Immigration rhetoric worries U.S. Jews

CNN's Lou Dobbs, considered by some the poster boy of anti-illegal immigration advocacy. (CNN)

CNN’s Lou Dobbs, considered by some the poster boy of anti-illegal immigration advocacy. (CNN)

NEW YORK (JTA) – Jewish groups are expressing growing concern that cable TV news programs are providing a platform to radical anti-illegal immigration activists, including those who advocate that armed citizens patrol the U.S.-Mexico border.

Activists also have described the presence of Mexican flags in the United States as acts of war.

In a letter to the heads of major cable news networks last week, the American Jewish Committee said it was “inappropriate and offensive for major television news programs to provide a microphone to individuals and organizations that promote hate, espouse vigilantism, white supremacy or even violence in the immigration debate.”

“We know the history of what hate speech can cause,” said Jeffrey Sinensky, the AJC’s general counsel, who drafted and signed the letter. “It’s really just a precursor to violence.”

The Anti-Defamation League also has expressed concerns, and the issue is slated to be addressed at the upcoming plenum of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, a public-policy umbrella organization that brings together several prominent national Jewish groups, the major synagogue movements and scores of local communities.

Among those singled out in the AJC’s letter were the founders of the Minuteman Project, an organization created to patrol the U.S.-Mexican border and intercept those crossing illegally. Minuteman-related groups have been accused by Jewish organizations of promoting hate and were described as “vigilantes” by President Bush.

“As a Jewish American, I think it’s unfortunate that the American Jewish Committee would side with individuals seeking to violate the rule of law in the United States of America,” said Bryan Rudnick, national communications director for the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, an offshoot of the Minuteman Project. The group’s leader, Chris Simcox, is frequently cited by the ADL and AJC for promoting hatred.

“Chris Simcox is a patriotic citizen who is seeking, like millions of other Americans, to have our government secure the borders and enforce the rule of law,” Rudnick said. “I believe the Torah teaches us to abide by the laws of the country in which we live.”

Jewish organizations have been increasingly vocal in recent months about what they perceive as the hostile and dehumanizing tone of the national conversation in the United States concerning illegal immigration. In addition to the AJC’s recent letter to cable companies, the ADL issued a report last October saying that anti-immigrant groups were increasingly using language that dehumanized minorities, especially Hispanics. The ADL warned that such rhetoric was infecting mainstream discourse.

Both the AJC and the ADL have launched campaigns to promote awareness of America’s immigrant roots in an effort to counter what they see as growing hostility toward immigrants. In January, the ADL re-released “A Nation of Immigrants,” an 1958 monograph by then-U.S. Senator John F. Kennedy, who originally wrote it at the behest of the ADL. The AJC has partnered with the National Council of La Raza, a Latino community group, on its We Can Stop the Hate Program.

Jim Gilchrist, another immigration activist frequently cited by Jewish groups, rejected the criticisms out of hand. Gilchrist, founder and president of the Minuteman Project, noted that immigrants are members of his group and of his immediate family, and he accused the ADL of being “amateur propagandists” and “hate-mongers” for spreading lies about him.

“I’m disappointed that groups like this keep targeting those that they disagree with with their wrath and their hate,” Gilchrist told JTA. “I think it’s part of a fund-raising campaign. They certainly can generate a lot of fund raising.”

Jewish groups also have focused on CNN’s Lou Dobbs, arguably the media personality most responsible for thrusting immigration into the country’s consciousness. Dobbs, whose show features a mix of reporting and advocacy, frequently rails against liberal immigration laws on his program, “Lou Dobbs Tonight,” and has given airtime to both Gilchrist and Simcox. The ADL has accused Dobbs of spreading “false propaganda.”

“Lou Dobbs is the poster boy for going absolutely tremendously across the line in so many ways,” said the JCPA’s Hadar Susskind. “He obviously is one of these people who has taken up this issue and decided he’s going to build a name on it.”

Dobbs fired back earlier this month, calling the ADL “a joke” in the course of a heated exchange on his program with a Latino civil rights activist. The activist, Janet Murguia of La Raza, had cited ADL research into anti-immigrant groups and called the league “a very well-respected voice.”

“Not by me,” Dobbs snapped. “They are a joke.”

Earlier in the program, which aired Feb. 4 on CNN, Dobbs characterized the ADL and the Southern Poverty Law Center as “absolute advocate groups for open borders and amnesty for illegal aliens.”

Murguia countered that that was just an opinion. “No,” Dobbs said, “It’s a fact.”

Neither the ADL nor Dobbs responded to JTA’s requests for comment. But Keith Olbermann of MSNBC, one of the three networks contacted by the AJC, responded on his program, “Countdown.” In a feature called the “Worst Person in the World,” Olbermann quipped that Dobbs could launch a presidential campaign as the head of his own political party, the Pro-Defamation League.

For his part, Gilchrist said he accepts that the immigration debate has overheated and will take care to ensure his language doesn’t stray into the inflammatory.

“I’m not perfect,” Gilchrist said. “I’m very, very aware that some persons can take what I say as smacking of elitism and racism and things like that.”

Beyond the concern over tone, Jewish organizations have a deep, substantive disagreement with Dobbs and the immigration activists over U.S. immigration policy. The consensus Jewish position supports comprehensive immigration reform, including improved border security and a path toward citizenship for those who are here illegally, as well as “generous” policies on legal immigration.

The Minuteman groups want to see millions of illegal immigrants deported.

Gilchrist says the issue isn’t immigration, but illegal immigration – and, more pointedly, the failure of many immigrants to properly assimilate into American society.

“My intentions certainly never have been to create racial hatred,” Gilchrist said. “It’s to bring forward the fact that we have a lax concern for immigration enforcement. Multiculturalism and diversity are great concepts. But when they lack assimilation into the host country, they’re very destructive and they create things like racism and segregation.”

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