Mort Klein knows the grim truth, that the Jews are a “nation that dwells alone.” But he never quite figured how alone he, the president of the Zionist Organization of America, would be among the Jews when it came to his support for the president’s immigration policy now roiling the nation. In the wake of President Trump’s executive order declaring a 90-day moratorium on refugees or visitors from seven majority-Muslim Middle Eastern countries — Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen and 120 days for Syria, roundly condemned by Jewish liberal and centrist groups — Klein declared the ZOA’s unequivocal support of the president, support based as much on Jewish safety as on national security.
“Why,” he asked us, when we know the Arab Middle East is overwhelmingly anti-Semitic, “would Jews want to welcome those anti-Semites into the United States?”
According to the FBI, in every year since 2001, Jews have been the leading victims of religious-oriented hate crimes. In 2014, the Anti-Defamation League conducted a global survey of anti-Semitism and found “the highest concentration of respondents holding anti-Semitic attitudes was found in the Middle East and North African countries,” and of the seven countries named by Trump, three were at the top of the ADL’s list: Iraq, 92 percent anti-Semitic; Yemen, 88 percent; and Libya, 87 percent. Of the listed countries, Iran had the lowest percentage of anti-Semitism, 56 percent, but Klein pointed out that Iran is also a country that regularly threatens Israel with a nuclear attack. Syria’s ongoing civil war has made it impenetrable for pollsters, but bordering countries have anti-Semitic attitudes ranging from 78-93 percent, making it reasonable to place Syrians in a similar range.
A 2015 ADL survey found that 55 percent of Muslim migrants to Western Europe continued to hold anti-Semitic attitudes, far above the 12-15 percent among the general population of France, Germany and the U.K.
With ongoing reports of a surge in American anti-Semitism, from the left and the right, Klein told us, “It is dangerous and immoral to bring anti-Semites into America; Jew-haters who will advocate anti-Israel boycotts, join anti-Semitic activities on campus and support the anti-Israel politicians in Congress.”
Nevertheless, the ADL filed a “friend of the court” brief supporting the State of Washington’s successful challenge to President Trump, voiding his directive against immigration and refugees from the seven designated nations. (The judicial fight is expected to reach the Supreme Court).
Jonathan Greenblatt, the ADL’s CEO, explained, “When America has closed its doors and allowed its core values to be compromised, the country later looked back in shame,” referring to Jewish refugees turned away from the United States in 1938, and the Japanese internment camps ordered by President Roosevelt in 1942.
Klein countered, “There is also no moral equivalence between Trump’s executive order and Roosevelt slamming the doors on Jews trying to escape Nazi Europe.” The Jews “posed no terror threat to the U.S., were in imminent danger of a Holocaust and had nowhere else to go,” compared to the migrants from the seven designated countries who “have 50 other Arab-Islamic nations” that could accept them. (According to published reports, no individual from any of the seven countries mentioned in the executive order has, since 9/11, been tied to a terrorist attack in this country.)
Klein argued that “Not ‘immoral’ to reduce dangers to our children.” For all the liberal Jewish arguments that we are obliged to be kind to strangers, Klein cited other halachic precedents that overruled the “duty to rescue” if rescue would endanger the rescuer. He also cited biblical texts such as Moses blessing the Israelites with borders “sealed like iron and copper … securely,” and he quoted the Exodus instruction, “They [enemies] shall not dwell in your Land … .”
Recent polls found support for Trump’s travel ban slipping as the debate has raged. Although Rasmussen found that 52 percent felt the federal government did not focus enough on the threat of domestic Islamic terrorism, a CNN/ORC poll found 53 percent opposed Trump’s immigration order, with 47 percent supporting it. That finding was corroborated by a CBS poll finding 51 percent disapproving of Trump’s directive, and Gallup found 55 disapproving.
Peggy Noonan recently wrote in The Wall Street Journal, “Battle lines are sharply drawn. … Everyone’s political views are now emotions and everyone now wears their emotions on their faces. People are speaking more loudly and quickly than usual. At parties, dinners and gatherings the decibel level hits the ceiling right away and stays there.”
One Jewish communal leader said he was willing to talk to The Jewish Week but not if we’d use his name. “I’m really caught in the middle on this whole thing,” he said. “On one hand, I’m for [the executive order]; for security reasons we shouldn’t let these people in. On the other hand, as a Jew, I’m worried,” considering the difficult history of Jewish immigration. Jewish refugees in the past were good people; “some of the people coming in now are good people, too, but some of them aren’t.” He thought the issue was as inflamed by “hating Trump” as much as from the constitutional issues.
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“Trump? My wife can’t stand the guy,” he continued. “Do you know how many friends of mine aren’t talking to their friends, or not talking to their husbands or wives, because of Trump?” And every week there’s a new reason why — for both sides. Was he afraid of bringing in Middle Eastern anti-Semitism? “Yes, I am. It’s not looking good here, I’ll tell you that.”
A New York Times post-election look at the Jewish vote found that concern over Arab immigration was one of the three leading reasons (along with Israel and security) for Trump’s 69 percent support in heavily Orthodox Borough Park.
Although Klein said he was alone, he was hardly repudiated by groups on the Orthodox right, such as Agudath, the charedi umbrella group, which stated that protecting citizens from terrorism was “an unarguably honorable quest,” as long as the “focus is on places, on countries that are hotbeds of violent radicalism, not on religious populations.”
The Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America, two centrist groups, issued a similar statement, calling upon the government “to recognize the threats posed by radical Islamists, while preserving and protecting the rights of all people who seek peace, no matter how they worship God.”
Fred Ehrman, a national vice president of the Orthodox Union, speaking only for himself, told The Jewish Week, “The phrase ‘extreme vetting,’ which makes absolute sense, is characterized as xenophobic, only because [Trump] is proposing these measures. Coming from the mouth of a Barack Obama or a Hillary Clinton, it would seem undeniably reasonable. And I say this as someone who himself was a refugee over 70 years ago.”
Klein contended that the executive order was not about religion. But maybe it was about religion. Last July, the Department of Homeland Security revealed that ISIS issued a “kill list” of 1,700 American church and synagogue members. “We’re getting to the point,” said Klein, “where almost every major synagogue has security guards on Shabbos, and the reason is fear of [radical Islamic] terrorists.”
Klein brought up another issue relating to Middle Eastern travel that has been long simmering among Zionists. He said that while liberal Jews have been so passionately protesting among the Trump immigration directive, “when’s the last time you heard a protest or saw an editorial about the 16 Arab countries,” including six of the countries on Trump’s list, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, Syria and Yemen, “that won’t let anyone enter if they have Israel stamped on their passports? [British Prime Minister] Theresa May condemned it last week. Who else did? And yet the same people who go crazy about Trump say nothing about this ban that hits American Jews with Israel stamped on their passport.”