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On Immigration, Jews Seek out Interfaith, Interethnic Partnerships

May 12, 2006
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When Josh Protas, director of Tucson’s Jewish Community Relations Council, lobbies for immigration reform, he doesn’t enlist help just from his own community. Instead, his call list includes Catholic and Presbyterian churches, local Latino agencies, imams, bishops, pastors and rabbis.

As Protas will tell you, Jewish community leaders pushing immigration reform are forging a growing number of interfaith and interethnic partnerships.

These coalitions are working to improve life for the country’s illegal immigrant population, which the Pew Hispanic Center, a Washington-based research organization, estimates at 11 million to 12 million people.

Repairing the nation’s border policies has become a hot issue in recent months, as immigration rallies have swept the country and Congress has been considering a number of reform bills.

A comprehensive immigration reform package, which would create pathways for legalization, a guest worker program, enforcement mechanisms and expedited family reunification, is slated to return to the Senate floor next week after several weeks of political stalemate.

While some faith communities have obvious reasons to join the dialogue — the Catholic church has a large Hispanic constituency, for example — some wonder why Jews join the fray.

The answer can be traced, in part, back to Ellis Island.

“We are motivated from trying to learn the lessons from our own history about the benefits of a generous immigration policy and the dangers of a restrictive policy,” said Stacey Burdett, the Anti-Defamation League’s associate director of government affairs.

Other Jewish groups say the Torah compels them to act.

“We’re paying heed to the biblical directive that we’re to treat the stranger among us well,” said Richard Foltin, the American Jewish Committee’s legislative director and counsel.

National security matters also weigh heavily on the Jewish community.

“When there’s a large illegal flow we don’t know who’s coming in, and we’re not effectively able to keep people out who may want to do us harm,” Foltin said. “The way we see it, providing for comprehensive immigration reform is not a security problem, it’s a way to address the security problem.”

Jewish groups also say they can’t ignore the needs of the nation’s largest and fastest-growing minority.

“If we want to be active partners with these organizations, we can’t look at issues of paramount importance to these communities and say we don’t see it as a Jewish issue, so we’re going to sit it out,” said Gideon Aronoff, president and CEO of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. “We’ve got to nurture our common agendas — then we can get them to engage in our other issues, like Israel.”

Hadar Susskind, Washington director for the Jewish Council For Public Affairs, agreed, citing the Latino community’s growing clout.

“When people see tens of thousands taking to the street in peaceful protest, I think that generates a lot of energy around the country,” he said. “That energy has been contagious and has set into the Jewish community, as well.”

In some cases, Jewish groups have underscored their common agenda with Latino organizations by putting immigration in the limelight.

The American Jewish Committee dedicated a session to the issue at its recent 100th birthday symposium, having congressional representatives lead a seminar on immigration reform for roughly 100 Jewish leaders.

The Anti-Defamation League recently released a report on hate crimes against legal and illegal Hispanic immigrants.

In other cases, ties are being forged through direct Jewish-Latino collaboration.

More than two dozen Jewish agencies signed on to an interfaith statement supporting comprehensive immigration reform. The document, which quotes passages from the Hebrew Bible, New Testament and Koran, says the current immigration system “offends the human dignity of all human beings.”

Another interfaith effort took the form of an ad in Roll Call signed by two dozen organizations, including the American Jewish Committee, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Hispanic Alliance for Progress.

Two Jewish leaders — Aronoff and Foltin — sit on the National Immigration Forum’s board of directors, which represents a group of pro-immigrant community leaders.

But some say the national push by Jewish leaders hasn’t trickled down to the local level.

Judith Lackritz, community relations director of the Jewish Federation of San Antonio, said there’s general support for immigration reform in her area’s Jewish community, but “not a great deal of activism.”

“We would respond if approached by other groups,” she said. “But the immigrant issue has groups that are working on it, so we’ve just tried to sign up with them.”

Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, offered an explanation.

“On the local level, right now Iran’s nuclear threat, Darfur and anti-Semitism in Europe seem to dominate the Jewish communal agenda,” Halber said. “Most Jews came to this country at the turn of the century, and we’re four or five generations away from that experience. It’s increasingly becoming something that was in the past, maybe something that doesn’t completely resonate as much.”

The Jewish community in Tucson may disagree. Over the past several years, Arizona Jewish leaders have participated in a statewide immigration conference, formed a Jewish-Latino coalition for teenagers and visited the U.S.-Mexico border with interfaith colleagues.

It’s hard to ignore a “humanitarian crisis” playing out “in our backyard,” Protas said.

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