fix Social Security  

As an interim measure, increase the income level below which Social Security taxes are charged from $118,500 to $200,000, raise the retirement age to 69 and eliminate Social Security payments at retirement for those who made in excess of $250,000 on average in the five years before retirement. Eventually, eliminate the Social Security and Medicare taxes and replace them with something more progressive and fairer than taxing labor and capital.

Fund infrastructure 

Identify infrastructure improvements and put people to work. Provide a mix of grants to states and low interest-rate loans to public-private partnerships willing to invest in needed improvements. There will be no better time for the government to borrow than in today’s low interest-rate environment. Many Democrats already have signaled their willingness to work with the president on this issue.

Reaffirm America’s support for its allies 

We must reaffirm our commitment to NATO and our neighbors to the north and south. Go ahead and try to improve NAFTA, but don’t scrap it — our auto industries and others depend on it. As for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), you can try to make it tougher, but we can’t afford to provide a vacuum that China will fill, both in trade and geopolitics. Get the TPP done on terms you can declare acceptable.

Fix the Affordable Care Act 

A great health care system assures accessibility, affordability and quality of care. Let’s all acknowledge that the ACA (Obamacare) has increased accessibility. Yet it funded this accessibility with increased health care costs, the bulk of which were borne by the middle class — that very middle class you pledged to serve. So let’s fund this more sensibly, with user fees that moderate overuse of the system, elimination of the restrictions on insurance companies to sell across borders (I won’t be happy until health insurance ads are as ubiquitous and annoying as those Geico and Allstate ads for car insurance), and allowing people greater choice in their health care plans. Some of the funding can come from a value added tax (VAT), as discussed below.

Help Israel chart a course 

I believe Israel has been boxed into a corner. The world dictates terms but expects little in return. Let’s stipulate that the suburbs of Jerusalem, those clearly within the Israeli sphere under the Ehud Barak-Yasser Arafat negotiated borders and the Olmert plan, are Israeli. In return, Israel should dismantle the tiny enclaves whose original purpose was to make a contiguous Palestinian state impossible and expand none of the others. We should propound a set of principles that includes a solid contiguous Palestinian state, fewer checkpoints and the daily indignities to which Palestinians are subjected, and an Israel Defense Forces guarantee of security for Israel and the West Bank, and later for the Palestinian state, for a period of decades. Consider proposing an interim period of confederation, during which the West Bank can develop industry, infrastructure and institutions.

Start the discussion of a VAT 

This one doesn’t have bipartisan support — yet. Trump ran on a platform of strengthening American competitiveness. Let’s stop taxing American labor to fund Social Security and Medicare. It makes us less competitive. Plus, we should tax things other than labor and capital. We should tax consumption. A value added tax (VAT) has been accepted through much of the developed world. All consumption (excluding food, pharmaceuticals and other necessities) would be taxed. This would eliminate much of the current regressive system and would act as an indirect tax on wealth, rather than labor or capital.

Pie in the sky? Impossible to believe we can get things done? Trump already has achieved the improbable once. Let’s do it again — together.


Attorney Glenn Sonnenberg is president of Latitude Real Estate Investors and past president of Stephen Wise Temple. He sits on the boards of Bet Tzedek, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, Para Los Ninos, USC Gould School of Law and Wise Freedom School Partners.

Letters to the Editor: Election and immigration

The Left, the Right and the Election

Dennis Prager declares Good triumphed over Evil by stating: “Turns out the whole Democratic Party lost hugely on Election Day” (“Please Keep Calling Us Racists and Misogynists,” Nov. 18). He failed to look at the numbers. As of late November, the Democratic candidate had garnered more than 2 million more votes than his president-elect. Therefore, the Democratic Party is the majority party. The Republican candidate was saved by the Electoral College likely to give him 282 votes. 

I wish his president-elect good luck. I hope he will rise above his questionable utterances made during the campaign and be a good president for Americans of both sexes, all races and all religions.

And, who knows, maybe his Jewish grandson will be a Democrat and be the first Jewish president 50 or 60 years from now.

Ken Lautman, Los Angeles


While Republican Party apologist Dennis Prager bloviates about his party’s wins on election night, he misses the point in his urgency to again demonize the left for its “half-century [of] libeling and labeling conservatives” and “the harm the left has done to … Judaism, Jews, America and to Western civilization.”

Over 70 percent of eligible, registered voters either didn’t vote at all or voted against Donald Trump. In the face of this non-mandate, which Hillary Clinton would have inherited, as well, Mr. Prager has curiously chosen to strafe the left and to ignore perhaps a greater task at hand: to use his voice to help heal his own Republican Party, and, rather than chastising caring Jews who sat shivah last week, lead by example in words and deeds why we should do teshuvah and return to the Republican Party. Essentially, Mr. Prager missed a golden opportunity.

Graham Becker, Oak Park, Calif.


Dennis Prager writes, “For eight years, many on the left have described criticism of Barack Obama as racist. … For the left, it is not possible that conservative opposition to [Obama] has been rooted in public policy and moral differences that have nothing to do with race.”

Numerous polls have shown that more than 40 percent of Republicans believe President Barack Obama was born in Kenya and is a Muslim. Donald Trump and the conservative media who propagated these calumnies (and Republicans who embraced these lies) did so solely to delegitimize the presidency of Barack Obama. And they did it for only one reason: because he is Black.

This has nothing to do with “public policy and moral differences” and everything to do with race. 

Michael Asher via email


It is amazing that after all the information came out, no thanks to the mainstream media, about Hillary Clinton, (“The New Political Reality,” Nov. 18) that The New York Times reported that 71 percent of “Jews” still supported her candidacy! 

But, again, not all the Jews of Mitzrayim left with Moses.

This election was a beautiful morality play, and thank God, it turned out right.

Enriqué Gascon, Los Angeles


An Iranian Jew’s View of Immigration

As a fellow American Jew with an Iranian heritage, Gina Nahai’s series of “do you ever think” admonitions posing as “questions” would have been demeaning were they not devoid of intellectual rigor and evident of a pervasive bubble mentality among the left’s elite (“Appeasing the Crocodile,” Nov. 18). Immigration laws of any nation are intended, first and foremost, to protect the safety and well-being of its citizens. A charitable and moral country such as ours (perhaps the most in the history of mankind) also welcomes the benighted and offers a haven to the persecuted, but not at the risk or to the detriment of its citizens. A nation without borders cannot remain a nation. I doubt Ms. Nahai leaves her home door unlocked anytime during the day. If a minority voice among my cultural cohort exhibited anti-American sentiments, I would 1) expect my government’s vigilance in monitoring its immigration, and 2) speak up against its perversion, not cast dispersion from the luxury and safety of my Westside home. Ms. Nahai is disingenuous by claiming she has only “one question” and is “not attempting to make a point here,” but the real question is why isn’t the answer self-evident to the intellectual left?

Ramin Kianfar via email

Refugee promise, immigrant fear

Many European countries characterize the refugee crisis as a “German problem.” This is absurd — it should concern all member states, many of which have a dismissive attitude toward refugees. In stark contrast stands German Chancellor Angela Merkel, with her now famous expression, “We can do it!”  She has emphasized the human duty to receive men, women and children in need. 

Merkel has been firmly in power for 11 years. Now, thanks to her pro-immigrant stand, she’s being challenged for the first time as opposition to the asylum law increases. 

I am proud to know Angela Merkel personally. I admire her, because she always keeps her dignity and is true to herself. Among all of Europe’s rulers, she is, without a doubt, a true friend of the State of Israel. On her, one can rely 100 percent. It was Merkel, after all, who pointed out the danger toward Israel’s existence from the Iranian nuclear threat. 

In East Germany, where she grew up, Merkel openly witnessed anti-Zionism. The murder of 6 million Jews under the Nazi regime and Germany’s resulting responsibility for the safety of the Jewish state made a deep impression on her. She often had problems understanding why many of her fellow German citizens did not see the misdeeds of the Holocaust as an enormous burden for Germany’s worldwide reputation. It was important to her to correct that reputation, which suffered greatly from World War II, with an especially warm, generous refugee policy of open frontiers.

Anyone who appreciates Merkel for her generous humanity no doubt hopes she will not remain a “lonesome chancellor,” but that she can regain the confidence of her people and remain in power. It is important to take into account that no German citizen is doing worse due to the refugees. Social benefits have not been reduced, governmental institutions are still strong. Hence, one can and should see the influx of refugees as an opportunity, not a danger. 

Of course, the opportunities do not come without concerns. For Natan Sharansky, president of the Jewish Agency since 2009, the main concern is that Europe does not lose its identity. Many refugees do not share European values and have great difficulty respecting the norms of democracy. More important is whether European citizens have the inner strength to stand up for essential European norms and to appreciate and protect the value of freedom. “If refugees are received as new citizens,” Sharansky said, “without requesting them to accept the common rules, Europe is in danger.”

 “Within five years, the State of Israel has mastered a population increase of 20 percent,” he said, referring to the massive influx of immigrants from the former Soviet Union. “When we attempt to integrate people that are not willing to share our values and norms, our most important plan won’t succeed. Integration can only succeed if they want to be part of the country’s history, culture and political traditions, and deeply connect with the society. Only then.”

Continued acts of anti-Semitic violence underscore those concerns. In 2015, there were 108 serious physical attacks on Jews in France — an increase of 30 percent. Additional statistics illustrate the feeling of fear among Jews living in France. 

“Today, even small children in France know not to let themselves be recognized as Jews in public,” said Meyer Habib, the Jewish representative of the French parliament. “The immigration of Muslims in France and the new type of anti-Semitism only have one clear meaning: There is no future for Jews in France!”

In Switzerland, where I live, Islam is the strongest growing religious community. After every assassination by Islamists, Europe’s (and Switzerland’s) Muslims are asked to distance themselves from the terror. 

But perhaps more is needed. 

“Ashamed dissociation from terror is not enough,” secular Moroccan writer Kacem El Ghazzali said. “It is more important to fight the movements that lead to terrorism. Islamic terror has indeed something to do with Islam. And whoever criticizes Islam is still far from being [an] Islamophobe.” 

Each and every moderate Muslim has a responsibility to act and to publically compete with the prevailing fundamentalist interpretation of the Quran, El Ghazzali said.  

It remains to be hoped for that more moderate Muslims take on this responsibility.


ARTHUR COHN is a multiple Academy Award-winning producer based in Switzerland.

Talking Trump with my father

In my mind, I have arguments with my dad. In my mind, I am much more eloquent than my first grade Russian could possibly allow.

If he were alive today, my father would vote for Trump–  just like most of the Russian Jewish immigrant population and a sizeable minority of Persian Jews in the US.   This is something I just cannot understand.

My family came to this country in 1975 from Odessa, USSR. I was 7. Our story was the usual one for Russian émigrés of that time. My mother worked two jobs, we saved our money and she started a successful business. My brother and I went to good schools. My parents never failed to appreciate the freedoms we had and the basic justice of American society

This is what I find interesting: How can immigrants fleeing from tyranny be drawn to a candidate who exhibits so many signs of being a tyrant?

Since both my parents have passed away, I can only wonder how they would answer this question. And in my wondering, I inevitably end up having an imaginary argument with my father.

“Dad, how could you support Trump?” I  ask. “You’re an immigrant! He scapegoats immigrants for domestic economic problems and problems with crime that have nothing to do with them, according to all statistics! He wants to ban Muslims from entering this country. Racist crap comes out of his mouth daily. Did you like it when he said that he wanted Jews and not blacks to count his money? The neo Nazis consider him their champion, their ‘God Emperor.’ He refused to distance himself from white supremacist supporters. He has flip flopped on Israel so many times!”

“Son,” my imaginary dad responds with a gravitas that would have been entirely foreign to the real Zinovy Rivkin, “you are so American. So soft, so sensitive, so politically correct. This is why your mother and I worked so hard? So you could go to a fancy school and become a socialist? Look, Trump is a real man. He says what’s on his mind. Does he sometimes say dumb things? Sure, but so do all of us when we speak from the heart instead of the teleprompter. He has the guts to say what we are all thinking .”

“Son,” he continues, “this country has been going to hell. You’re a doctor – can’t you hear it wheezing? Your friends the Democrats have been giving Pedro Hernandez free food and healthcare and education and jobs while Americans drown in debt and joblessness. 

And those Muslims! You think they your buddies? When your back is turned they will cut your Jew throat! Shush! I know, I know – the moderate ones! No such thing, you putz! If you see one, catch it for me and bring it home. I want to see it with my own eyes.”

“And don’t you worry about Israel, Trump has plenty of good Jews around him.  As for as what Hillary thinks of Israel, I have one name for you: Max Blumenthal. Never heard of him? Look him up, genius, you will learn something.”

“But dad…”

“Wait, I’m not done yet. You were just a little pisser when we left, you hadn’t had a taste of socialism yet. Well, we had to choke down great big bowls of it and we’re full! No more, thank you. Your Democrats have been trying to create their socialist paradise here in America for 50 years. Thank God for Reagan! He gave it to Gorbachev, right on the nose! The Republicans have been standing up for freedom and the real, working America ever since. Eight years of Hussein screwing up and giving everything away is enough. Its time to move in the right direction again.”

This is the point where my imaginary fingers are tearing out my imaginary hair. 

Is conversation possible here? Not as long as all we do is try to convince each other.  These are emotional, tribalist arguments. Us vs them, Democrat vs Republican (despite the fact that Trump has shown little interest in upholding GOP platforms). Trying to win the other person over with facts often backfires – they cling to their opinions with renewed vigor because, ultimately, many political opinions are based more on beliefs than facts and challenging those opinions directly is interpreted as a personal attack.  We think that facts dictate our beliefs, but in reality it is our beliefs that dictate which facts we accept and which ones we reject. 

If there is common ground between my late father and myself, it is around values we share like justice,  freedom and dignity. But these can be small patches of conversational real estate encircled by land mines. Keeping the peace will mean efforts to see the world from the other person’s perspective and trying to understand their worries. It will mean respecting their point of view and avoiding direct conflict, especially when one or the other gets emotional. It will mean that often we will agree to disagree. 

As physicians, we sometimes have to reach deep for empathy, but the effort always pays off. The doctors who give up burn out quickly and become miserable. So it is for all of us humans. We must all find our ways toward empathy, despite ideological obstacles, especially with the ones we love.


Alexander Z. Rivkin, M.D. is Assistant Clinical Professor at David Geffen, UCLA School of Medicine.