JCRC panel discusses Jewish response to the border

Around 50 people attended a panel discussion, “Jewish Responses to the Border,” at the Tucson Jewish Community Center on March 14. Three of the four panelists, including Mayor Jonathan Rothschild, Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon and Bob Feinman, are Jewish. The event, sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona, promoted economic progress between Tucson and Mexico. The fourth panelist, Jaime Chamberlain of Nogales, Ariz., president of J-C Distributing, Inc. a fresh produce supplier, discussed opportunities for increasing business between Mexico and Southern Arizona, which at the same time would make for better neighbors.

Cohon, the senior rabbi of Temple Emanu-El, discussed the humanitarian approach to immigration issues. “I am the grandchild of three grandparents who came here 100 years ago without a word of English,” he said, adding that another grandparent arrived in the mid-1800s, also without knowing a word of English.

With the advent of Pesach, “you could say that our ancestors left Egypt ‘illegally,’” said Cohon. The phrase ‘a stranger in a strange land’ has become popular, he noted, considering that “we became wanderers for 2,000 years. In framing a [Jewish] response to the border we must remember where we came from,” he noted.

And not all Jews immigrated to the new State of Israel legally (see related story, page 3). “We’re proud that we’re immigrants. People on the other side of the border were created by God just like us. They look like us,” said Cohon, acknowledging that “some laws need to be changed is also part of our heritage.”

Rothschild started out by giving the audience a bit of a history lesson. “You have to understand the land of the Gadsden Purchase wasn’t made part of the U.S. until 1849,” including Tucson. “There are a lot of families here who believe that we didn’t cross the border but the border crossed us.”

When the mayor’s grandmother first came to Tucson in 1942, there were Mexican Americans, Native Americans, African Americans and other European immigrants, he said. “Tucson has a very immigrant-friendly past,” said Rothschild, including the advent of Russian Jews in the 1970s and 80s.

To learn more about the border today, he suggested reading “The Devil’s Highway: A True Story” by Luis Alberto Urrea, which Rothschild called “a very balanced view” of desert crossings from Mexico to Southern Arizona. Tucson is now 50 percent Hispanic. “Immigration across the world takes place for similar reasons, said Rothschild. “We either come here because we’ve been persecuted or we’re starving.

“Mexico is a sleeping giant scheduled to become an economic giant in the world. Here we are in little Tucson sitting closest to it,” he said, adding that Nogales, Sonora, is the home of eight multinational corporations, with more located near other Mexican ports of entry.

Just through Nogales last year, the United States did $6 billion worth of business; Mexico is our second largest trade partner, noted Rothschild. “If you go to Mexico you’ll be surprised at what you see. We have an incredible opportunity to make a better world for our region.”

Chamberlain seconded the mayor’s prediction. Mexico has “image problems created by other people in the U.S.” who don’t know what’s going on, he said, adding that his family started its produce exporting business in 1971.

“Soon Michigan and Illinois will surpass [Arizona] as the third top states doing business with Mexico. Texas and California are one and two,” said Chamberlain. “The Mexican port of Mariposa has been reconfigured at a cost of $215 million. It’s shameful that Arizona [state government] and our U.S. senators haven’t promoted this port as they should. Instead the governor chose to go to Germany with significantly less trade than Mexico,” referring to a trade mission Gov. Jan Brewer took in May 2012.

Chamberlain also criticized the U.S. visa process, which, he said, “is antiquated. If we don’t start allowing a faster way to come to the U.S., Mexico will sell elsewhere. Our economic issues are a catalyst for what our social issues have become.

“We hear in the media that our border region is unsafe. We have over 700 border agents [in Nogales],” noted Chamberlain. “We have more FBI and CIA than Phoenix and Tucson put together.”

Bob Feinman, who worked for 40 years in the Spanish language radio business and now runs cross-border tours to promote social and economic development, asked whether “the border crisis is fact or fiction?”

“Mexican consumers spend $7.3 million every day of the year in Arizona. Part of that goes into our tax coffers,” he told the audience, which included students from Hillel and interfaith organizations at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, who attended as part of their alternate spring break.

Feinman also questioned the role of the media in painting a scary picture of Mexico. “Take the opportunity to see for yourself without the judgment of the press and others who don’t go there every day, live or work there,” he said. “Politicians are even worse.”

Seeing for yourself can “shine sunlight on this issue. By the end of the [border] tour thoughts and feelings have changed a bit. You’re in a position to make your own mind up,” said Feinman, who added that he’s volunteered for Humane Borders. The organization “has no political agenda. It’s strictly humanitarian. We put water tanks out there,” he said, “so people don’t die” trying to cross the desert.