Why Is AIPAC Silent on Syrian Refugees?

Many American Jewish groups balance the Holocaust’s tribal and universal lessons. The most powerful one doesn’t even try.

In this June 17, 1939 file photo, German Jewish refugees return to Antwerp, Belgium, aboard the St. Louis after they had been denied entrance to Cuba and the United States.
AP

The last two weeks have brought a festival of American ugliness. Since the attacks in Paris, virtually every Republican governor has declared their state off-limits to Syrian refugees. GOP presidential candidate Ted Cruz has called for allowing in Syrians only if they’re Christian. Donald Trump has mused about registering American Muslims and falsely accused them of celebrating 9/11. The bigotry and cowardice are jaw dropping. France, which lost 130 lives on November 13, has nonetheless committed to accepting 30,000 desperate Syrians. Barack Obama wants to accept 10,000 and the Republican Party has erupted in nativist hysteria.  

In this dark time, the organized American Jewish community has been a source of light. In 2011, during another spasm of Islamophobia, the Anti-Defamation League shamed itself by opposing the building of an Islamic Center near the site of the World Trade Center. This time, by contrast, it has joined with nine other American Jewish groups to pen a letter to Congress declaring that, “To turn our back on refugees would be to betray our nation’s core values.” Even the right-leaning Orthodox Union has declared that, “While security concerns must be paramount, our focus as a nation should be on ‘getting to yes’” and accepting Syrian refugees.

Why is an American Jewish establishment so untroubled by the denial of Palestinian rights in Israel so concerned about America’s treatment of Syrian refugees? Because human beings think analogically. When new events arise we scan our brains for similar events in the past and then use the lessons of those past events to determine how to respond. If the last time you ate carrot cake you got sick, you’re unlikely to eat anything that looks like carrot cake again.

For American Jewish leaders, the most powerful analogy is the Holocaust. But it contains two, radically different, lessons. Lesson number one is to be on the lookout for Nazis. Thus, when Iranian leaders call for the elimination of Israel, American Jewish leaders assume that, like Adolf Hitler, they will use any weapons at their disposal, no matter the risk, to murder Jews. Lesson number two is that anyone suffering a Holocaust—or some lesser persecution--deserves help, as long as they are not Nazis themselves.

The first lesson is tribal; the second is universal. The first inclines Jewish organizations to take a hard line against Iranian’s nuclear program and Palestinian nationalism. The second inclines them toward empathy for Syrians fleeing persecution and gays and lesbians who want the right to marry.

This summer, during the Iran fight, most American Jewish organizations activated the right sides of their brain. Now, this fall, during the Syrian refugee controversy, they’re activating their left. And in the process, they’re showing compassion when it’s needed most.

But there’s a problem. While the organizations that petitioned Congress on behalf of Syrian refugees respond to both halves of the Holocaust analogy, they don’t wield much power in Washington. They’re far less influential than AIPAC, which focuses only on the first. AIPAC leaders invoke the Holocaust constantly, but only to imply that Israel’s enemies are Nazis, never to suggest that non-Jews suffering oppression deserve help. That’s why AIPAC won’t weigh in on Syrian refugees. It’s also why AIPAC has repeatedly hosted the Reverend John Hagee, even though he’s said Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans because the city was hosting a gay pride rally. For AIPAC, that doesn’t matter. All that matters is that Hagee supports Benjamin Netanyahu against Israel’s Nazi-like foes.

People in the American Jewish community take this for granted. But they shouldn’t. In the mid-twentieth century, the idea that American Jewry’s most powerful communal institution would ignore everything except Israel would have struck Jewish leaders as perverse. Back then, before AIPAC became the powerhouse it is today, America’s most influential Jewish groups cared about Israel. But they cared about civil rights and civil liberties inside the United States even more. J.J. Goldberg notes in his book, Jewish Power, that in the 1940s American Jewish Congress employed more lawyers fighting racial segregation than either the NAACP or the Department of Justice.

In the 1950s, before it even opened an office in Israel, the American Jewish Committee funded the research by psychologist Kenneth Clark that helped sway the Supreme Court in Brown v Board of Education.

American Jewry’s values haven’t changed much since then. That’s why American Jews voted overwhelmingly, twice, for Barack Obama. But American Jewry’s distribution of power has changed. The “war on terror,” the rise of the mega-donor, the assimilation of liberal Jews, the growing influence of the Orthodox and the prime ministership of Benjamin Netanyahu have all tipped the balance in favor of a tribal interpretation of the Holocaust analogy.

It’s wonderful that so many American Jewish groups are expressing solidarity with Syrian refugees. And it’s tragic that AIPAC remains more powerful than all of them put together.