In the wake of the mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, the debate about the Trump administration’s immigration policies has become more divisive than ever.
The fact that the shooter in that atrocity was a racist hater of Hispanics — and opposed both legal and illegal immigration to the US — has been used by the administration’s critics to blame the president for what happened and to even label supporters of his policies as being racist.
That kind of invective makes debate about the core issues difficult, if not impossible.
Neither side in the discussion about immigration has entirely clean hands.
But there is a special responsibility for those who claim to speak for faith to do so in a manner that is not aimed at creating more polarization.
And on those grounds, the left-wing Jewish activists who spent Tisha b’Av protesting President Donald Trump’s policies failed miserably.
The idea of using Holocaust metaphors as part of arguments about what is going on at America’s southern border is indefensible.
Even if conditions at overcrowded detention facilities for those caught crossing the border illegally are bad, they are not “concentration camps” — a term that is generally used to describe places that were both far worse and also criminal efforts to detain, torture and kill innocent people.
Comparing such places to federal facilities housing people who did break laws passed by Congress is a willful effort to misrepresent the facts and to undermine the unique nature of the Holocaust.
The same goes for the Anne Frank analogies. Migrants who came here illegally, then went through the legal process and were ordered out by US courts, but hide from the authorities have nothing in common with a Jewish girl in the 1940s cowering in an attic with her family for fear of death.
It is possible to sympathize with the desire for a better life in America. But when you recognize that large groups of people are trying to benefit from having broken the law that other immigrants waiting their turn to get into America are following, they’re not quite so sympathetic.
Equally offensive is the “Never again means never again” slogan of these protesters, who seem to think that enforcing US immigration laws is no different from killing six million Jews in cold blood.
The use of these analogies ran amok in New York over the weekend when some Jewish activists sought to block traffic on the West Side Highway over the issue. Others conducted a sit-in at an Amazon store in order to protest the company’s ties to the Dept. of Homeland Security while reading from Eicha, the book of Lamentations. That text is read on Tisha b’Av since it describes the first of the great historical disasters on the ninth of the Hebrew month of Av — the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem and the slaughter of the Jews of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians.
Reportedly, Brad Lander, a New York City councilman who joined some of the demonstrations, compared the Jews protesting efforts of federal authorities to police the border to the White Rose movement, in which a handful of Germans protested the Nazis during WW II. Leaving aside the insufferable arrogance of that pose, it speaks volumes about the delusional nature of his stand; he actually thinks the US government is no different from the murderous regime of Hitler.
Such absurd charges are bad enough when they come from a politician. For some of the protesters who were with him to be using the rituals and liturgy of Judaism in order to make the same point was far worse.
Judaism has both universalist and parochial elements. But Tisha b’Av is not an empty metaphor into which one can pour arguments about any issue of concern. It is a date on which some of the worst catastrophes in Jewish history have occurred, including the genocidal slaughter of Jews in the wars in which both the First and Second Temples were destroyed. To use it as a prop in order to protest a situation that — however you feel about it — is nowhere near the gravity of those events is profoundly offensive.
By injecting the language of Tisha b’Av to describe the not entirely reasonable and lawful actions of both ICE and DHS to enforce the law as indistinguishable from the horrifying atrocities described in Lamentations is to inflame communal strife.
In depicting the debate about immigration as one in which those who seek to uphold the rule of law and to defend US sovereignty are no better than Babylonians, Romans, Nazis or contemporary mass killers, Trump’s critics are effectively foreclosing a necessary debate about the issue.
Doing so ignores the primary lesson of Tisha b’Av, which calls for avoiding sinat chinam — the “baseless hatred” that tradition tells us led to the fall of Jerusalem.
What the demonstrators are doing is using rhetoric that demonizes opponents and consciously distorts the issues in such a way as to erase all distinctions between actual hate crimes and a mere defense of the law or of the idea of border security.
The self-righteous Jewish Tisha b’Av protesters were exhibiting the sort of discourse that they deplore when used by Trump. By draping their anger at Trump and his supporters in the trappings of Judaism and its saddest day, they are recreating the exact sort of behavior Jewish scholars have warned against for two millennia.
Their offenses do not excuse Trump’s rhetorical excesses or mean that we shouldn’t have a debate about an issue on which Jews have traditionally advocated more liberal laws. However, debate is not possible when it is proposed to be conducted on such terms.
It is disturbing when Judaism is reduced to a political prop. But it is a disgrace to use the symbols, liturgy and history of the Jews in order to delegitimize fellow Americans who merely disagree about immigration, sending the country spiraling further into the abyss of division and hate.