WASHINGTON (JTA) — The leading Jewish pro-immigration group is attempting to discredit its most outspoken opponent in the Jewish community by attempting to link his employer to a white nationalist.
HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, issued a media release hailing a new report from the Southern Poverty Law Center that seeks to tie several organizations, including the Center for Immigration Studies, to John Tanton — a retired Michigan opthalmologist who the law center says supports white nationalist ideas and has long carried on correspondence with key leaders in the white nationalist movement.
In its release, HIAS notes that the Center for Immigration Studies employs Stephen Steinlight, a former senior official at the American Jewish Committee who has emerged as a leading critic of Jewish organizations’ support for liberal immigration policies.
“While there is a broad spectrum of credible opinion within the debate on immigration reform, these organizations do not represent legitimate arguments," the president and CEO of HIAS, Gideon Aronoff, said in the release. "Their aggressive public relations strategies and well-crafted messages are nothing less than vehicles to fulfill the hate rhetoric consistent with Tanton’s racist messages.”
HIAS issued its media release Feb. 6, but the debate only heated up recently after Steinlight became aware of the degree to which the organization was raising questions about his associations. Steinlight, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Immigration Studies, says he is the victim of a "McCarthyite" campaign of false charges designed to silence him.
His strongest objection is to a “not for publication” e-mail sent to newspaper editors in mid-March by the vice president for media and publications at HIAS, Roberta Elliott. Despite Elliott’s request that the e-mail not be shared, several media outlets — but not JTA — passed it along to Steinlight, who then publicized it on the Internet.
In addition to directing editors to the HIAS news release, the e-mail told them to expect an op-ed critical of HIAS’s Progress by Pesach initiative, and that “if this op-ed comes from an author who works either at the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) or the Center for Immigration Studies, it is important for you to know the origin of these groups — they were founded and are funded by an individual in Michigan who is a white nationalist and foments nativist groups.”
The report from the Southern Poverty Law Center, an Alabama-based organization that tracks hate and groups, describes the Center for Immigration Studies as part of the “nexus of the American nativist movement” and states that Tanton did found FAIR, which spun off CIS in 1985. But the two organizations have been legally separate since 1986 and each has its own office in Washington.
Steinlight said Tanton has nothing to do with the center’s work and that he doesn’t even know him. CIS Executive Director Mark Krikorian said Tanton had never even been to the center’s offices.
Krikorian, who worked for FAIR before coming to CIS, said he wouldn’t denounce Tanton because “I’m not going to go denouncing people at the behest of somebody else.” CIS, he said, is the victim of “guilt by association” and backs a “warmer welcome for fewer immigrants.”
The director of research and special projects at the Southern Poverty Law Center, Heidi Beirich, did not dispute Steinlight’s contention that he had no personal connection to Tanton. She said Steinlight’s name did not appear in the many years of Tanton’s correspondence she researched for the report.
The Southern Poverty Law Center report also acknowledges that Tanton never served in a formal role at CIS, but it argues that Tanton tapped close friend Otis Graham, an emeritus history professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, to run the organization in its early years. Tanton and Graham, who still sits on the CIS board, are “two peas in a pod,” Beirich said.
The report makes clear that Tanton communicated frequently through letters with Graham over the years, although it offers less evidence that Graham shared Tanton’s views. It does say Graham attended Tanton-sponsored events in which white nationalists were among the speakers.
“This report is trying to show what world these people are coming from,” Beirich said. ”Their motivation” to support stricter control on immigration “is their history,” she said.
Steinlight says he’s being smeared in an attempt to silence him because his opponents “can’t argue the issue on the merits.”
The attacks on him are “preposterous," he said, adding, “I don’t recognize the person they’re describing as me."
Steinlight says his position on immigration is a product of his concern that the entry of more low-skilled immigrants will push down wages and take jobs from America’s working poor and working-class populations. He says his professional history — which includes jobs with the American Anti-Slavery Group, the American Jewish Committee, the National Conference of Christians and Jews and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council — should demonstrate that he’s not motivated by racism.
"This is an effort to stop freedom of expression in the Jewish community," Steinlight said, adding that his scheduled appearance before a Hadassah chapter in New Jersey last month was canceled — a decision made by the national organization’s policy department.
Hadassah was concerned with Steinlight presenting a solo speech instead of being part of a debate, a Hadassah spokesperson said.
It "would not be clear that Hadassah did not endorse his views and purported associations,” the spokesperson said.
HIAS officials say they have not done anything improper, but merely provided information that Jewish newspaper editors and others should know when inviting Steinlight to write op-eds or speak at Jewish community forums, which he has done frequently over the years while arguing for tighter controls on immigration.
Elliott told JTA that her only goal was to convince editors to include such information in stories from Steinlight, not to keep him from being published.
She dismissed his charges of being silenced as hyperbole. Elliott said it was the “obligation” of HIAS to inform editors about his organization.
Sending out a “not for publication” note, she said, was no different than speaking to a reporter on “background” — a common method of conversation between reporters and sources. Elliott said her note “contained no judgment of any kind” but was a straightforward request to read the Southern Poverty Law Center report.
The chair of the HIAS board of directors, Michael Rukin, concurred.
“A full and honest debate requires an open understanding of the issues under the surface,” Rukin said. “This is not a personal issue directed at Steve. If someone’s organization is a mask for a particular agenda, that mask should be removed, so one can examine all of his arguments.”
The Anti-Defamation League, which also has issued a report on FAIR’s extremist affiliations, backed HIAS.
Deborah Lauter, ADL’s civil rights director, said the community should be “wary” of Steinlight because of “who his ties are with.”
At JTA’s request, Steinlight provided a list of 10 names of people who helped organize some of his appearances in front of Jewish audiences in recent months. Those reached for comment all praised his presentations as fact based and thought provoking.
“I hired him with a lot of trepidation” because “I knew his opinion was different than mine,” said Arlene Geiger, program chair of the Na’amat Kadimah chapter in Boynton Beach, Fla. But she said Steinlight came “well prepared” for his February speech with facts and statistics to back up his arguments. He received a standing ovation from the 150 Jewish women at the meeting, Geiger said.
“He totally changed my opinion around,” said Geiger, noting that Steinlight contrasted the success of the families of Asian immigrants to the United States with the problems — like the drain on social services — that have resulted from the wave of recent illegal immigration from Mexico.
“He was really successful in getting people to think about things they hadn’t thought about,” said Leslie Zuckerbrot, co-chairwoman of Shabbat programs at the Conservative Temple Israel in Riverhead, N.Y., who echoed Geiger’s praise that Steinlight had “good factual information” to accompany his opinions. She said congregants were debating Steinlight’s January speech for weeks afterward.
Asked about the report from the Southern Poverty Law Center, Geiger responded, “In no way is he a racist.”
A HIAS official said the organization was not accusing Steinlight of racism but raising red flags over the statements of those associated with his organization.