Israel Offers Answer To Trump on Immigration

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Vice President Mike Pence will visit Israel on January 22 and 23. The White House says he will visit the Western Wall, Israel’s Holocaust memorial at Yad Vashem, and Israel’s parliament, the Knesset.

I’ve got another suggestion:  let Pence add to his itinerary a stop at one of Israel’s immigrant absorption centers. It might provide some fresh and useful perspective on the American controversy driven by President Donald Trump’s reported desire to get more immigrants from countries like Norway and fewer from countries like Haiti.

One of the best aspects of the Trump administration has been its public determination to restore a U.S.-Israel relationship that had frayed somewhat under President Barack Obama. And one of the worst aspects of the Trump administration has been the stated desire to restrict even legal immigration to America, including refugee admissions. Perhaps President Trump’s embrace of Israel can be an opportunity for him understand and correct his errors on immigration.

If there’s any country in the world that in its recent history has welcomed newcomers from countries that might accurately be described with vulgarisms, it’s the Jewish state.

In 1949 and 1950, about 50,000 Jews arrived in Israel from Yemen.

In 1950 and 1951, about 125,000 came to Israel from Iraq.

In the 1950s and 1960s, nearly a quarter million came to Israel from Morocco.

In 1984, 8,000 Jews came to Israel from Ethiopia; another 14,000 Jews came to Israel from Ethiopia in 1991.

After the defeat of the Soviet Union in 1990, Israel absorbed another million immigrants from Russia and other formerly Soviet lands.

Many of these new arrivals spent their first weeks or months in Israel in absorption centers, non-elegant temporary housing reminiscent of a budget motel or a college dormitory. Immigrants staying there can learn Hebrew, begin adjusting to life in a new country, and figure out their next move.

Israel hasn’t been perfect in integrating these waves of immigrants; in some cases, there’s been tension between them and those whose families arrived earlier. And any comparison to the United States isn’t exact, in part because the Jews arriving in Israel aren’t coming there entirely for the first time, but instead returning to a homeland from which their ancestors had been exiled long ago.

But there are similarities, too, between the U.S. and Israeli immigration situations. Jews arriving in Israel from Yemen or Ethiopia had big adjustments to make, in terms of language, political systems, even things as basic as plumbing or kitchen appliances that we usually take for granted. The immigrants and their offspring, have nonetheless largely wound up as productive contributors to the Jewish state — a strength, not a weakness.

Immigrants and their offspring serve in the military and in parliament. They have made their cultural mark on Israeli music, fashion, sports, and food. They start high-tech companies. The speaker of Knesset, Yuli-Yoel Edelstein, is an immigrant from the former Soviet Union. The chief of the general staff of the Israel Defense Forces, Gadi Eizenkot, is the son of two immigrants to Israel from Morocco. An Ethiopian immigrant named Yityish “Titi” Aynaw won the Miss Israel beauty pageant.

In all of these cases what matters less is the country the immigrants were coming from, and more the country the immigrants are going to, along with how they are treated once they arrive. Israel has become such a great country not despite having to absorb all those immigrants, but because it absorbed all those immigrants.

It’s a point that ideally President Trump might have picked up from his immigrant-rich, vibrant, hardworking home New York City borough of Queens, or from his mother, Mary Anne Trump, an immigrant from Scotland, or from his wife Melania, an immigrant from Slovenia. Or a point that Vice President Pence might have picked up from his grandfather, Richard Michael Cawley, who arrived in America at Ellis Island from Ireland on April 11, 1923.

When Trump has connected Israel to immigration, it’s been with references to the security wall Israel built to keep out Palestinian Arab terrorists, which reminds Trump of the wall he proposes to build along the border with Mexico. But Trump promised during the presidential campaign, “This will be a wall with a big, very beautiful door because we want the legals to come back into the country.”

The absorption centers are Israel’s big, beautiful doors — as important to the country’s success as its security wall, maybe more important. If Pence can squeeze in a visit to one later this month and report back, it could turn out to be his most significant stop of the whole trip.


Ira Stoll is editor of and author of JFK, Conservative.