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

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

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.”

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

Give ‘dreamers’ the protection they were promised

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.

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

Ellis Island: Gateway and holding cell

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

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

Courtesy of Pexels.

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

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

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

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.

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

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

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.”

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

Trump order flouts American principles

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.

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

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

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.

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

Make America just (again)

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.

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

Trump deserves credit for forcing a necessary immigration debate

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.

Donald Trump, accepting nomination, paints dark picture in pledging to put ‘America first’

Accepting the Republican presidential nomination, Donald Trump pledged to restore law and order to America, to put “America first” in world affairs, and to work with Israel — which he called “our greatest ally in the region.”

Attacking presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s record as secretary of state in his speech Thursday at the Republican National Convention, Trump criticized last year’s agreement curbing Iran’s nuclear program. Opposed vehemently by the Israeli government, the agreement is a popular bête noire for Republicans.

Trump said the deal put Iran “on the path to nuclear weapons.” He also criticized the Obama administration for reneging on its pledge to attack Syria if its government used chemical weapons.

“Not only have our citizens endured domestic disaster, but they have lived through one international humiliation after another,” Trump said. “The signing of the Iran deal, which gave back to Iran $150 billion and gave us nothing – it will go down in history as one of the worst deals ever negotiated. Another humiliation came when president Obama drew a red line in Syria – and the whole world knew it meant absolutely nothing.”

Trump pledged to defeat the Islamic State terror group, known as ISIS, and called Israel America’s best ally in the Middle East.

“We must work with all of our allies who share our goal of destroying ISIS and stamping out Islamic terrorism,” he said. “Doing it now, doing it quickly. We’re going to win. We’re going to win fast. This includes working with our greatest ally in the region, the State of Israel.”

Trump criticized the United States’ allies for taking advantage of its military protection and financial assistance. He called NATO “obsolete,” and said “the countries we are protecting at a massive cost to us will be asked to pay their fair share.” On the day he addressed the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in March, he had suggested that Israel would be included in that group.

Trump said he would prioritize nationalism over “globalism.” He repeated his slogan, “America first,” at one point chanting it while discussing trade agreements. “America first” was the name of an isolationist and often anti-Semitic movement leading up to World War II. Trump has said the slogan has no connection to the movement.

“The most important difference between our plan and that of our opponents, is that our plan will put America First,” he said, prompting chants of “U.S.A.” “Americanism, not globalism, will be our credo.”

Much of the speech concerned fortifying the U.S. border and increasing law and order in the country. Trump condemned attacks on police officers, read off a list of recent negative economic trends and promised to improve the economic situation of all Americans.

Calling himself the “law and order candidate,” Trump said the U.S. would “be a country of generosity and warmth,” while providing security to its citizens.

“I have a message for all of you: the crime and violence that today afflicts our nation will soon come to an end,” he said. “The attacks on our police, and the terrorism in our cities, threaten our very way of life. Any politician who does not grasp this danger is not fit to lead our country.”

Trump did not repeat his ban on Muslim immigration to the United States, though he proposed a modified version of that policy. He pledged to “immediately suspend immigration from any nation that has been compromised by terrorism until such time as proven vetting mechanisms have been put in place. We don’t want them in our country.”

Trump criticized career politicians, promising to fix what he portrayed as a broken system. He cited Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ loss to Clinton in the Democratic party as an example. He said he would appeal to Sanders voters by promising to improve America’s trade agreements with other countries for the benefit of American workers.

“I have seen firsthand how the system is rigged against our citizens, just like it was rigged against Bernie Sanders — he never had a chance,” Trump said. “But his supporters will join our movement, because we will fix his biggest single issue: trade deals that strip our country of its jobs and strip us of our wealth.”

Trump pledged to ease access to private schools, saying he would allow parents to send children “to the safe school of their choice.” He also criticized the restriction on religious leaders preaching politics from the pulpit, known as the “Johnson amendment,” and said that he was “not sure I totally deserved” the support of Evangelical Christian communities.

“They have much to contribute to our politics,” he said of religious leaders. “Yet our laws prohibit you from speaking your own mind from your own pulpit. I’m going to work very hard to repeal that language and to protect free speech for all Americans.”

Trump was introduced by his daughter Ivanka, who is Jewish. Ivanka Trump said she did “not consider myself fundamentally Republican or Democrat.” She said Trump would change labor laws to benefit working mothers, and would push for equal pay for equal work. She also said her father had a “strong ethical compass” and recalled building toy models of buildings on his office floor as a child.

“One of my father’s greatest talents is the ability to see potential in people before they see it in themselves,” Ivanka Trump said. “My father not only has the strength and ability necessary to be our next president, but the kindness and compassion that will enable him to be the leader our country needs.”

Trump returned the affection, showing pride in his wife, Melania, and his five children.

“In this journey, I’m so lucky to have at my side my wife Melania and my wonderful children, Don, Ivanka, Eric, Tiffany, and Barron,” he said. “You will always be my greatest source of pride and joy. And by the way, Melania and Ivanka, did they do a job!”

And though he called for unity in the country and to “believe in America,” he got in a jab at his string of opponents this year.

“They said Trump doesn’t have a chance of being here tonight, not a chance,” he said. “We love defeating those people.”

Donald Trump urges ban on Muslims entering U.S.

Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump on Monday called for a ban on Muslims entering the United States in the most dramatic response by a candidate yet to last week's shooting spree by two Muslims who the FBI said were radicalized.

Trump's “statement on preventing Muslim immigration” drew fierce criticism from some of his rivals for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, all of whom have been searching for ways to knock him out of the lead.

Withering reaction flowed in from former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, Ohio Governor John Kasich, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.

“Donald Trump is unhinged. His 'policy' proposals are not serious,” Bush said in a tweet.

The billionaire developer and former reality TV star, who frequently uses racially charged rhetoric, called for a complete shutdown of Muslims entering the country “until our country's representatives can figure out what is going on.”

“Until we are able to determine and understand this problem and the dangerous threat it poses, our country cannot be the victims of horrendous attacks by people that believe only in Jihad, and have no sense of reason or respect for human life,” Trump said.

Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, asked in an email if the shutdown would apply specifically to immigration or more broadly to student visas, tourists, and other travelers to the United States, replied: “Everyone.”

Trump went farther than other Republican candidates, who have called for a suspension of a plan by President Barack Obama to bring into the United States as many as 10,000 Syrian refugees fleeing their country's civil war and Islamic State militants.

Twitter exploded over Trump's proposal with Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton calling his idea “reprehensible, prejudiced and divisive,” but conservative pundit Ann Coulter writing, “GO TRUMP, GO!”

Ibraham Hooper, director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim advocacy group, had a blistering response.

“We're entering into the realm of the fascist now,” he said by telephone. “It should be disturbing not only to American Muslims, but it should be disturbing to all Americans that the leading Republican presidential candidate would issue essentially a fascist statement like this.”

White House spokesman Josh Earnest told MSNBC that Trump is “seeking to tap into a darker side, a darker element, and try to play on people's fears in order to build support for his campaign.”

Obama on Sunday night in an Oval Office address had called on Americans to be tolerant of fellow citizens regardless of their religion.

Trump's aim is to bolster his position among conservative voters who have kept him atop opinion polls of Republican voters for months, to the point that establishment Republicans fret he could win the nomination and do so poorly in the general election next November that Republicans could not only lose the White House but also control of Congress.

Whether Trump will pay a price for the move is unclear. He has shown a proclivity toward insulting people with no penalty, from saying a storied Vietnam veteran, Senator John McCain, is not a hero to blasting Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly.

The most recent Reuters/Ipsos poll found stark differences between Republicans and Democrats in how they view Muslims. The poll, which was conducted after last week's San Bernardino, California, attacks, found that 69 percent of Republicans expressed at least some fears of Muslims, compared with 39 percent of Democrats.

To support his proposal, Trump pointed to data from the conservative think tank Center for Security Policy indicating that a quarter of Muslims in a poll thought violence against Americans was justified.

The center's president, Frank Gaffney Jr., has been critical of Muslims in America, and the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights group, calls him “one of America's most notorious Islamaphobes.”

Senator Graham tweeted that Trump has “gone from making absurd comments to being downright dangerous with his bombastic rhetoric.”

“This is just more of the outrageous divisiveness that characterizes his every breath and another reason why he is entirely unsuited to lead the United States,” said Kasich.

A spokesman for Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson, Doug Watts, said Carson did not believe that religion should be a litmus test for entry to the country but said everyone visiting the United States should be monitored during their stay, saying that is the case in many countries.

Trump's statement followed the massacre last week of 14 people in San Bernardino, slain in a hail of bullets by a Muslim couple that the Federal Bureau of Investigation said on Monday had been radicalized.

At gala dinner, Mexican President Pena Nieto thanks American Jews for pro-immigration stand

Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto praised the Jewish community of the United States for supporting the rights of Hispanic immigrants.

“You have raised the banner of this cause,” he said.

The president addressed 150 Jews from North and South America at a gala dinner last night at Mexico City's Centro Deportivo Israelita. The event marked the culmination of a three-day conference hosted by the American Jewish Committee to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of its Belfer Institute for Latino and Latin American Affairs.

Guests in sharp evening attire stood as the handsome, young president entered along with three top-level cabinet members. 

AJC Executive Director David Harris welcomed Pena Nieto, affirming the Jewish community’s support for his efforts to bring economic reform and equality to the country.  Conference co-chairman Bruce Ramer introduced the president by stressing the value of “the trilateral relationship” of the United States, Israel and Mexico.

American Jewish Committee conference co-chairman Bruce Ramer shakes hands with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto.

In his extended remarks, Pena Nieto did not mention Israel. He did stress the Mexican-Jewish contribution to the country’s development, then returned to the plight of the Mexican-American community.

“Your loud voice protects the rights of the immigrant community in the United states,” Pena Nieto said, “You are great partners.”

Pena Nieto also thanked the American and Mexican-Jewish community for supporting his efforts at developing Mexico's economy and reducing inequality. 

“The cause we share is development of Mexico. You have been part of this,” he said.

Guests included Israeli Ambassador to Mexico Jonathan Peled as well as ambassadors from Azerbaijan, Armenia Turkey, and several other countries.  

After the president spoke, he remained for dinner, dessert, and a performance by the Centro Deportivo Israelita dance troupe, who performed traditional Mexican dances to Jewish music. The president stayed to the end.

“He brought the government with him, and he stayed,” one impressed Mexican-Jewish businessman said. “He’s saluting our people.”

The entire conference began Nov. 9 with a rare ceremony inside the Metropolitan Cathedral.  Mexican television and press turned out in force as the AJC audience gathered in front of the massive gold-leaf main altar to hear a panel of Catholic and Jewish leaders mark the 50 year anniversary of Nostra Aetate.

Billed as a “dialogue,” the event unfolded more as a series of brief speeches lauding Pope Paul VI’s October 28, 1965 declaration that reversed centuries of official Catholic anti-Semitism.

“The Second Vatican Council,” said Cardinal Norberto Rivera, Archbishop of Mexico City,  “was one of the most important events of the 20th century.”

Rivera, who is Mexico’s highest-ranking priest, said that Pope Francis would be very happy to see Jews and Catholics gathered together in Mexico’s central cathedral.

“We have to learn to walk together,” said Rivera.

Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the Apostolic Nuncio to Mexico, declared that Nostra Aetate means, “fighting any form of anti-Semitism, insults, discrimination, or persecution.”

Both priests emphasized that Jews and Catholics can be partners in responding to the pope’s call to address climate change and environmental degradation.

Nostra Aetate, said Rabbi David Rosen, AJC’s Director of Interreligious Affairs, established that, “it is wrong to present Jews as rejected and condemned.”

Rosen recounted several meetings between the American Jewish Committee and the current pope, and praised his deep connection to the Jews.

“Not since St. Peter has a pope known the Jewish community as well as Pope Francis does,” Rosen said.

While the church officials emphasized that Nostra Aetate was a way for “enemies” to reconcile, the Jewish speakers saw the landmark statement as the Church finally coming to terms with its anti-Semitic teachings.

“What we are celebrating is true teshuva,” he said, using the Hebrew word for “repentance,” though its root meaning is “return.”  “The Church is returning to its origins.”

The AJC promotes partnerships among Jewish communities and between Jews and the wider society.  While much of its most important work is behind the scenes—and off the record–this conference focused on very public displays of cooperation between Latin and North American Jewry and Jews and Latin America.

Salomón Chertorivski, Secretary of Economic Development of Mexico City, drove that theme home with a keynote speech during a dinner hosted by the Mexican Jewish community at the Gran Hotel (Jewish-owned, and the location of an opening scene from the new James Bond movie).

The up and coming young Mexican Jewish politician praised the great strides in Mexican development but urged the well-heeled audience to work with Mexico to help close the country’s gaping divide between rich and poor.

The greatest risk to the Jewish community, he said, is a Mexico  “fragmented” along class lines.

During the day, panel presentations on issues pertaining to Jews, Israel and Latin America took center stage.

Israel’s Ambassador to Uruguay, Nina Ben Ami, and Israel’s Ambassador to Mexico Jonathan Peled discussed the challenges of representing Israel during the Gaza War, and cooperation between Israel and Mexico through the Mashav program.

At a state-of-the-Jews session one afternoon, Jewish community leaders from Chile, Argentina, Colombia and Brazil presented the situation of their communities.

The situation ranged from positive if not problem-free to dire, with the majority at the positive end of the scale.  The Colombian government, for instance, is deeply pro-Israel—the only Latin American country that has refused to recognize a Palestinian state. 

The philo-Semitism extends to its people—some 6,000 Colombian Christians have converted to Judaism, and rabbinical officials worry about the increasing demand.

Generally, the problems the Jewish leaders faced tended to be problems shared by their wider societies—their fate is tied to the fate of their countries.

There were, however, deep concerns voiced by experts about the situation of Jews in Venezuela, whose ruling party has aligned itself closely with Iran and Hezbollah.  AJC officials said they continue to monitor the situation there with concern.

But at the gala dinner for Mexico’s president, the focus was on partnerships that are working.

AJC Executive Director David Harris addressed the President of Mexico directly, thanking him for deepening Mexico’s relationship with Israel and declaring, “Mr. President, know that day and night, 24/7 you have friends in the U.S. We at AJC have stood with you and we stand proudly with you tonight.”

Liberal Jewish group launches TV campaign against anti-immigrant hatred

The public debate over immigration reform and the rhetoric that is being used in the Republican presidential primary in the last few months, has prompted Bend the Arc, a Jewish social justice group, to launch a campaign against anti-immigrant hatred.

On Monday, the Jewish political action committee released a 30-second TV advertisement, as well as an online petition, to raise the issue and urge the American Jewish community to work together to change the public discourse over the matter.

The six-figure ad will run on CNN, ABC, CBS, and NBC during the Sunday morning talk shows, as well as during the MSNBC Democratic presidential forum Friday evening, according to Hadar Susskind, director of Bend the Arc.

“We’ve heard this ugly kind of hatred before. Many of our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and millions of other Jewish immigrants, faced this same kind of hate when they arrived. We were called these very same things. We were told we’d never be real Americans,” a message on the online petition reads. “Join Bend the Arc and the American Jewish community in pledging to stand against anti-immigrant hatred. If thousands of us raise our voices together we can deliver the powerful message that our community refuses to be silent and put those using this hateful rhetoric on notice.”

Speaking to Jewish Insider, Susskind said the ad was not specifically targeting Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump over his recent comments against immigrants, but added that “we’ve certainly seen an unfortunate amount of that in the Republican debate.” He also expressed concern over House Speaker Paul Ryan’s pledge to the House Freedom Caucus to hold back legislation on immigration reform until President Barack Obama leaves office.

“For us, the issue of immigration, but also of discrimination and hate, is deeply rooted in the work that we do,” he told Jewish Insider. “It’s not long ago that the Jewish community was in that debate; we were the immigrants and we were being told that we are unacceptable, and I think that still echoes very strongly in our community here.”

“The ad is not about changing policy but changing the political rhetoric over the issue,” Susskind added.

Pope tells Congress U.S. should reject hostility to immigrants

Pope Francis told Congress on Thursday that the United States should reject a “mindset of hostility” to immigrants, directly addressing a thorny subject that is dividing the country and stirring debate in the 2016 presidential campaign.

In a historic first speech by a pope to a U.S. Congress, the Argentine pontiff said the United States must not turn its back on “the stranger in our midst.”

“Building a nation calls us to recognize that we must constantly relate to others, rejecting a mindset of hostility,” the 78-year-old Francis told the Republican-dominated legislature.

Francis, the son of Italian immigrants to Argentina, delivered a wide-ranging speech in English that took on issues dear to liberals in the United States and also emphasized conservative values and Catholic teachings on the family. The pope called for support in fighting climate change, a more equitable economy, and an end to the death penalty.

In reference to abortion and euthanasia, the pope said humanity must “protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.”

Aversion to illegal immigrants has featured heavily in the race for the Republican presidential nomination. Front-runner Donald Trump says he would deport the 11 million undocumented immigrants if he were elected to the White House and has accused Mexico of sending rapists and other criminals across the border.

Speaking softly and in heavily accented English to a packed House of Representatives chamber, Francis said America should not be put off by the number of immigrants who are trying to make it their home.

“We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation. To respond in a way which is always humane, just and fraternal,” he said.

His comments on immigration were met with frequent applause mostly from Democrats, but from Republicans too.

After efforts by both sides to overhaul immigration laws failed, the United States saw a flood last year of more than 60,000 unaccompanied minors from Central America rushing to the U.S. border hoping to get in.

Several Republican presidential candidates were in the audience, including retired neurologist Ben Carson, Senator Marco Rubio and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.

A frequent critic of the damage caused to the environment by capitalism's excesses, the pope said Congress has an important role to play to “avert the most serious effects of the environmental deterioration caused by human activity.”

In comments welcomed by conservatives, Francis expressed concern about threats to the family, a reference to same-sex marriage after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June that made gay marriage legal across the country.

Francis said the traditional family “is threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without. Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family.”

Central American immigrants’ story reflects Jews’ past

I recently was part of a small group of lawyers given the opportunity to tour the family immigration detention centers in southern Texas. The purpose of the trip was to introduce us to the facilities and the detainees and to urge us and our law firms to contribute our time and skills to representing detained women and children. The trip was eye-opening in so many ways. The professional mountains needed to be climbed to help these terror-stricken families are matched only by the personal trauma so evident in the eyes of so many. We came face-to-face with the trauma experienced by today’s immigrants and with the ghosts of our past. 

As all of us on the tour were children and grandchildren of immigrants, and several of us, as Jews, particularly aware of our immigrant ancestry, we saw these facilities and the 1,000 women and children currently being held there through the filter of our own histories. At the Karnes City and Dilley detention facilities, we witnessed up close the results of the national debate on immigration. Both sites are about 60 to 90 minutes outside of San Antonio, although they might as well have been in another world, for all we knew and all we were prepared to see — the world of our ancestors.

Our group of lawyers was first alerted to this border crisis last summer at a meeting with Vice President Joe Biden on other pro bono related projects. During that meeting, he asked us, board members of the Association of Pro Bono Counsel, to keep an eye open for an impending surge of immigrants crossing the United States-Mexico border. Newspapers across the county ultimately covered the arrival of this enormous influx of unaccompanied children escaping heinous violence in their native countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Many of those children and their families have been the victims of awful domestic violence; some have seen family members murdered, others have been raped, more have experienced the loss of a disappeared loved one. Officials in their native countries often are powerless or unwilling to provide protection. All of these immigrants have one thing in common: They are running for their lives, and the lives of their families, risking everything to make a treacherous journey north, seeking the protection and promise of the United States.

At the facilities, we saw children who were clearly not healthy. Their life-endangering journeys to the U.S. left them exhausted, sick and scared. Many had lost a frightening amount of weight. Even more gut-wrenching, the children plaintively asked their mothers, “Why are we in jail?” Mothers cried to the lawyers, begging for help. Some had been held for six, eight, 10, even as long as 12 months. It was heartbreaking.

Amazingly, most of the detained families have viable asylum claims, making them eligible to remain in the U.S., entitling them to find safety in the promise of democracy. But without the chance to be represented by attorneys, they are without hope. As many as 95 percent of those without counsel will be deported simply because they are poor and cannot find representation. Many likely could pass their “credible fear interviews,” establishing to the satisfaction of U.S. immigration authorities they have a credible fear of returning to their home countries. This means they essentially could prove the bona fides of a legally sufficient asylum claim that, under the law, would entitle them to be released from detention. However, without lawyers, they cannot navigate the system, they are too frightened to tell their stories, the complexities of a foreign legal system are too overwhelming, and so, as a result, they likely will be returned to the dangerous places they risked their lives to leave. All because they are poor and do not have access to help.

One recently released mother told us of how she, her husband and young son had escaped a vicious rogue military group. Their other son, who is older, had been abducted. The family learned he had been taken by the “military.” The mother embarked on a desperate, ultimately futile search for her child. She first asked, asked again and then hounded local officials. She went to the police. She asked friends for help. Months passed, but her son was nowhere to be found. She repeatedly was warned to back off, stop going to the police, told not to contact local or foreign officials. One day, while this mother and her family were visiting her father in a nearby town, neighbors called to warn her not to return home because the family’s house was being ransacked, and angry men with guns were searching for her. The family fled to the U.S. with only the clothes they were wearing, trying desperately to save their remaining son, whose life they still had in their hands. At the border they were detained, the father sent to one facility, the mother and son to Karnes City. They were held for months, the young boy asking for his brother and his father, not eating, getting sicker and sicker. It was heartbreaking.

Another mother was with her daughter. They had witnessed the rape of another daughter and the murder of the father. They themselves then had barely escaped the horrors of their gang-controlled village, with local authorities unable to provide any kind of meaningful prosecution, much less protection. Similar stories abounded.

My thoughts quickly turned to another young woman. Like the women we had just met, she had escaped marauding soldiers in the countryside of her homeland. She was a teenager who had witnessed her sister being brutally raped and her brother carried off by the “army,” never to be seen again. Her parents scraped together enough money to hire someone to smuggle her out of the country. Her treacherous journey landed her in jail. When her family was able to secure her release, terrified and sick, the family sent her off again. This time, she reached the United States. She was reunited with her grandmother while in detention. When they ultimately were released, she managed to make a safe life for herself. However, she was forever scarred, forever frightened, forever missing her absent family members. That lone, brave teenage girl was my grandmother, fleeing from the pogroms of czarist Russia.

It is often said we are a nation of immigrants, all of us having become Americans because someone in our past was strong enough to escape oppression and find safety in the arms of democracy. Whether it was czarist pogroms, Nazi genocide, Middle East dictatorships or communist regimes, all of us are here because our ancestors had the inner strength to flee for their lives and make it through the Karnes City and Dilley of their day. Our Jewish bubbes and zaydes, often as young children, came through Ellis Island or through European displaced persons camps. Their immigrant transition was difficult. Language issues, poverty, anti-immigrant attitudes and anti-Semitism made for a hard climb up society’s social ladder. They were helped by a system of Jewish communal support and by the safety net of community. Today, American Jews are the living embodiment of one side of the current immigration debate. We are here and thriving in the United States because, despite many obstacles, this country opened its arms like no other culture had ever before done for us. These Latin American women today are escaping the same kinds of dangers, obstacles and nightmares that our ancestors fled, seeking peace and solace. As Jews, our histories remind us of the hurdles they will face and the helping hands they will need, which are within our hearts to fulfill. The ghosts of our grandmothers today are sitting in detention in southern Texas.

Attorneys interested in providing pro bono support to the women and children in detention or to those who have been recently released can contact their local immigration legal aid offices, the San Antonio office of RAICES (raicestexas.org) and the American Immigration Council (americanimmigrationcouncil.org).

David A. Lash is an attorney in Los Angeles, serving as the managing counsel of pro bono and public interest services at O’Melveny & Myers LLP. He is also a member of the board of directors of the Association of Pro Bono Counsel. The views expressed in this article are the author's alone.

Appeals court rules with states challenging Obama’s immigration action

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on Tuesday in favor of 26 states challenging President Barack Obama's executive action on immigration, potentially paving the way for a Supreme Court decision on the issue.

Two judges on the three-judge panel ruled that the executive action, which would grant an estimated 4.7 million undocumented immigrants relief from deportation, should remain on hold while the government appeals its blocking.

The immigration order was first put on hold by Texas Judge Andrew Hanen in February after the states, all led by Republican governors, alleged that taking in migrants would be overly burdensome.

“The President's attempt to bypass the will of the American people was successfully checked again today,” Texas Governor Greg Abbott said in a news release.

The case has become the focal point of Obama's efforts to change U.S. immigration policy.

Seeing no progress on legislative reform in Congress, Obama announced in November he would take executive action to help immigrants. He has since faced criticism from Republicans who say the program grants amnesty to lawbreakers.

The 5th Circuit will rule again in the coming months on whether the Obama administration can appeal the block to the executive order. That decision may be made by a new panel of judges and will take into account more evidence.

Immigration advocates have been wary of the prospect that the 5th Circuit, known as one of the most conservative in the nation, would rule with the administration.

“We are disappointed, but this is not unexpected at all,” Marielena Hincapie, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, said on a conference call with reporters.

Hincapie said the immigration advocate community is still optimistic the executive order will prevail, even if it means waiting until the Supreme Court can rule on it.


If it is denied an appeal, the Obama administration may ask the Supreme Court to consider the case, potentially delaying the launch of the immigration programs until June 2016.

That could bring up the issue at a politically important time, said Marshall Fitz, vice president of immigration policy at left-leaning Washington think tank Center for American Progress.

“If the programs go into effect next June, there will be real electoral consequences,” Fitz said. “There is a clear contrast between (Democratic front-runner Hillary) Clinton and any Republican in the current field.”

Clinton has said she would like to see Obama's action expanded to shield even more immigrants from deportation.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment following the court's decision.

U.S. House passes $1.1 trillion government funding bill

The House of Representatives passed a $1.1 trillion spending bill late on Thursday to fund most federal agencies through Sept. 30, the end of the current fiscal year.

By a vote of 219-206, the House approved the bill, which would fund the Department of Homeland Security only through February to give Republicans a chance early next year to try to stop President Barack Obama's immigration reforms that are largely carried out by DHS.

The legislation still must be passed by the Senate before it can be sent to Obama for signing into law.

A separate bill to fund the government for two days is likely to be passed by the House, according to a Republican leadership aide. The measure is needed to give the Senate time to pass the $1.1 trillion bill and also avoid a government shutdown at midnight on Thursday when current funding expires.

Taking on the “Boxcar” Crowd

In the Saturday (11/29/2014) New York Times story about the provenance of President Obama’s executive order on immigration, readers learned that House Speaker John Boehner faced opposition to comprehensive immigration legislation “from what Republican aides call the ‘boxcars crowd,’ a reference to conservative members who favor deportation for most of the 11 million” undocumented people in the country.

Absent from the story was any mention of shame, dismay, or denial by Mr. Boehner or the unnamed Republic aides that such a “boxcars crowd” exists within their caucus. Surely all the efforts to provide lessons about the Shoah should have produced a generation of Americans, whether Republican aides, electeds of either party, or fifth-graders in school, who know that the Nazi criminals used boxcars to “deport” the unwanted people from their midst.

It would be helpful to obtain a roster of the “boxcars crowd.” Certainly doing that work would be a worthy project for the reporting staffs of the major national newspapers. Better yet, it would be helpful to have a roster of the Republican leadership who condone the deportationists, just as it has become increasingly clear over time that the perpetrators of the Shoah included not only the criminal designers of the murder program but also the people who remained silent or were complicit as its evil work went forward.

There may be some in the “boxcars crowd” who have studied the Nazi legal system and who would contend the Hitler regime only deported people who were not citizens, most having been stripped of German citizenship prior to other crimes having been perpetrated against them. This argument would qualify as defining a distinction without a difference. It would also cause concern if anyone in the “boxcars crowd” had made a serious study of the Nazi legal system.

I’ll bet dollars to doughnuts that the “boxcars crowd,” once named, would closely resemble the late 19th century populists the historian Richard Hofstadter had in mind when he wrote about the “Paranoid Style in American Politics” nearly a half century ago. Those who practiced the “paranoid style” of politics tended to nativists, racists, biblical literalists, and—no big surprise—bigoted against Jews. Except for the biblical literalism, much the same could be said for early 20th century progressives who made common cause with the populists to bring us such failures of coalitional politics as the Gentlemen’s Agreement with Japan limiting immigration from that country, the National Origins Act which virtually ended European immigration to the US in the 1920s and 1930s—with horrific consequences for Jews seeking escape from Nazism but finding the US closed to most of them—Prohibition, quotas limiting Jewish enrollment in private colleges, and restrictive covenants prohibiting Jews from living anywhere we wished.

The deportationist “boxcars crowd” should remind us that not only the Exodus lesson (“for you were a stranger in Egypt”) but also our experience and interests in the US compel us to have a very tender approach to those treated as the other, as people of inferior status.

Images reminiscent of the Shoah are not new to the issue of US enforcement of immigration laws. In 1979, late in the administration of President Jimmy Carter, the local chapter of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) allied with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) and the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) to sue the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) because of the so-called “factory surveys” used by the INS to discover and deport illegal immigrants. What struck the AJC leaders at the time was the way in which INS officers would enter a garment factory, block the exits, then march down the aisles of operatives, making a “selection” of those who looked like undocumented persons. (Disclosure: I was a very junior member of the AJC staff who worked on this matter.)

US District Court Judge Laughlin Waters rejected a plea for injunctive relief; an appeal to the 9th Circuit was successful, but the Supreme Court of the US upheld the INS’s methods. AJC friend of the court briefs attempted to explain the civil rights aspect of the case. Similar arguments from MALDEF were equally unavailing. Perhaps the limitation of the civil rights coalition in this case to AJC and MALDEF, while perhaps advancing further cooperation between Jews and Mexican-Americans, was too narrow to convince the Justices that a genuine civil rights problem was involved. When I used this case, decided by the Supreme Court in 1984 as INS v Delgado, for lessons at the Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies at American Jewish University, some students wondered if the outcome would have been different if organizations like the Urban League, Japanese American Citizens League, and Korean American Coalition had joined the AJC briefs.

Amicus briefs rarely influence appellate courts, but they do provide a mechanism for like-minded organizations to make common cause on important issues. Just as the “boxcars crowd” represents a coalition whose attitude to the “other” has sought deportation as its favored solution, so should the leaders of Jewish public affairs organizations—now a much more numerous group than when AJC, the Anti-Defamation League, and the Community Relations Committee of the local Jewish Federation ruled the day—join with those who are like us, “others,” and at peril from the “boxcars crowd.”

Neil Kramer is Dean of Faculty Emeritus at New Community Jewish High School in West Hills, California

Welcoming the stranger

On almost every emerging issue of public policy, our community asks the same question, either in audible or hushed voices: “Is it good for the Jews?” In the matter of President Barack Obama’s recent decision to defer and sideline prosecutions that might have resulted in the deportation of some 5 million undocumented persons in the United States, the answer to the question should be said and repeated in a loud, clear voice: “Yes!” Sometimes, what is good for the nation as a whole is good for the Jews, and vice versa.

In a televised address to the nation on Nov. 20, the president responded to longtime congressional inaction over proposals for comprehensive immigration reform by executive action. Specifically, he exercised his authority as chief of the executive branch of the federal government to defer the initiation of removal/deportation proceedings (and administratively close already-filed cases) against foreign-born individuals who have lived in the United States for five or more years, have no criminal records and have U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident children.  Persons eligible for the president’s initiative will be required to register with the Department of Homeland Security, undergo background checks, work only when they secure employment authorization (for which they will now have the right to apply) and pay taxes on their income.  Those persons will not be eligible for welfare benefits or Obamacare. 

The president’s executive action is limited in time and scope: It will only last for three years, and will not constitute a permanent immunity from deportation proceedings or a pathway to permanent residency or naturalization.  Moreover, it confers no immunity from deportation for millions of longtime undocumented residents of the United States who have no U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident children, or the hundreds of thousands of child and teenage migrants who have entered the United States without inspection over the past year. It is, rather, a temporary measure designed to maintain family unity for millions of hardworking, law-abiding adults who help support and sustain their children, many of who depend on them for financial support and all of whom depend on them for the emotional support that we all have needed from our mothers and fathers.   

As Obama said in his speech, “Tracking down, rounding up and deporting millions of people isn’t realistic.” The president has used his constitutional power as chief enforcer of the immigration laws to allocate the resources of his government’s immigration officers and attorneys to prioritize the commencement and continuation of deportation cases against criminals, the recently arrived, and those with few or no family ties in the U.S. If every possible deportation case that could be brought to the federal government were, the already overloaded, undermanned, and underfinanced immigration court and enforcement systems would collapse of their own weight. Every prosecutor in every jurisdiction makes decisions every day on which cases should be filed and which should be deferred. The president has done no more than that.

The president’s initiative now places the ball firmly in Congress’ court to pass or not pass comprehensive or even piecemeal immigration reform.  Since the administration of George W. Bush — who, to his credit, pressed for comprehensive immigration reform of the same kind now favored by Obama — the Republican right has stymied all efforts to bring a bill to the floor of the House of Representatives for a vote. Several times, the Senate has passed an immigration reform bill.  Several times, House Speaker John Boehner has indicated his desire to pass an immigration reform bill. Nevertheless, several times, the speaker has led from behind and refused to bring a reform bill to the House floor because of the intransigence of a minority of his GOP caucus. The speaker and other Republican leaders in Congress have decried Obama’s initiative as unconstitutional (which it is not), as amnesty (which it is not) and as a refusal to work with Congress on more comprehensive legislation (which is belied by the evidence of the recent past). Obama’s response to all of this hyperbole has been succinct and on point: “Pass a bill.”  

Returning to the question of whether the president’s initiative is good for the Jews, we should all dust off our Torah and reread Exodus 23:9. “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having been strangers in the land of Egypt.” The Obama initiative is a limited, practical act of rachmones — empathy designed to lift some of the terrible burdens from those people who live in the shadows of our society, while they help raise our children, tend to our homes and gardens, and pick our fruit. As they help sustain us, we should find the compassion to help sustain them. That is the Jewish — and the American — way.

Bruce J. Einhorn served as a United States Immigration Judge in Los Angeles from 1990 through 2007.  He is currently a professor of immigration, asylum and refugee law at Pepperdine University School of Law in Malibu, and executive director of The Asylum project, a nonprofit aid group for the victims of foreign persecution and torture.

Immigrant nation

When you emerge from the Berlin subway into the Hermannplatz neighborhood, you enter Turkey.  Food stalls offer fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice, sesame-encrusted simit and flakey boreks oozing sheep’s milk cheeses.  The language spoken on the street, the signs, the music from storefront boom boxes—all Turkish

I visited Hermannplatz on Nov. 8, as the rest of Berlin was immersed in a weekend of  celebrations for the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. There were no signs of that momentous occasion, no posters, no balloons, nothing to mark the historic day that forged a free, modern Germany. I asked a native Berliner, “Why is that?”

“It’s not their Berlin,” she said. “It has nothing to do with them.”

Those words resonated with me again this week, as President Barack Obama wielded his executive authority to prevent the deportation of millions of undocumented immigrants.

With the stroke of a pen, Obama set in motion a process that could ultimately move 5 million people, as he put it, to “come out of the shadows.” 

It was a huge, bold move, and it has generated an equal and opposite reaction.

Some critics say they are more upset at the way Obama made policy than at the policy itself.  Some fear that granting amnesty will reward or increase lawlessness. And some just fear Obama and anything he does.

I like the reaction of the Jewish group Bend the Arc, which tweeted, “Pop the Manischewitz! This is a big deal!”

What Obama did is legal—at least according to the conservative legal group the Federalist Society. It was also, as the Republican Jewish Coalition accused it of being, brazen and destabilizing. But it seems Obama has learned one lesson from the Middle East—things don’t get better on their own; the status quo is nobody’s friend.

So the President acted.  Once the high drama surrounding someone actually doing something in Washington subsides, it will be interesting to see the effect Obama’s decision will have on the ground.  Because, let’s face it, while we may be consumed by the Middle East, the lives of the people we live among, those who watch our children, cook our food, clean our homes and tend our yards have a much more immediate impact on us.   If they are treated with something approaching humanity; if they are given a chance, even a carefully circumscribed chance, of gaining a toehold to a better life, I suspect they will repay society with interest, in hard work, in the lives of their ambitious children, in gratitude.

How can I be sure? Because with the exception of the Native Americans, we’ve all been there. Two generations ago, my great-grandparents, the Eshmans, Peshkins and Vogels, found refuge here from the czar’s army.  Official records list them as cigar rollers and meat cutters—but they were likely padding their resumes. They came with no more skills or promise than the immigrants from Guatemala City or Nuevo Laredo.  Had today’s immigration laws been in effect back then, they’d have been sent back to Pinsk to perish (you can go to entrydenied.org to find out whether your ancestors would have been allowed in, too).  With a wave of his pen, Obama has written a new chapter in this very American story.

It’s strange even to be having this argument during Thanksgiving—a holiday that celebrates the way immigrants to this strange land were embraced by its inhabitants. The reason Thanksgiving is the ultimate American holiday, marked in almost every home, from Orthodox Jews to Confucian Chinese, is because we are all acknowledging the same thing: our good fortune to have found a place that embraces us, and makes us Americans.

Europe, from Germany to Paris to London, faces a crisis because it has not figured out how to make Germans, French and Englishmen out of swelling, alienated immigrant populations.

That is not just a waste of human potential, it is a security crisis. On Nov. 6, just two days before I visited Hermannplatz, a SWAT team burst into four apartments nearby and arrested four Turkish residents for allegedly supporting the ISIS group.  If you can’t deport millions—and you can’t—then you have to find a way to embrace them and their potential for contributing to society. People who see no chance of becoming part of their host country are more likely to turn on their host country. What could be a cure becomes a cancer.

What Obama did should only be the first step in making hard-working immigrants feel like the American story has everything to do with them. Because it does.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @foodaism.

What a GOP Senate would mean for the Jewish communal agenda

Should Republicans win the Senate and maintain control of the House of Representatives on Nov. 4 — as many observers expect them to do — the political gridlock that has characterized much of President Obama’s term is poised to intensify.

Jewish strategies, however, will remain the same: focus on areas, however marginal, where successes are within reach. Among the areas: funding for elderly care and resettling refugees; working at the state levels on issues such as poverty relief and advancing gay rights; and keeping the major issues suffering from legislative neglect, like immigration, alive in the public eye.

An exception is foreign policy, where a GOP win could mean movement on some issues, including Iran sanctions.

With midterm elections less than a month away, here’s an issue-by-issue look at what the Jewish community can expect if Republicans gain control of the Senate and House.

Social welfare spending

With deadlock expected, reforms to major programs like Medicare and Medicaid are not anticipated.

William Daroff, director of the Jewish Federations of North America’s Washington office, named as his group’s priorities relatively small-bore issues like increased funding for long-term elderly care, advocacy for the disabled, providing for impoverished Holocaust survivors and preserving current tax deduction rates for charitable giving.

“On those issues there is bipartisan support,” he said.

Meanwhile, Rabbi Steve Gutow, the president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which in recent years has expanded its focus on income inequality, said it’s OK to work the margins when the partisan divide makes it impossible to advance bigger issues, and he expected the divide to grow after the next election.

Gutow cited as an example the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, also known as food stamps. Republicans in 2011 started out by proposing $39 billion in cuts, half the program’s budget. JCPA was among the groups that this year helped broker bipartisan agreement to cut SNAP spending by $9 billion over the next decade.

“We look at what’s realistic and go for it,” Gutow said. “You support the efforts that seem to be those that might win.”

Foreign policy

Republican majorities in both houses may mean more stasis on domestic issues but could advance a number of foreign policy issues. Chief among them is the effort by some pro-Israel groups, led by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, to pass new sanctions on Iran that would kick in should nuclear talks between Iran and the major powers collapse.

The Democratic leadership in the Senate, at Obama’s behest, has stymied new sanctions, although enough Democratic senators back the legislation that it would likely have a majority should it come to a vote. Obtaining Democratic support even under a Republican majority would be key for a lobby that is keen to show that its initiatives have the backing of both parties.

“It’s likely that an emboldened Republican presence in Congress will want to pursue that vigorously,” said Eric Fusfield, the director of legislative affairs at B’nai B’rith International, a group that has backed the new sanctions.

That does not necessarily mean a confrontation with the White House, Fusfield said. Instead, the majority could spur Obama to reach an agreement with Congress on sanctions.

“There will still need to be a bipartisan consensus,” he said.

Much depends on whether Iran and the major powers meet a Nov. 24 deadline for a deal, Fusfield said.

Dylan Williams, the director of government affairs for J Street, which opposes new sanctions, agreed that Republicans would find it tougher to pass sanctions that may sabotage a deal with Iran.

“If an agreement is reached, it will survive both the current Senate and the next Senate, whatever its constitution,” he said. “I think senators from both parties will understand that if a deal is reached that does provide assurance that Iran will not acquire a nuclear weapon, that it is that or something far worse.”

Obama’s recent pivot toward greater intervention in Syria and Iraq would find a more sympathetic ear in a Republican-majority Congress, said Daniel Runde, the director of the Project on Prosperity and Development at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“You would definitely see the willingness to use the full spectrum of American power,” said Runde, a top foreign aid official under President George W. Bush.

Runde noted that much of the reluctance to support the enhanced Middle East involvement that Obama has favored comes from Senate Democrats, as well as some anti-interventionist Republicans like Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.).

Health care

Obamacare is here to stay, Fusfield said — at least through the 2016 elections.

“Unless the GOP reaches a supermajority of 60, any attempts to repeal Obamacare will not pass the Senate, and even if both chambers will repeal Obamacare, everyone understands the president will veto it,” said Fusfield, who tracks the issue closely in part because B’nai B’rith maintains a network of elderly care homes.

“You may see Republican tweaks,” he added, for instance in increasing the law’s definition of the workweek from 30 to 40 hours, or the removal of the law’s tax on the sale of medical devices.


On paper, a wholly Republican Congress should see an advance in the most famously deadlocked issue: how to address the 11 million and counting undocumented migrants in the United States, said Hadar Susskind, the Washington director of Bend the Arc, a social advocacy group.

Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), the House speaker, has cited differences with Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the Senate majority leader, to explain the House’s failure to act on a bill passed by the Senate in 2013. Having Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in the majority seat would do away with that obstruction.

Republicans, while eager to court the Hispanic vote, have resisted outlining a path to citizenship until border security is addressed. Democrats want to fast-track citizenship for undocumented migrants who arrived here as minors.

Don’t bet on a change, though, Susskind said.

“They’re spooked by Cantor,” he said, referring to the precipitous fall this year of the former House majority leader, Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who lost a primary to a Tea Party challenger who said Cantor was soft on immigration — although as majority leader he had actually blocked the Senate bill from advancing.

Melanie Nezer, the Washington director of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, agreed that advancing an overhaul was unlikely and outlined a familiar strategy: work the smaller issues, including renewing the Lautenberg Amendment. Originally fashioned to address the Soviet Jewry crisis in the 1980s, the amendment named for the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey extends refugee status to those persecuted for their religion.

Another focus would be maintaining funding for refugee resettlement, a HIAS focus in recent years, which Nezer said had bipartisan support in part because of the killing fields in Iraq and Syria.


The single area domestically that would likely mean far-reaching change with a Republican majority in both chambers is in confirmations.

Reid changed the rules last year to allow simple majority confirmations and has been rushing this year to fill posts long stymied since 2011 by the earlier 60-vote rule. The majority leader has made some headway, although Republican senators are still able to delay the process to a degree by placing personal holds on nominees.

A GOP majority could put on hold nominations as high profile as the replacement for Eric Holder, the attorney general who has announced his intention to retire, as well as an array of lower court judges.

Nancy Kaufman, the CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women, which has made what she calls “judicial emergencies” a centerpiece of its advocacy, has said that a Republican Senate could precipitate a crisis.

“They have to live up to their responsibility to consider and vote,” she said of GOP senators. “It’s serious now and it’s going to be more serious come the new session.”

One nomination of interest to the Jewish community is that of Rabbi David Saperstein, the longtime director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center who has been nominated to serve as the ambassador at large for international religious freedom.

France largest source of immigration to Israel so far in 2014

Reaching a 25-year high, immigration to Israel from France has become the largest single source of newcomers to Israel so far this year.

Some 4,566 French immigrants arrived in Israel from January through Sept. 1, surpassing Russia, with 2,632 immigrants, and Ukraine, with 3,252 immigrants. The United States, whose Jewish population is more than 10 times that of France, has sent 2,218 new immigrants to Israel so far this year.

The figures were published on Sept. 1 by Israel’s Ministry of Immigrant Absorption. The number of French immigrants in 2014 is the highest on record since 1989 and already has surpassed last year’s record-breaking number of 3,263 French newcomers. In 2004, another banner year for French aliyah, there were 2,948 French immigrants to Israel.

Between 1989 and 2013, an average of 1,943 French immigrants arrived in Israel per year.

Immigration from Ukraine — where government troops are fighting pro-Russian separatists in a conflict that has produced thousands of casualties and tens of thousands of displaced persons — also increased dramatically this year.

The 3,252 immigrants who came to Israel from Ukraine since January constituted a 61-percent increase over the 1,270 Ukrainian immigrants who arrived in Israel during the corresponding months last year.

Officials from the Jewish Agency for Israel, the quasi-governmental agency responsible for organizing Jewish immigration to Israel, said the increase in immigration from France is connected to rising levels of anti-Semitism in France, a stagnant French economy and strong levels of Zionist sentiment among French Jews.


In race for Congress, how different are candidates Elan Carr and Ted Lieu?

Democratic State Sen. Ted Lieu and Republican District Attorney Elan Carr may be competing to fill longtime Democratic Congressman Henry Waxman’s seat in November, but in an era in which the two parties rarely work together, the similarities between these two candidates are one of this race’s greatest distinctions.

Ted Lieu

Both men are sons of immigrants (Lieu came with his family to the United States from Taiwan when he was 3; Carr’s mother is from Iraq and his father was born in Bulgaria and moved to Israel). Both have assisted Iraqis while serving in the military: In 1996, Lieu was a JAG captain in the Air Force and, in Guam, helped process thousands of Kurds who were airlifted by the military from Iraq after facing mass murder by Saddam Hussein. In 2003, Carr was an anti-terrorism operative in Iraq, helping secure neighborhoods following Hussein’s ouster. 

Both oppose repealing the Affordable Care Act, the signature Democratic health care act widely known as ObamaCare (although Carr wants to significantly reform it). Both oppose deporting law-abiding foreigners who entered the United States illegally, and both, at least when it comes to foreign policy, sound a lot like, well, each other.

In June, when Carr was asked by the Journal how the Obama administration should respond to ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), the terrorist organization that has been closing in on the Iraqi capital of Baghdad, Carr cautioned against any U.S. military involvement unless the White House commits to destroying the group. In an Aug. 4 interview, Carr held that position.

Lieu’s immediate take on ISIS during a recent interview in Beverly Hills?

“I want to crush them,” he said without hesitation. “ISIS is an incredibly extreme and dangerous organization that uses violence to achieve its goals.” 

But when asked how he would go about doing that, Lieu chuckled, paused and said he supports, for now, President Barack Obama’s current tactic of providing a few hundred military advisers to the Iraqi government:

“If the U.S. is going to get involved in Iraq again, I think it needs to figure out what its objectives are” before launching a major military operation, Lieu said.

And as much as Lieu feels a connection with the Kurds of Iraq — both because of his work with them in 1996 and because of their warm feelings toward America — he still holds out hope for a unified Iraq, one that sees Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds coexisting peacefully, or at least not submerged in civil war.

“This is what Iraq could be,” Lieu said, describing the northeastern part of the country, which is heavily Kurdish and would likely comprise part of any autonomous Kurdish state. “It’s got open-air shopping centers, amusement parks, they’ve got nice hotels.”

On the topic of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Lieu struck a more conservative tone than that coming out of the White House, calling Israel’s right to defend itself against Hamas “absolute” and casting a skeptical eye on international efforts to pressure Israel into a cease fire.

“I don’t see how the U.S. or the international community could impose any sort of agreement [on Israel],” Lieu said. “They should read the charter of Hamas. I don’t think many of them have. It doesn’t just talk about Israel, it talks about killing all Jews.”

Lieu also spoke skeptically of the United Nations and the “international community,” which he said “has no teeth” when it comes to keeping hostile countries or terrorist groups in line.

“Countries and organizations respond primarily to two things,” said Lieu, a graduate of Air War College and a major in the U.S. Air Force Reserve. “Force or economic sanctions — or the threat of those two things.”

Asked about recent data suggesting that Democratic and Republican voters may, for the first time in decades, have significantly different views on Israel, Lieu said that the gap may be due more to age than political affiliation. The data, pulled from a Pew Research Center poll released on July 28, says that 60 percent of Republicans blame Hamas for the violence, a view shared by only 29 percent of Democrats.

“I do believe that Democrats and Republicans share the same views on Israel,” said Lieu, who supported emergency funding for the Iron Dome missile defense system that has shot down most rockets fired by Hamas that pose threats to Israeli population centers. On Aug. 1, the House of Representatives approved a Senate bill providing $225 million in emergency funds for the Iron Dome. Obama has approved the measure.

Even on immigration, a wedge issue between Democrats and Republicans, there is little air between Lieu’s and Carr’s stated views. Lieu supports increased border security but is not confident a fence would efficiently secure the border, and he wants to reunite those living here illegally with their families, whether that means sending them to Latin America or keeping them here.

Carr, in a recent interview with the conservative publication Weekly Standard, said he opposes deporting law-abiding undocumented immigrants when it is the U.S. government that created the problem, a position that puts him at odds with more conservative factions of the Republican-led House.

“Why wouldn’t we embrace them and welcome them when we are the ones who didn’t secure our borders?” Carr asked, clarifying, though, that he does support securing the southern border to stem the tide of illegal immigration from Central and South America.

However, as much as the two might appear similar now, how either would govern in the House could evolve, depending upon which committees the winner might join, as well as the issues that either would prioritize. 

Lieu is an outspoken advocate of alternative forms of energy and views global warming as an existential threat to humanity. Much of his work in the California Legislature has reflected his overriding concern with environmental issues and his belief in the government’s role in growing the economy, creating jobs and helping workers — all core issues for the Democratic Party’s liberal wing.

Carr told the Journal in an Aug. 4 interview that his priorities would include support for Israel, education, public safety issues, and tax and regulatory policies that he said encourage companies to hire workers outside of California and the United States.

On Israel, for example, Carr contrasted what he said is providing a reliable vote on Israel — which Lieu would likely consistently provide — versus assuming a leadership role on pro-Israel legislation, much like former Sen. Joseph Lieberman and former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. 

“What we need now is leaders,” Carr said. “Not simply votes that may be reliable votes on Israel, but leaders on the issue.”

As Lieu noted, though, in 2007 he was a co-sponsor of AB221, which called on state pension funds to divest from companies that do business in Iran's energy and nuclear sectors.

Although the two candidates have not yet held a public debate, a spokesman for the Lieu campaign said that at least one can be expected as Election Day nears. 

The immigration debate: Children at the border

Earlier this month, when I saw the images from Murrieta of anti-immigration protesters blocking a bus of undocumented women and children, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the story of the MS St. Louis, the boat of Jewish refugees that attempted to reach America in 1939.

When I was growing up, my family members told me the story of the St. Louis. They recounted for me how 937 Jews who had escaped Nazi Germany were turned away from every port and were forced to return to Europe, where a quarter of them were eventually murdered under Nazi occupation and in concentration camps. That story, along with other Jewish refugee stories, such as the Kindertransport, has stuck with me. They have informed my understanding of what it means for refugees to desperately seek safe harbor. What it means for refugees to be embraced. And what it means for refugees to be denied.

Today, tens of thousands of undocumented women and unaccompanied minors are fleeing violence and danger — much of which has resulted from the drug wars — and have overwhelmed the Department of Homeland Security holding centers along our southern border. They have been held in warehouses in deplorable conditions, sleeping under foil blankets, without legal representation or family contact. 

How we respond demonstrates something deep about the character of our nation.

The response in Murrieta exposed something else entirely: a vile strain of American xenophobia that is, unfortunately, nothing new. Many Jewish and non-Jewish immigrants in the past century encountered this xenophobia, and our nation’s immigration laws have often reflected this, whether in the exclusion of Asian immigrants in the 19th century or the severe tightening of immigration quotas in 1924. The “golden door” for the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” has been shut closed as many times as it’s been held open. 

That frequent trope of anti-immigration activists, repeated for the cameras in Murrieta, that “my ancestors came here legally and so should you,” is often inaccurate and entirely irrelevant — today’s immigration laws resemble nothing of those during the great waves of European immigration from the 1830s to the 1910s. 

The circumstances were different, but that’s not the point. It is said that when the MS St. Louis was off the coast of Florida, the captain considered running the boat ashore so the coast guard would be forced to let the Jews disembark into America. Is there anyone among us who doesn’t wish that had happened?

Our Jewish history is full of experiences that lead us to have profound empathy for people who are seeking safety and freedom. Our values inform our responsibility to counter the hateful rhetoric with humanitarian compassion. Right now, in our America, more than 50,000 women and children are pleading for compassion and safety. How will we respond to their call?

Recently, L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti announced that he is working with local nonprofits to find shelter for some of the undocumented children in Los Angeles. Legal representation and temporary shelter would be federally provided, but the effort to demonstrate empathy would belong to Angelenos. My hope is that we will rally to show the nation that the mayor is not the only person in Los Angeles who is willing to stand up for these children and for the values that we hold dear. 

While they are in our city, we have an obligation to show them the dignity we would have wanted our own ancestors to be shown. For me, this is not a political question but a moral one. Yes, we absolutely need to fix our broken immigration policies, but today, right now, we can make sure they feel welcomed and respected, and we can speak out on their behalf to our families and to our communities. We understand how they feel, and we know they deserve better.

Serena Oberstein is the Regional Director of Bend the Arc Southern California. She has spent the bulk of her career working on root issues in order to alleviate poverty through government, campaigns, and the non-profit sector. Her work in the Villaraigosa Administration in Los Angeles gave her a unique aperture into the issues facing the city and the people who reside within its boundaries. She received her Master in Public Administration from the NYU Wagner School of Public Service where she specialized in financing urban governments.