A Mensch's Guide to Campus Activism


Immigration issue sparks activist passion

 Lauren Levy 
By Lauren Levy

Although the current immigration debate involves mostly Hispanics, American Jews can easily relate. Jews throughout the country are supporting or helping immigrants, even if they cross the border illegally. Some feel compassion for the immigrants because of the historical parallels between Hispanic and Jewish immigrants in America.

The Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA), which is based in California, is an advocacy organization that “seeks to assert an authentic progressive Jewish presence in the campaigns for social justice,” according to its Web site. To the PJA, social justice includes immigrant rights.

The PJA’s statement on immigration policy discourages xenophobia in the Jewish community.

“The Jewish community is heir to and bearer of an immigrant tradition. Jews have been a diasporic people for almost 2000 years,” the Web site said. “Our tradition informs our vision of what constitutes a just and compassionate America, one that reflects the best of what we are and what we can be as a country.”

Rachel Biale, the Bay Area regional director of PJA, said she identifies with another statement in PJA’s immigration policy, “Our [Jewish] history commands us to recognize the humanity of migrants and the underlying reason for their migration.”

Biale said that Jewish history has been predominantly an immigrant history forged by the Diaspora. The issue of immigration hits close to home for Biale, who is an immigrant herself. Additionally, her parents were illegal immigrants to Palestine and were expelled.

“The historical legacy of being immigrants should weigh very heavily on our shoulders,” Biale said. “It starts as early as the biblical stories when we first entered the land of Canaan, then Egypt and back to the promised land.”

Northern California is home to many immigrants from many different countries, Biale said. The Jewish community, for example, has an established legacy in the Bay Area. However, during California’s gold rush, the Jews didn’t defend the poorly treated Chinese immigrants like they are now defending the Hispanics, Biale said.

“This should weigh on our consciences, and we should correct them by trying to defend the rights of today’s immigrants,” Biale said. “We were once immigrants, and we know what it’s like.”

Jews migrated for various economic and political reasons. The history of U.S. Jewish immigration dates back to colonial years.

During colonization, the number of Jewish immigrants in America was low, according to the American Immigration Law Foundation (AILF) Web site. The first recorded Jewish immigrant came to America about 50 years after the founding of Jamestown. By the time of the American Revolution, the size of the Jewish population in America had not grown much. In 1789, Jewish immigrants had established communities in only five cities: New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Charleston and Newport.

The majority of immigrants in the first half of the 19th century were German, both Jewish and non-Jewish, the website said. The initial group came because of scarcity of land, rural poverty and government restrictions in Germany. A second wave of older, more educated Jews came after the failed German revolution in 1848. The German Jews helped develop the Midwest.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, a wave of Jews fleeing the pogroms in Russia and Poland immigrated to America. Many of these immigrants were merchants, shopkeepers, craftsmen and professionals.

The post-WWII era saw an influx of Jewish Holocaust survivors after the Roosevelt Administration lifted restrictions on immigration in 1944.

“There seems to be a constant fear of new immigrants throughout the history of this country and I can’t explain it. It baffles me,” said Northwestern junior Benjamin Weiss. “Some of my family members were illegal immigrants back in the day. Many years ago some of my now deceased relatives brought other family members from Europe across the Canada/U.S. border in the trunk of a car.”

Jewish college students around the country are taking an active role in the current immigration debate. Recent Wesleyan graduate Aaron Sussman helped to start Incite Magazine with two other students in 2006. According to its Web site, Incite Magazine is an online progressive magazine that features political commentary on current issues like immigrant rights.

Sussman said that as a Jew, he understands why it’s important to fight for immigrant rights.

“To think about [immigration] in a perspective from one’s own personal history, whether Jewish or anything else, makes people aware that this is a very large issue and any attempt to simplify it is very problematic,” Sussman said.

Although Sussman said he doesn’t think there is any clear-cut solution to the immigration debate, he believes it is important to guarantee certain civil rights and liberties.

“The hope is that people would be concerned about the welfare of others,” Sussman said. “Everyone has a stake in showing a basic level of human dignity…but unfortunately that gets overlooked by people trying to benefit economically or politically, which distracts people from what should be a priority of human rights.”

There is also no reason why the Jewish people should be more involved in the immigration debate than other ethnic and religious groups because human dignity is valued in all of them, Sussman said.

For students who want to be active in the current immigration debate, Biale suggests to look in their own Jewish communities. Students can talk to people in local agencies or write to congress representatives.

“I think that [the immigration debate] has mobilized a large number of diverse groups, especially young people,” Sussman said. “A lot of people are realizing that this is affecting people they know.”

Posted: 10/18/2007 05:46:57 AM

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