A Call for Empathy

The Huffington Post is a favorite blog of mine, so when in the course of my surfing I ran across Jeffrey Kaye’s February 25th article, “Short Memories: Jews and Immigration,” I thought it was a really timely post given last week’s discussion.

Kaye’s thesis is simple but hardly without controversy, “that the Jewish immigration experience over the past century has more in common with present-day migrants than many Jews recognize or fully appreciate,” and that his fellow American Jews “would do well to draw a lesson from our own history and resist the temptation to scapegoat and demonize those whose crimes consist mainly of crossing political boundaries in search of better lives.” [1]

He draws upon scholars such as Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg and Leah Platt Boustan to make the argument that Jewish immigration was driven more by economic circumstances than by fear of persecution. Additionally, he reminds readers that “[i]mmigrants from eastern and southern Europe were viewed not only as “hereditary defectives,” they were considered dirty, depraved, disease ridden, crime prone, a burden on society, and incapable of assimilation,” many qualities that are ascribed to today’s illegal immigrants. [2]

Kaye also discusses the writings of Stephen Steinlight of the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), who in a recent editorial stated, in stark contrast to Kaye, Hertzberg, and Boustan, “There’s no commonality between the Jewish refugees of that era and today’s economic migrants.” [3]

I found this article interesting on a number of levels. Kaye makes a point to use Jewish experts from differing perspectives and to address his message of acceptance specific ally to the Jewish community, due to their own history as poor and often-harassed immigrants.

Is this a message that can/should be extended beyond the Jewish community? After all, there were plenty of non-Jewish immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe who faced financial hardship and discrimination around the turn of the last century, yet I’m willing to bet that many of their descendants hold anti-immigrant views today. In comparison to other groups, Jews are already fairly tolerant of illegal immigration—as of December 2009, 60% supported a path to naturalization for illegal immigrants (though that figure is down from 67% in 2007). [4]  So…why is this article addressed only to Jews? Could a similar case be made to descendants of other immigrant groups?

Also interesting was the conclusion of Steinlight’s editorial: “[A] growing majority of American Jews opposes illegal immigration because a confident American identity makes them empathize with fellow Americans first, not immigrants. Jews will forever passionately oppose xenophobia, but American identity has surmounted the immigrant past.” [5] Is this a positive development? Steinlight certainly seems to think so.

[1] Jeffrey Kaye, “Short Memories: Jews and Immigration,” The Huffington Post, 25 February 2010. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jeffrey-kaye/short-memories-jews-and-i_b_476683.html&gt;

[2] Ibid.

[3] Stephen Steinlight, “Straight Talk About Jews and Immigration,” The Jewish Week, 2 February 2010. <http://www.thejewishweek.com/viewArticle/c55_a17787/Editorial__Opinion/Opinion.html&gt;

[4] Kaye, ibid.

[5] Steinlight, ibid.

Photo credit: Little Giant, Jew Jokes. Cleveland: Arthur Westbrook Company, 1908. Dime Novel Collection. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress. <http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/haventohome/images/hh0127s.jpg&gt;

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