Jews, immigration, and American ideals

Jews, immigration, and American ideals

Scholar’s pre-Selichot talk in New City examines the legacies and values of once-new arrivals

Dr. Rebecca Kobrin
Dr. Rebecca Kobrin

Among other, more noble, more aspirationally American reactions to immigration, there always has lurked the impulse to shut the door behind us. To pull the ladder up once we’ve climbed it. To slash the newcomer’s bootstraps, once and for all.

A century ago, Jews were among the targets of anti-immigration rhetoric and action. Now we’re not, but “in many ways the debates and rhetoric are literally and eerily the same as they were 100 years ago,” Dr. Rebecca Kobrin said.

Dr. Kobrin, the Russell and Bettina Knapp associate professor of American Jewish history at Columbia, will talk about immigration and the Jews at Selichot services at the New City Jewish Center on Saturday night. (See box.)

“I’ll be talking about how American Jews have participated in and shaped what I am calling the politics of immigration,” Dr. Kobrin said.

She’ll start in the nineteenth century with Emma Lazarus, whose poem famously is on the base of the Statue of Liberty — which did not gain its association with immigration until that poem was inscribed on it. (Immigration was much on Ms. Lazarus’ mind, because despite being a well-entrenched young New York Jew, a poet whose family had been in New York for generations, she was concerned about Russian Jews facing pogroms.)

The statue — formally Liberty Enlightening the World — was a gift from France to the United States in 1876, to mark the first American centennial, because “France is a republic and we are a republic,” Dr. Kobrin said.

Next, she’ll talk about Max Kohler, a lawyer “who is unknown now, but who created the field of immigration law,” she said. “He went under HIAS’s umbrella and parked himself on Ellis Island, believing that every immigrant deserved due process.” (Max Kohler also had serious yichus; he was a German Jew whose father was Rabbi Kaufmann Kohler, who led the impressively cathedral-like Temple Emanu-El, the Reform movement’s flagship synagogue on Fifth Avenue.)

From Mr. Kohler, Dr. Kobrin will move to Herbert Lehman, the Jewish governor of New York State who went on to represent the state in the Senate. “Lehman is the reason for the immigration legislation of 1965,” she said. That was the Immigration and Naturalization Act, which overturned the 1924 immigration law. The 1965 act did away with national quotas, opened the country to far more people from far browner countries than had been permitted in before, and allowed immigration for family reunification. It was also known as the Hart-Cellar Act, after Senator Philip Hart (D-Mich.) and Representative Emanuel Cellar, the extraordinarily long-serving Jewish Congressman from a frequently reconfigured part of New York City that always included Brooklyn.

“Lehman pushed and bankrolled the legislation,” Dr. Kobrin said. “He did not get to see it passed — but he got it passed.” He cared so deeply about it, she said, “because the quota system passed in 1924 did not reflect American values.”

Things change — and they don’t change. “I probably will start by talking about how there has been a lot of activism around the issue of immigration in the Jewish community in the last six months,” Dr. Kobrin said. It’s ironic. “In 1919, the main advocate for immigration restrictions claimed that there was an American Jewish lobby that was trying to keep immigration going.

“When we think about the American Jewish lobby now, we do not think about the politics of immigration,” she continued. “We are returning to that in some ways.”

The Jewish approach to immigration, as Max Kohler — who fought against the exclusion of Chinese would-be immigrants — and many others saw it, is “the idea that America is not about your ancestors. It is not about who you descended from. It is about the idea that America is open to everyone who can believe the ideals that undergird it.

“Becoming American has nothing to do with race. It has everything to do with believing those ideals.”

So what’s Jewish about immigration, and about immigration advocacy? Why do Jews care so much? It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg riddle.

“Is it because of Jewish values linked to biblical sources, or is it linked to the Jewish historical experiences over the last few centuries, which show that immigration restrictions never are beneficial to Jews? Dr. Kobrin asked. (Of course, it might be both.)

She’s mindful of the Selichot services that will follow her talk, and of the High Holy Day season they herald. “Rosh Hashanah is known as yom harat olam, the day the world was created,” Dr. Kobrin said. “As we do every year, I want us to be thinking about what the world we want to create and live in should be. This is something that Jews in America have thought about for at least the last century, at least in the context of immigration.”

Even though we as Jews no longer are unwelcome immigrants in the United States — in fact, some of us are gatekeepers now — we have to remember where we came from as we try to realize where we might be going, she suggested.

Who: Jewish immigration historian Dr. Rebecca Kobrin

What: Will talk about “Reluctant Prophets: American Jews and the Politics of Migration”

Where: At the New City Jewish Center, 47 Old Schoolhouse Road,  New City

When: On Saturday, September 21, from 9 to 10:30 p.m.; dessert and Selichot services will follow

Why: For the Merle and Byron Zabusky Memorial Fund’s annual Selichot lecture

For more information: Call (845) 638-9600, email, or go to

read more: