The story begins, as many good tales do, in Jerusalem.
It’s January 2012, and I’ve spent a week here on my first trip to the Holy Land as part of a small delegation of Latino journalists sponsored by the New York-based organization, America’s Voices in Israel. I’ve been drinking from a fire hydrant that spits out news, history, religion and politics in between dozens of meetings with high-level officials.
One highlight is the private 45-minute meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
But, for me, the most lasting memory of the trip is a visit to Yad Vashem — Israel’s memorial to Holocaust victims — and what it will teach me about immigration.
It’s an issue I’ve covered for a quarter century back home in the United States.
That debate has been ugly for 250 years. Take Benjamin Franklin’s comments about German immigrants in the 18th century, and substitute “Mexican” for “German.” There, you’re caught up.
The Trump administration is making the immigration debate even uglier by attacking legal immigration.
There are those in the administration — including Attorney General Jeff Sessions — who think the United States takes in too many legal immigrants and that the annual figure of 1 million should be cut in half to 500,000.
By the way, that figure represents only about 1/6 of 1 percent of the current U.S. population.
Trump claims the problem is that the United States takes in far too many immigrants from “****hole” countries. He desires a class of immigrants that are more educated and more skilled with higher test scores. Apparently, he envisions that getting into the United States should be like getting into Stanford.
The president also thinks that “chain migration” is a problem. That’s when an immigrant becomes a U.S. citizen and then sponsors other members of their family so they can become citizens too.
You know, like when First Lady Melania Trump recently sponsored her legal immigrant parents — Viktor and Amalija Knavs — for U.S. citizenship. That migration “chain” was gold-plated.
Now, in its latest scheme, the administration is proposing a new “public charge” test to determine whether prospective immigrants who want to come to the United States legally have enough income and assets to be allowed into the country.
Yes, you read that sentence correctly. How long before there is “TRUMP” signage and a toll booth on the Statue of Liberty?
Some of the more offensive ideas about how to reduce legal immigration come from the mind of Stephen Miller, the 32-year-old White House senior adviser who runs point on immigration. Before attending Duke University, Miller grew up in the heavily Latino region of Southern California.
Something traumatic must have happened to Miller while coming of age. He seems to be nursing some sort of grudge toward Latinos. And it manifests itself in Trump’s immigration policies.
What a pair these two make. We should call this movie “Crazy and Crazier.”
Then there is Miller’s religion. His immigration hijinks would be bad enough if he were Baptist, Methodist, or Catholic. But Miller is Jewish. And if there if one group that knows — or should know — what it is like to be targeted, abused, hounded, scapegoated, mistreated, picked on and run out of one country after another, it’s our friends in The Tribe.
This makes Miller more than just a demagogue. It makes him a hypocrite.
Who says? Well, Miller’s uncle for one. Recently, David S. Glosser — the brother of Miller’s mother, Miriam, wrote a column for Politico Magazine in which he slapped that label on his nephew and scolded him for having cultural amnesia.
The family’s story in America dates back to Wolf-Leib Glosser, Miller’s great-grandfather. The Jewish immigrant took a chance on this country — and asked it to take a chance on him — when he set foot on Ellis Island in 1903, with $8 in his pocket. Though fluent in Polish, Russian and Yiddish, Wolf-Leib understood no English.
Then Glosser dropped the mic:
“I have watched with dismay and increasing horror as my nephew, an educated man who is well aware of his heritage, has become the architect of immigration policies that repudiate the very foundation of our family’s life in this country.
“I shudder at the thought of what would have become of the Glossers had the same policies Stephen so coolly espouses — the travel ban, the radical decrease in refugees, the separation of children from their parents, and even talk of limiting citizenship for legal immigrants — been in effect when Wolf-Leib made his desperate bid for freedom.”
But Miller isn’t the only one who has amnesia.
I found lots of it in Israel, which was founded in 1948 as a refuge for the Jewish people.
The United States is a land of immigrants, but so is Israel.
This was a point that was, throughout the week, drilled into the heads of the Latino journalists. Whether we were meeting with a retired army general, a diplomat, a journalist, a teacher or a politician, the pride that Israel takes in being considered a land of immigrants was unmistakable.
So, imagine my surprise at the reaction of all these people when I brought up during our meetings one of the stickier issues that Israel is dealing with at the moment: African immigrants.
Our trip coincided with protests in Jerusalem by Africans who claim that Israel is not living up to its billing and that life for them is not as it was presented in the brochure.
According to Israeli government figures, an estimated 60,000 migrants — most of them asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan — have entered the country in recent years.
This is a drop in the demographic bucket for a country of 7.8 million people. But many Israelis are still worked up over it.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Israel fulfilled its calling as a haven when it rescued tens of thousands of Jews from famine-stricken Ethiopia. The heroic airlifts were spearheaded by Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, organized by the Israeli secret service Mossad, and carried coded-names like Operation Moses and Operation Solomon. By the end of the 1990s, it was easier for Ethiopians Jews to emigrate to Israel. About 100,000 of them came.
According to reports, after the Ethiopians were relocated to Israel, they were not exactly welcomed with open arms by its residents. The fact that they came as part of a rescue mission — and thus came legally — didn’t temper the nativism they encountered because they had a different culture, language, and skin color.
Unfortunately, not so much has changed. These days, many Israelis are none too pleased that a new wave of Africans are coming — some legally, some illegally.
So, in Jerusalem, in my morning newspaper, I see reports of Israelis hurling racist insults at African immigrants and homeowners refusing to rent apartments to them because they think they’ll somehow bring down the standards of the neighborhood.
I also see where politicians in the ruling Likud Party have referred to African immigrants as “infiltrators” and “a cancer.”
Some Israelis are driven by politics. They worry that immigration changes demographics to the point where Jews will be outnumbered by non-Jews, challenging the idea of a Jewish homeland.
Others are motivated by prejudice; they are concerned the Africans are just too different to assimilate into Israeli society, and they insist that the newcomers come from a backward culture.
I’ve seen this movie before. It plays on a constant loop in my home state of California. Only there, the villains who are supposedly intent on ruining everything are Latinos.
Before long, my colleagues and I are peppering every official we meet with tough questions about why Israel isn’t more welcoming of African immigrants — especially given its operating principles.
The Latino journalists were not the first to call out this contradiction. A week or so before we arrived in Jerusalem, Israeli President Shimon Peres, a former prime minister, had blamed the conflict over the Africans on racism and “those who simply do not know how to behave toward new immigrants.”
But when we bring up the issue with officials, what we get in response is a lot of ducking, dodging and doubletalk. They were clearly embarrassed by the whole subject. We couldn’t find anyone who would even admit that Africans in Israel were being mistreated, marginalized or maligned.
That is, until our group of Latino journalists made it to Yad Vashem — the Holocaust memorial. There, I saw an exhibit on Jewish migration to Palestine, and another on the countries that turned away Jewish refugees who were fleeing the horrors of Nazi Germany.
More importantly, it was there that met a woman who would become the most important person I met in all of Israel. She was the woman who led our tour through the memorial.
When we got to one of the exhibits on immigration, she acknowledged that some of her countrymen today were just as unwelcoming to African immigrants as many people in other countries had been to Jews fleeing Europe in the last century. That is wrong, she said. She mentioned her parents, from Poland, who had perished in the Holocaust because people had shut their doors to them.
Then she asked: “If I close the door to someone trying to get into this country, how would that honor the memory of my parents?”
I fell in love with Israel on that trip. It’s a beautiful and magical place — largely because of people like that woman.
We finished the tour in virtual silence. It was hard for me to focus on the other exhibits. What with the tears in my eyes.
Ruben Navarrette is a contributing editor to Angelus and a syndicated columnist with The Washington Post Writers Group and a columnist for the Daily Beast. He is a radio host, a frequent guest analyst on cable news, and member of the USA Today Board of Contributors and host of the podcast “Navarrette Nation.” Among his books are “A Darker Shade of Crimson: Odyssey of a Harvard Chicano.”
Start your day with Always Forward, our award-winning e-newsletter. Get this smart, handpicked selection of the day’s top news, analysis and opinion, delivered to your inbox. Sign up absolutely free today!