Borders, boycotts heat up Jewish press conference in AZ

From blogs to social media to e-blasts, modern journalism is about more than just getting the story. Jewish newspaper editors and publishers from around the United States gathered to discuss those topics and our niche’s future direction at the American Jewish Press Association conference at the Hilton Scottsdale Resort & Villas from June 14 to 16.

Gideon Aronoff
Paulina Morris

Conference attendees also participated in provocative panel discussions such as “Jewish Perspectives on U.S. Immigration Policy” and “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions — Fighting Anti-Israel Delegitimization on Campuses, in Churches and in Boardrooms.”

“SB 1070 didn’t come out of nowhere,” said Brahm Resnik, news anchor on Phoenix’s Channel 12, who introduced and moderated the panel on immigration. Dead bodies of immigrants at the border, human trafficking, and Mexican drug cartel activity, he said, “are the facts on the ground.” The panelists, who included Gideon Aronoff, president and CEO of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society; John Linder, senior rabbi of Temple Solel in Paradise Valley, Ariz.; Paulina Vazquez Morris, a Jewish Cuban-American Republican candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives in Arizona’s Congressional District 3; and Bill Straus, Arizona

Anti-Defamation League regional director and occasional liberal talk show host, all agreed.

Ethan Felson
Carol Karsch

Some editors and publishers admitted they knew little about Arizona’s immigration situation until SB 1070 made big news. “Cheap, illegal labor has built Arizona,” Resnik told them. “Chances are they’ve built the hotel you’re staying in, the houses [Arizonans] live in.”

Commentators like Fox News’ Greta Van Susteren and Shawn Hannity and MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow may have just discovered Arizona’s immigration issue, said Straus, “but it’s been going on for years.”

Morris, an attorney who was the only panelist in favor of SB 1070, quickly got to the heart of a frequently heard argument: “In a federal vacuum states will act; that’s the case here. The federal government failed to act. SB 1070 is a result of that inaction.”

The law, which is set to take effect on July 29, requires law enforcement officers to request U.S. citizenship documentation when questioning possible offenders if “reasonable suspicion” exists that the person is here illegally. Many who have criticized the law fear it will promote racial profiling, specifically of Latinos.

Even though Straus called the law “a temper tantrum,” he contended that boycotts of the state “do nothing to address the law. They will penalize construction workers and those in the tourist industry, 70 percent of whom are Latino.

“Our last five presidents have slashed the border budget,” said Straus, emphasizing that “ADL opposes all illegal activity, including illegal immigration.” But seeing part of a man’s hand attached to the border fence makes you realize “that’s how badly people want to get here,” he said, and it’s incumbent on the federal government to solve the problem. “As long as this is a campaign issue involving politics,” said Straus, “[the immigration issue] is coming to your state.”

The Jewish response to immigration “has no uniform voice,” said Linder, a Reform rabbi who added that the “most important issue in the Jewish Bible is how we treat the stranger.”

“Let’s change the narrative,” he said. “As a country let’s figure out ways to open up our doors. Let’s move away from fear. Reform rabbis in Arizona would support that narrative” (see “JCRC, Reform rabbis decry Arizona immigration law,” AJP, 5/21/10, http://azjewishpost. com/2010/jcrc-reform-rabbis-decry-arizona-immigration-law/) .

From a national Jewish perspective, said Aronoff, “we need to give credit to the Arizona legislature for putting the issue of illegal immigration on the table. The legislature in Arizona did a fantastic job of identifying the problem, but did poorly coming up with a solution.”

Quoting former Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, who said “You show me a 50-foot fence and I’ll show you a 51-foot ladder,” Aronoff called SB 1070 an act of “desperation.”

As Jews, he said, “we can’t put our heads in the sand. How can we build connections with the Latino community if we don’t pay attention to the 5,000 who have died trying to cross the border?”

“To save a life is the overriding concern of Judaism,” added Linder.

Congressional candidate Morris stressed that the immigration problem also exists south of the border. “We must help our neighbor Mexico to democratize and encourage the Mexican government to put policies in place to improve their economy.” Acknowledging that “we create the demand for drugs,” Morris asserted, “we must secure the border to stop drug trafficking.” In addition, she said, “we have turned a blind eye to human trafficking [across the border]. Securing the border to protect its citizens is the [U.S.] government’s first responsibility,” said Morris. “I’ve analogized this to the flotilla situation in Israel.

“Every day I hear, ‘I went through the process to become a citizen legally, the right way.’ It’s a matter of fairness,” she said, telling the AJP that although in 1960 former Cuban leader Fidel Castro wouldn’t allow professionals to leave the country, her mother kept trying until she got out legally.

But getting a projected 12 million illegal immigrants “to leave the country is absurd,” said Aronoff. “You would have to institute a police state to find all these people.

“People are nervous that the United States is changing,” he said. “It’s always changing. We want the government to create a policy that will integrate people and unify our country.”

But in Arizona, said Straus, “when you talk about illegal immigrants, legal immigrants and people who look like they’re from Mexico, in general, we juxtapose these three.”

Part of the solution advocated by the ADL regional director is a guest worker program. “It’s unconstitutional to create a separate class of workers,” he said, adding, “I’m not saying all Latinos are farm workers. It’s all about the market. We need a reasonable path for citizenship, not SB 1070.”

Another area of deep concern to the Jewish community — including Jewish journalists — was discussed at the Israel session, “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions.” Ethan Felson, vice president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs in Washington, D.C., said a recent Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Middle East Study Committee report is “tremendously upsetting” because it strips away Israel or any Jewish narrative from the Middle East dilemma. “The homeland appears six or seven times in the document, referring to Christian and Muslim [connections to Jerusalem] and states ‘they would hope that Jews have a home in Israel,’” he said. In addition, the report declares that “the modern state of Israel cannot be validated theologically.” Felson will attend the church’s 219th General Assembly July 3-10 in Minneapolis.

“Anti-Zionism for many in the [Presbyterian] church is a politically correct form of anti-Semitism,” he said. “We see it in the cultural sense in everything from [a boycott of Israeli films at] the Toronto Film Festival to food co-ops in San Francisco or Brooklyn aiming to take away Israeli products.”

On the other hand, Felson advised Jewish journalists to “look at organizations that take co-responsibility; not every bit of criticism of Israel needs to be attacked. We need to have conversations in our communities,” he said. “We can acknowledge Palestinian suffering and be able to speak honestly.”

Another panelist at the Israel session was Carol Karsch, executive director of the Jewish Community Foundation of Southern Arizona. Twenty-five years ago, said Karsch, “we experienced in Tucson a foreshadowing of what we’re seeing today. I decided I would spend the rest of my life raising money for Israel and the Jewish people,” she said. “We’re in the battle of our lives and it costs money.”

In the early 1980s, the scholarly Middle East Studies Association “got into such politicization,” she said, when the Middle East Outreach Council was established under the auspices of Section 602 of the Higher Education Act of 1965, International Programs, at the University of Arizona.

The UA provided materials to the Tucson Unified School District’s public schools, including textbooks that were selected, she said, “for their anti-Israel orientation and were federally funded, actually with oil company funding. The language in the books was quite startling, [such as] Israelis talking about the ‘final solution’ of the Arab problem.”

At that time, Karsch was vice president of the Tucson Jewish Community Council (now the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona) that presented its objections to the texts to the UA.

In 1983, T.U.S.D. “stood up tall after reviewing all the materials” and determined that they “were biased to the hilt,” noted Karsch. “Our effectiveness at the local level was in place; solid relationships existed with community organizations and the Tucson Citizen newspaper, which ran an editorial, ‘TUSD takes the right steps’ (Oct. 3, 1983).”

“We went on our first interfaith mission,” she said. “There’s probably nothing more effective than going to Israel with non-Jewish business leaders together as a community. Our strength is at the local level, identifying local leaders, consistently talking to people about Israel, being resilient and courageous.”

Panelist Sharron Topper-Amitai, Phoenix’s Israel Center schlicha (emissary), noted that there are “so many peace rallies and anti-government protests in Israel. It shows that Israel is a truly democratic state. When was the last time you heard about an Arab state having a peace rally?”

And Gil Artzyeli, Israeli deputy consul general in Los Angeles, told conference attendees via Skype that “from the very first day 62 years ago that Israel became a state, Arab nations boycotted companies that did business with us. We’ll win this war like we won the other wars.”