Migrants cross the border to the United States near Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, Feb. 6, 2024. (Photo/JTA-Christian Torres-Anadolu via Getty Images)
Migrants cross the border to the United States near Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, Feb. 6, 2024. (Photo/JTA-Christian Torres-Anadolu via Getty Images)

Israel aid debate revealed differences among Jewish groups over immigration

WASHINGTON (JTA) — As Congress debates various bills that would send emergency military aid to Israel, Jewish groups across the political spectrum have advocated for their passage.

But the push for aid ended up dividing those groups on another issue that often animates Jewish activism: immigration reform. Legacy Jewish groups parted ways over whether a compromise bill had gone too far in toughening America’s asylum system.

Israel and immigration — or border security — became linked when Republicans said they’d only support aid to Israel and Ukraine if it was paired with significant new U.S. immigration restrictions. A bipartisan group of senators proposed a bill to address both issues, providing aid for Israel and Ukraine and funds for protecting houses of worship while cracking down on an unprecedented flow of migrants across the U.S.-Mexico border. It also would have tightened the United States’ rules for seeking asylum.

The bill failed in the Senate on Wednesday, doomed by opposition from House Republicans and former President Donald Trump, the party’s likely presidential nominee, who said it did not go far enough. Standalone efforts to give Israel military aid have also failed in Congress.

But Trump wasn’t the only one to breathe a sigh of relief at the bill’s failure: He was joined by liberal Jewish groups that also opposed its immigration provisions — because they were too strict. As lawmakers determine their next steps, the debate has exposed fissures among Jewish groups on what to do when two issues that have historically tugged at Jewish heartstrings — supporting Israel and aiding refugees — clash on Capitol Hill.

Large Jewish organizations have historically pushed for increased rights for migrants, dating back to a period when Jews in peril sought the safety of U.S. shores. But in recent weeks, some of those groups embraced the compromise bill — including the Jewish Federations of North America, the Anti-Defamation league, and the American Jewish Committee.

“All bipartisan efforts require compromise,” a spokesman for the ADL told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. The Senate bill, the spokesman said, “includes critical assistance to Israel and funding to protect Jewish and vulnerable communities at a time when we are facing historic threats.”

The spokesman added, referring to immigration, “We will continue to work with Congress to advocate for justice and fair treatment to all.”

Other Jewish organizations said that the aid to Israel was not worth the blow the package dealt to the asylum system and other American humanitarian policies. Those groups included the Reform movement, the National Council of Jewish Women, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the liberal rabbinic human rights group T’ruah and HIAS, the refugee aid agency and immigration advocacy group.

“It’s upsetting that there are some Jewish organizations that are willing to essentially sacrifice the asylum system in favor of getting short-term foreign aid for Israel,” said Rabbi Jill Jacobs, the director of T’ruah.

The Democrats compromised their values on human rights and asylum, moved the goalposts and got absolutely nothing in return.

Officials at the groups that rejected the bill said they were stunned that it was embraced by Jewish groups they had considered their allies.

“They don’t seem to realize that asylum is a Jewish issue, rooted in the lessons of the Holocaust as well as the Torah,” Mark Hetfield, the HIAS CEO, told JTA. “Assistance to Israel is crucial, but not at the expense of America’s commitment to refugee protection.”

Hetfield said he was equally angry at Democrats. “The Democrats compromised their values on human rights and asylum, moved the goalposts and got absolutely nothing in return,” he said.

The Senate bill would have severely narrowed the qualifications for asylum seekers. It would have shut down asylum processing and begun mass expulsions if the number of entries reached an average of 4,000 daily over a five-day period, or 5,000 in any one day. The bill does not offer a path for citizenship to so-called “dreamers,” undocumented migrants who arrived as children, a component that was once a must-have for Democrats.

“We have significant concerns about the way the bill undermines our commitment to domestic and international asylum laws and revives some of the more extreme immigration policies seen in recent years,” Laura Frank, a spokeswoman for the Union for Reform Judaism, said in an email. “It also reflects Congress’s failure, yet again, to protect DREAMERs, young people who are particularly at risk.”

Republicans who opposed the bill said the caps were indicative that Biden and Democrats were not serious about stopping the illegal flow across the border. Stephen Miller, Trump’s top immigration policy adviser, who is Jewish, said on Fox News that the bill showed the “Biden policy: cross illegally, get resettled.”

The Jewish groups that backed the compromise emphasized its aid for Israel as well as for Ukraine, another country whose fight many Jewish groups have been outspoken in defending. An AJC letter urging senators to vote for the measure said it addressed “the urgent security needs of key allies, including Israel and Ukraine, as they face existential threats.”

“What is at stake in both conflicts will have rippling effects for generations to come, far beyond Israel and Ukraine,” the letter said. “American global leadership is more important now than ever before as both of these nations need the American government to unite the world against Hamas’s terrorism and Russia’s ongoing aggression.”

The Senate package — and the Jewish divisions over it — come as at least one group has deemphasized its immigration advocacy. A spokesman for the Jewish Federations said the umbrella body is no longer active on the issue. Its predecessors of decades past, however, were at the forefront of immigration advocacy well into the post-World War II period, when they sought to remove discriminatory measures that affected not just Jews but other minorities.

In 2010, AJC was at the forefront of Jewish advocacy for a reform effort that would have facilitated citizenship for “dreamers” under then-President Barack Obama. The AJC letter about the Senate bill also referenced its immigration portion, saying that the group supports “immigration solutions that meet both the economic and national security needs of our country, while upholding our international obligations and shared American values of justice, equal opportunity, and respect for the human rights and dignity of all people.”

Amy Spitalnick, the JCPA CEO, said Jewish groups should be more conscious of how bigotry against immigrants dovetails with antisemitism. She noted that antisemitic tropes played a part in another recent vote, the failed impeachment Tuesday of Jewish Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, which many Jewish groups opposed in part because of the antisemitic tropes leveled against Mayorkas.

“If we don’t realize the ways in which the fundamental rights and dignity of immigrants are inextricably linked with Jewish safety, both because we of course, once were immigrants, and some of us still are, and also the ways in which antisemitism and anti-immigrant hate have been inextricably linked over the last few years in our politics,” she said. “We’re missing the broader dynamics of the moment and how they make all of us less safe.”

Ron Kampeas

Ron Kampeas is the D.C. bureau chief at the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.