Opinion | A Deportation Policy With Chilling Echoes

The Trump-Miller deportation plan should scare Jews­—but does it?
By | Jul 08, 2024
Opinion, Summer 2024
an illustrative image of Donald Trump in front of the U.S. constitution

The image wins lusty cheers at Donald Trump’s rallies—uniformed U.S. officers rounding up illegal immigrants and shipping them back where they came from in a mass deportation. It’s a vision meant to rattle liberal sensibilities, smash norms and fulfill Trump followers’ quest for a mythic America made great again.

For many American Jews, it’s an image that summons nightmares from a past turned suddenly not so distant, a violation of Jewish values and law. Yet to many Jews, from the policy’s Jewish creator, Stephen Miller, to many Jewish Trump supporters, the plan to deport millions of people seems both necessary and moral.

In an interview on Charlie Kirk’s conservative talk show, Miller, Trump’s longtime speechwriter and the architect of the deportation proposal, bluntly promised the biggest forced movement of people in American history. “This is going to happen,” he said. “If President Trump is back in the Oval Office in January, this is going to commence immediately, and it will be joyous, and it will be wonderful, and it will be everything you want it to be.”

The planned numbers are unclear—15 million, 20 million. The methods are vague, but lurid—Trump, who rails against immigrants “poisoning the blood of our country,” says he’ll deploy the National Guard, or maybe the military, or maybe local police forces. The money, legal authority and logistical arrangements that would be needed to pull off mass deportations go largely unexplained either by Trump or in Project 2025, the plan developed for a second Trump term by the conservative Heritage Foundation.

These developments have a dimension beyond the political for many Jews who feel a religious, historical and moral imperative to take the side of those who have escaped from terror. A map of the world’s Jewish population is largely a map of the places to which Jews fled when they were expelled, deported, hunted or otherwise removed from countries they’d called home for centuries. Exodus is as central to our experience as Genesis.

“If there were a master narrative of the Jewish people, it would be ‘We were slaves in Egypt,’” says Rabbi Jonah Pesner, director of the Reform movement’s social justice arm, the Religious Action Center. “The fundamental Jewish experience most of us share is the sacred reenactment of our journey, an experience in which we are commanded to see ourselves as the stranger.” Because of this, the Trump-Miller deportation plan “flies in the face of our tradition and history,” Pesner says. But the commandment to identify with the stranger is a difficult one, he adds: “It’s so easy to vilify the other.”

Although the immigration debate often plays out as Republicans against Democrats, viewing the outsider as an invading, destructive force is not a partisan position, he says. Three consecutive presidents—Obama, Trump and Biden—have sought at various times to toughen restrictions and close the U.S.-Mexican border.

But this should be an easier question for Jews, Pesner argues: “It’s not just that it’s clear in rabbinic and Talmudic texts. It’s in their kishkes. When has deportation ever been something good for the Jews?”

That doesn’t make it unanimous. There are numerous Jews who argue that mass deportation can be both politically and morally right. “Assuring the safety of the Americans who are here legally overrides any issue of tikkun olam,” says Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America and an immigrant from Germany whose parents, he says, waited three years for a visa to come legally to the United States. Klein cites polls showing that large majorities of Middle Easterners harbor antisemitic attitudes and says Muslims “coming to America should be vetted. This is purely political. No one has an obligation to bring in people who hate them. Maybe we should even increase immigration, but only vetted people.”

Between Pesner and Klein lie many American Jews who accept our special obligation to the world’s outsiders and wanderers yet are deeply concerned about crime, homelessness, the inability of local governments to care for an overwhelming tide of newcomers—and the abuse of the refugee system by people who come here not because of political oppression, but simply in search of a better life.

All along the political spectrum, though, the topic seems to make people viscerally uncomfortable. I called seven rabbis who work along the border to talk about this question, and every one either declined to speak to me or didn’t return my calls. “I can’t help you on this,” said a rabbi in Texas. “It’s just too controversial in my congregation.”

But part of the obligation Jews owe to ourselves and our fellow outsiders is to tackle such controversies. Just as it’s wrong to round up those who’ve fled to our country, it’s also wrong to pretend that their arrival hasn’t caused great strains. The solution is exactly the path America’s leaders have avoided: acting with empathy while setting rational limits.

Marc Fisher is a columnist at The Washington Post and coauthor of Trump Revealed, a biography of the former president. 

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5 thoughts on “Opinion | A Deportation Policy With Chilling Echoes

  1. C. joseph says:

    Hopefully it’s only a nightmare, but given rising antisemitism and the Christian right support of Trump and the belief of many that the Messiah will come when all Jews return to Israel, would/could such a deportation of Jews happen too?

  2. hag says:

    Everything trump … scares me… and what even scares me more is Jews who vote for him.

    1. frank says:

      Your article talks about future immigrants entering the U.S. The trump plan, as I understand it, is to deport folks already here. People with ties to this country, friends, family, jobs. In other words contributing members of our country. This is wrong for many different moral, business, and practice reasons.

    2. Amy says:

      I agree with Hag about the Jews who are followers and likely voters for Trump. He only is “good” for Israel as long as his Christian Right base supports it.

  3. Sheldon Wolf says:

    While the headline “…should a Trump deportation plan scare Jews” was a valid dog whistle for liberal Jews, the article did not make a strong case for why Jews in particular should be frightened. The author’s effort to make a political point without making a raw political statement, lost us with title heading “Trump… Scare… Jews”. His bias was so noted. Even though the limitation of Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe in the pre and post WWII era had the hallmark of antisemitism, a growing number of Americans today, Jew and non-Jew, believe the invasion over the past few years has not been of a humanitarian nature but rather an effort to pre-load America with a demographic that will grow to support a particular political party. Yes, liberals, especially Jewish liberals, love to virtue signal and readily site Tikkun Olam to help obscure the benefit to their politic. Yes, we should encourage legal immigration of people who have been fully vetted and can contribute to American society. Yes, we should remove criminals who have come to our country or illegal immigrants who have committed crimes while here. However, removing aliens whose main crime is crossing the border illegally is much more difficult to enforce. But it is not a Jewish issue or a Republican issue or a Democrat issue. It is a personal safety issue. Most would agree unfettered immigration has increased racial intolerance in America and the Western world. And wherever there’s racial intolerance, Jews are the first to suffer its affects.

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