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Zionism for Refugees

With Central American children at our borders, the United States, and the West, cannot just criticize Israel

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The blogger Andrew Sullivan, an English immigrant who is now an American citizen, was once a pretty down-the-middle Zionist, but he has become increasingly disillusioned with Israel. For several years now, he has been particularly frustrated by what he calls the “Greater Israel Lobby,” a term he chose in place of the more familiar, and anti-Semitic, “Jewish lobby.” A number of my friends and colleagues have decided that Sullivan is a vile bigot, a crypto-anti-Semite if not the real thing outright. I find such charges absurd; as somebody who has read his work almost daily for 15 years or so, I’ve been impressed by his searching honesty and his rigor about his own follies. So, it’s with a sense of hopefulness that I write to point out a recent folly of his, one that is I think characteristic of many who have taken up the quill against Israel, and one whose intellectual implications ping from Israel to Texas, from Honduras to France.

On July 28, Sullivan wrote a post about anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism and how to distinguish one from the other, especially when both are on the rise. Near the end of the post, he quoted a short piece by Jordan Chandler Hirsch that had just run in Tablet. (As it happens, I am guest-editing Tablet for four months, while our editor-in-chief is on maternity leave, but I had not read Hirsch’s words until I saw Sullivan link to them; our blog posts, while edited by staff, don’t need my approval.) Hirsch had argued that “[t]he case for Israel is now unfolding in the heart of Berlin,” where “an angry mob” had recently gathered to shout, “Jude, Jude feiges Schwein! Komm heraus und kampf allein!”—“Jew, Jew, cowardly swine, come out and fight on your own!” In other words, Hirsch argued, it was a bit rich to question the legitimacy of a Jewish state at a time when the necessity for its existence, the murderous intentions of people toward Jews, was being proven and re-proven in the heart of Europe.

Sullivan has never been cavalier about anti-Semitism, so I was surprised by what he wrote after Hirsch’s block quotation ended. Responding to the mob’s demand that Jews “come out and fight on [their] own,” Sullivan wrote, cheekily, “Or they can come, of course, come to America, where Jews are celebrated, integrated and free from rockets.” Well, zing! Almost like a short-range missile, but even more precise. The answer to anti-Semitic mass cheers in Berlin is not Israel, but the United States, a Jewish haven in a heartless world.

Let’s assume for the moment that Sullivan is comfortable with the historical irony at the heart of his claim: that the last time Jews needed to get out of Berlin, the United States was quite close-fisted with entry visas. I’ll concede that the United States is a different place today (as is Germany), and that we have probably learned some lessons from history. But there’s a bigger problem with Sullivan’s blithe come-hither invitation to America, a problem that he, as a gay, HIV-positive foreigner who has written eloquently about the inequities of our immigration policy, should have been on the lookout for.

The problem is, simply, that he is wrong about immigration policy. Jews who are afraid of anti-Semitism—say, because of the recent anti-Semitic chants in Germany, or the broken shop-windows in France—cannot simply immigrate to the United States because of it. The United States is a very difficult country to enter legally, and a generalized fear of persecution doesn’t pass muster as a valid reason with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or “ICE,” as our immigration authority is now aptly called. If you’re a grocer or pharmacist in a Paris suburb like Sarcelles, and your shop is vandalized in the course of what is clearly a wave of anti-Semitic violence—I’m citing events of this summer—you cannot just come to America. In fact, “no one, regardless of circumstances, can ‘just come,’ ” in the words of my friend Stephen Wizner, the former head of the immigration clinic at Yale Law School and a visiting professor of law at Tel Aviv University.

“In order to obtain asylum in the U.S.,” Wizner explained to me in an email, “a person needs to be a refugee. A refugee is a person defined as one who has suffered past persecution and/or has a well-founded fear of future persecution by officials of his home country, or by non-state actors whom the home country’s government is unable or unwilling to control, on account of political opinion, religion, race, nationality, or membership in a particular social group, and is afraid to return to his home country for that reason. Persecution means stuff like torture, harsh interrogation, being individually targeted for physical abuse, arrest, death threats, etc. Jews in France would not likely qualify for asylum in the U.S.”

The “well-founded fear of persecution” is language that many countries use, and it comes from the 1951 Geneva Conventions, but it generally refers to persecution by the government. So long as his government has not turned on him, a Frenchman’s vague, creeping sense that stuff is getting really bad for Jews in Paris, and the government can’t protect me, will not get him asylum in the United States. Nor, for that matter, will it get him into Canada. I asked the Australian human rights lawyer Julian Burnside, “If I were a Jew or a Muslim who felt threatened in my home country, how easy would it be to move to Australia?” Not very, he replied. “At present we are behaving very badly to refugees.”

Now, it’s likely that many French or German Jews would find other ways into the United States, if things got really bad at home. “If one has a special skill,” Wizner said, “that is in short supply in the U.S. employment market, and for which there is deemed to be a need in the U.S. economy, he or she can apply for an employment-based visa, which can eventually ripen into a green card and eventually citizenship.” Such a candidate needs an actual offer of employment, with a letter from the employer, but it’s likely that many, many such offers of employment would appear in the United States if European Jews were in clear danger. Jewish employers, and their more numerous evangelical Christian, Zionist friends, would make sure of it.

But the old regime that allowed Wizner’s father into the United States—which he summed up as “medical exam, lice inspection, name change, condescension, welcome to America”—has not existed since 1924, when in the grip of a xenophobic Red Scare the United States, theretofore a nation of immigrants, shut its doors nearly all the way. Since that time, we have occasionally made categorical exceptions for groups of battered, terrified refugees, but the exceptions have nearly always been driven by geopolitical concerns, rather than by the severity of persecution. The Cuban refugees after Castro, the Indochinese as the Vietnam War ran aground—they needed to get out, but were they any more desperate than Iraqi resistance allies whom we recently abandoned to their fate after our failed war? Were they more desperate than thousands of Syrians today? Was their need greater than that of Gazans in the recent crisis? When 750,000 Palestinians have spent time in Israeli prisons since 1967—“a number that amounts to 40 percent of the adult male population today,” according to Columbia professor Rashid Khalidi—surely some of them are political actors who have a “well-founded fear of persecution” in the future. But they aren’t about to gain access to our purple mountains’ majesties.

I’m not trying to put all the wretched of the earth into competition with one another; I don’t know how to judge a misery derby. Rather, I want to point out that the cavalier attitude, so useful to anti-Zionists, that the Jews can just “come to America,” where they “are celebrated, integrated, and free from rockets,” is outdated mythology. The United States was once that country, but it hasn’t been for nearly a hundred years. If you need to be persuaded, and you can’t find a Holocaust survivor to tell you how she had to hide in the French hills or in the Polish woods because the United States didn’t want her, then just buy a one-way ticket to Texas and talk to any one of the thousands of children, fearing violence in their home countries of Honduras or Guatemala, who need to get into the United States right now. In 1920, they all could have come in; today, we’re imprisoning and interrogating them and then sending most of them home.

***

Since Oct. 1 more than 45,000 unaccompanied minors have arrived in the United States from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. According to the New York Times, “Many of the children, particularly in Honduras, are believed to be fleeing dangerous street gangs, which forcibly recruit members and extort home and business owners.” So far the United States has arrived at no reasonable response to the crisis. One of the most compassionate dead-on-arrival bills, proposed by Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake, would increase the number of refugee visas by 5,000 for each country—enough to solve about a third of the problem, sending only 30,000 children back home to be drafted into street gangs or murdered. The Obama Administration has another plan, which would make it easier for children who do not qualify for refugee status to get “humanitarian parole.”

But beyond the general American animus toward immigrants right now, there are well-funded organizations that exist to make sure these children never become Americans. Mark Krikorian, of the Center for Immigration Studies, said that the Obama plan is “clearly a bad idea” because “orders of magnitude more people will apply for refugee status.” The Times added that Obama’s plan “could create a thorny challenge for the administration because the definition of a refugee is legally specific, and children fleeing street gangs could have a hard time qualifying.”

Let’s linger on that for a moment: You can be “fleeing street gangs” and still “have a hard time qualifying” for refugee status. This is not some bit of Sean Hannity wish fulfillment but the reality of current American immigration law, which makes it nearly impossible to come to the United States unless you are married to an American or have software skills good for improving a smart-phone app like Square, Grindr, or Uber.

It was not always thus, of course. The fantasy of the United States as an immigrants’ paradise, which is so central to the conscience of the anti-Zionist today—since the Jews can always come here!—was more or less the way things were from the beginning of time until 1882, when the Chinese Exclusion Act first introduced the concept of the illegal immigrant to our country’s legal system. Not every immigrant could become a citizen, but most could, including the majority of what we now call Latinos who wished to come here. But beginning in 1882, the Congress increasingly began to set quotas and impose restrictions, like literacy tests, on those who wished to come. By 1917, Congress had already barred Asians (except Japanese or Filipinos), paupers, illiterates, and assorted radicals.

“In addition,” writes Roger Daniels in Coming to America, his comprehensive history of immigration, “by late 1920, as Congress reassembled, the nation’s press was filled with scare stories about the flood of undesirable immigrants on their way from war-ravaged Europe”—and such fears led to the Immigration Act of 1924, which greatly shrank the number of immigrants allowed in and tied the nationalities of new immigrants to the pre-existing ethnic makeup of the United States. The bill was signed by President Calvin Coolidge, who believed that intermarriage between “Nordics” and others damaged the racial stock.

There was, it goes without saying, no provision made in that law for refugees. The United States’ unreceptiveness to Jews during the rise of Hitler and during World War II itself has been well covered elsewhere. I need not quote again the anguished letters from American Jews to the State Department, trying in vain to get visas for their siblings or parents. I need not rehash the story of the St. Louis, carrying a thousand Jewish refugees whose Cuban visas had been canceled, how their ship sailed so close to Miami Beach that its passengers could hear music being played at the hotels, but who were turned away and sent back to Europe, many of them to die. I don’t have to quote President Roosevelt’s steely, insincere private notes to Jewish politicians, assuring them he was doing all he could.

Perhaps we can just look ahead to the Displaced Persons Act of 1948, when our country’s law took notice of the category of refugee for the very first time. It was a cynical and imperfect law, under which more “refugees” admitted to the United States were from groups favored by Hitler, like ethnic Germans who lived in what was becoming the Soviet Union, than from persecuted groups like Jews or leftists. But it at least improved on both the indifference to Jews before and during the war and the continued indifference right afterward—for in the first nine months of 1946, at a time when the horrors of the death camps were being learned throughout the world, the United States admitted 5,000 displaced persons.

In his fine book, Daniels tells the story of Albert Lewkowitz, a professor at the Breslau Jewish Theological Seminary in what is now Poland. Fleeing the Nazis, Lewkowitz made it to the Netherlands, but soon that country, too, was occupied. His documents were destroyed in the German bombing of Rotterdam, and the United States, which according to the 1924 law was supposed to exempt religion scholars from the quotas, nevertheless made it impossible for Lewkowitz to get a visa. He was captured and sent to Bergen-Belsen, where he surely expected to die. But in 1944, he was one of the very few concentration camp prisoners to be released in an exchange. Yet there was still no legal way for him to enter the United States—despite an offer of guaranteed employment from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. So, he went to Palestine.

Four years later, on May 14, 1948, Israel declared independence. On June 25, 1948, President Harry S. Truman signed the Displaced Persons Acts into law. And thus, in the span of six weeks, the modern West offered up its two solutions to the threat of a future holocaust against the Jews: a weak system of refugee asylum in a democratic country, a system despised then and threatened even now by populist, racist, anti-immigrant sentiment—and a less democratic state that promises, as one of its founding principles, to admit any Jew, at any time, no questions asked.

***

Of course, the existence of Israel does nothing for the children fleeing gangs in El Salvador, Honduras, or Guatemala. Israel did not come into being with a generalized commitment to rescue refugees, only refugees from one very tiny subset of the world’s population. The state was founded according to a very blunt principal of ethnic favoritism. The infamous United Nations resolution of 1975 (later revoked) said that “Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination,” and that was precisely half-true. There is nothing racist about the founding documents, nothing that declares one people’s superiority to another, but there is plenty that is discriminatory.

From the beginning, Zionism contained two distinct urges, one affirmative and hortatory, the other skeptical and pragmatic. Writers in the former camp saw Zion as the land where Jews could realize some potentiality, maybe secular, maybe religious: manhood, nationhood, eschatological calling, whatever. A. D. Gordon called for “rebirth” through labor, so that the Jew could achieve his “fullest stature”; Theodor Herzl longed for a cooperative economy, “between individualism and collectivism,” in a land that seemed to realize the dreams of the French Revolution and Marx simultaneously; Rav Kook believed that “a Jewish nationalist, no matter how secularist his intention may be, is, despite himself, imbued with the divine spirit.”

I have little use for that aspirational, even utopian brand of Zionism, for Zionism as the ramp to some higher state of being. For one thing, it implicitly demeans two millennia of diaspora Jews, right down to the Yiddish-speakers who went to their deaths in Europe or escaped to a hostile America. There is no disentangling this new-man Zionism from a disparagement of the shtetl Jew, who becomes the weak, sheep-to-the-slaughter Jew who somehow brought Auschwitz on him- or herself. The farmer Jew in the holy land always comes out looking better than the poor cobbler or yeshiva bocher from Chelm—and I won’t have that. And as the scholar Daniel Boyarin has noted, the machismo of Zionism is often a convenient cover for a base misogyny, in which a presumably masculine physical strength is preferred to the “feminized” qualities of the scholar.

But above all, I just don’t think this aspirational Zionism is true, even on its own terms: There’s no persuasive evidence that giving an ethnic or religious group its own country makes them better people. It makes them more willing to die for a cause, but it also makes them more willing to kill. It makes them feel more empowered, but it also tempts them with power. I have no idea how to work through this calculus, but I don’t think anyone else does, either. And the recent war in Gaza, where Israelis are called on to die for their country but also to kill for it, poses some problems for this kind of Zionist. If having a state was supposed to make Jews better, what would we be forced to think of our state if it made us worse? What if we sat down and read all the reports from Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International, and B’Tselem and decided, after careful consideration, that some Jewish boys and girls were behaving in terrible, terrible ways? At some point, would it begin to seem that having a land had not made Jews better?

But there is, as I said, another Zionism, which always posited Zionism as, basically, a last, best option for refugees. Even as Herzl and others were touting Zionism as a makeover project to turn weak Jews into strongmen, as if on some schlocky reality show (National Makeover, Jewish Edition!), the need for Zion as a place to come in from the cold, to seek escape from persecution, was never far from their mind. As Herzl himself wrote in Altneuland (1902), emancipation, a hundred years earlier, had hardly been the Jews’ deliverance. Rather,

The blood libel was revived … the Jews were accused of poisoning the press, as in the Middle Ages they’d been accused of poisoning the wells. As workingmen, the Jews were hated by their Christian fellows for undercutting the wage standards. As businessmen, they were dubbed profiteers. Whether Jews were rich or poor or middle-class, they were hated just the same. They were criticized for enriching themselves, and they were criticized for spending money. They were neither to produce nor consume. They were forced out of government posts. The law courts were prejudiced against them. They were humiliated everywhere in civil life. It became clear that, in the circumstances, they must either become the deadly enemies of a society that was so unjust to them, or to seek out a refuge for themselves.

(The italics are mine.) And so it would become clear that Jews needed a refuge. Such a desperate pleading seems not to partake of any images of the muscled sabra. It’s another kind of plea, one for a bit of land on which to live free of the legal, and existential, dilemmas that plagued Jews in the century after their legal emancipation.

For me, the most stirring summation of the case for a Jewish refuge in Zion came about 60 years later, from the pen of Hannah Arendt, the great German philosopher who by that point in her life was a notoriously lapsed Zionist. Her book Eichmann in Jerusalem was widely criticized, from the moment of its publication in 1963, as the work of a self-loathing Jew, her heart turned cold and stony to the victims of Nazism. I think this reading of her book fails for many reasons, but for evidence I only have to point to one passage, in which she recounts the testimony of one Aharon Hoter-Yishai, the last witness for the Israeli prosecution of Eichmann for war crimes.

Hoter-Yishai spoke on the stand about the plight of Jewish displaced persons after they were emancipated from the camps. “The danger,” Arendt wrote, summarizing Hoter-Yishai’s testimony, “was that the Jews, too, would be returned to their former homes … [Hoter-Yishai] told how some of them ‘had wandered home from the D.P. camps,’ only to come back to another camp, for ‘home’ was, for instance, a small Polish town where of six thousand former Jewish inhabitants fifteen had survived, and where four of these survivors had been murdered upon their return by Poles.”

Arendt, ever scrupulous, then points out some inconsistencies in Hoter-Yishai’s testimony, which in places “smacked more strongly of propaganda than anything heard previously.” Hoter-Yishai was now an Israeli, and in his view the road to Palestine was the only safe road for Jews after the war. Arendt refuses to go as far as that. But she ends on a note favorable to the witness. “And yet,” Arendt writes,

Mr. Hoter-Yishai told the simple truth: those who had survived the ghettos and the camps, who had come out alive from the nightmare of absolute helplessness and abandonment—as though the whole world was a jungle and they its prey—had only one wish, to go where they would never see a non-Jew again. They needed the emissaries of the Jewish people in Palestine in order to learn that they could come, legally or illegally, by hook or by crook, and that they would be welcome; they did not need them in order to be convinced.

The Zionism that prevailed after World War II owed more to that simple wish of the hunted Jews—“to go where they would never see a non-Jew again”—than to all the new-man utopian bathos of the prewar Zionists. Of course, the aspirational Zionism would become national myth after 1948, stamped with approval by Paul Newman in Exodus, funded with Israel bonds, and seductive even to the most cynical anti-nationalists. My mother remembers that in 1967 her father, my grandfather, a Communist and anti-Zionist, saw images on television of Israeli warplanes and muttered quietly, as if embarrassed by the sentiment, “Imagine, an air force of Jewish boys.”

For non-Jews, Israel became a convenient expiation for their guilt; a reasonably democratic and pro-American ally in a hostile Cold War; and a way to keep their club restricted, so to speak. Every Jew who went to Israel was one who did not come to the United States. It was another immigrant avoided. Of course, one could argue that the founding of Israel, and the stingy immigration quotas of the United States, amounted to a national disaster: Imagine if just half of Israel’s current Jewish population lived in the United States. How many more tech start-ups, Nobel laureates, or self-lacerating and ironic novelists would we have? (Here it’s apposite to quote the late Robin Williams’ line about why there’s so little comedy in Germany—because they killed all the funny people.) But in the aftermath of war, Israel quickly became an easy way for the gentiles of the Western world, who abandoned Jews to their fate, to say, “Ah, but now you have a place to go.”

***

Of course, to achieve the perfectly understandable goal of living in a land where they would never have to look at the face of their hunter, the Jews had created a new class of scattered prey. In addition to pockets of Arabs still residing in the land, there were hundreds of thousands of refugees just outside the borders, homeless and, while never existentially threatened or murdered en masse, like the Jews of Europe, still dislocated and terrorized.

Within their borders, Jews then built a state with significant legal disabilities for non-Jews, pertaining to immigration, military service, land rights, and family law. Anyone who thinks Israel is democratic like the United States should consider that in the United States the right to marry people of other races was a signal victory for the civil rights movement—while in Israel, marriage is left to religious authorities, who discriminate severely. In Israel, a Jew cannot marry a Muslim in a Jewish ceremony, and a Muslim woman cannot marry a Jewish man in a Muslim ceremony. In effect, a Muslim woman cannot marry a Jewish man. If you take Loving v. Virginia seriously, these are major problems.

Of course, in this realm of family law, Jews are not treated any better or worse than Muslims or Christians under this system: Israel simply continued the old Ottoman millet system, by which different ethnic groups got to administer their own affairs. One could argue that the most severely disabled are Jews, like those with a Reform or Conservative conversion, who don’t meet the standards of the Orthodox rabbinate, which has final authority to say who is a Jew. So, an American-born Protestant with a serious, rigorous Conservative Jewish conversion will be told she cannot marry her Israeli Jewish boyfriend, unless she leaves the country to do so (Israel does recognize foreign marriages). These backflips are only necessary because of the ethnic-national character of the state; they offend me as an American.

At the same time, if you see Israeli law as a system to ensure that Israel remains, for all time, a guaranteed refuge for Jews, then the laws make some sense. The key to this system is, of course, the 1950 Law of Return, which allows all Jews to gain citizenship in Israel (it was extended in 1970 to include non-Jews with a Jewish grandparent, and spouses). The point of Israeli law is to have enough Jews that the country will always welcome all Jews. Israel is not the only country that bases citizenship on nationality, rather than place of birth—Japan is another—but it is unique in making citizenship at once so easy for the preferred group and so near-impossible for all other groups.

Increasingly, contemporary Israel is in curious ways resembling 1950 Israel, the post-Holocaust land of refuge. The kibbutzes are disappearing, and the most rapidly growing sector of the population, the Haredim, is basically a community of yeshiva bochers living in old-fashioned shtetls. Israel is, as in its early days, perpetually at war, and nobody can take seriously the notion that having our own land has somehow made the Jew a new kind of man (or woman). One hears this talk largely from religious Zionists, especially from Modern Orthodox communities in the United States, who will speak of the diaspora Jew now “having his manhood, being able to hold his head up,” because Jews somewhere in the world exercise executive authority and carry guns—empty clichés from an out-of-print phrasebook.

So, this is not the Zionism that Herzl hoped for, nor one that I would make aliyah for (I was always a poor candidate anyway; I hate the heat). It’s not just a Zionism of refugees, but a Zionism of refugees who have allowed themselves to become the oppressor, presiding over a semi-democratic nation-state with a shaky regard for international law. In some ways better than my own United States, in some ways worse, but in no way a beacon of hope. A good two or three days out of every week, depending on the news cycle, I wish Israel would go away.

But I could never really wish Israel away until the United States again became a country that welcomed immigrants—something that it has not been since 1924. One hundred years ago, many countries in the world freely accepted refugees—today, almost none does. The willingness of Israel to take one subset of the world’s refugees, no questions asked, is as far as I can tell unique, at least among countries that actually control their borders (you can immigrate to failed and lawless states with little problem, should you choose—Somalia, here we come). Israel’s Law of Return is obviously exclusionary, and forever an open wound to non-Jews, but absent a large, pluralist, open-bordered country to absorb the world’s tired, poor, and huddled masses, do we not need more laws of return? Do we not need an independent Kurdistan, ready to receive Kurds who may be persecuted in Turkey? There may be half a million Yazidi in the world, and who is ready to receive them?

I don’t like the idea of retreating from the goal of liberal, cosmopolitan, multiethnic countries. I live in one and can’t imagine living anywhere else. But I’m not the one doing the retreating: It’s the countries that have retreated. While the Geneva Conventions on refugees are admirably capacious in their language, anyone who works in immigration law—or who sees images of the Central American children captured just over the Texas border—knows that in reality immigration has become very difficult.

These children don’t fall into good legal categories for refugees—they’re just scared of being killed by gangs. Similarly, Jews in 1939 weren’t yet being sent to death camps; they were just victims of growing legal and civil discrimination. The time from the fall of cosmopolitan, Jew-friendly Weimar to Kristallnacht was roughly the time from Lady Gaga’s first album until today. Refugee crises can happen in a moment. Even a friendly immigration regime, one with a post-Holocaust, “never again” openness to refugees, might not have had time to squint its eyes and adjust its focus enough to open its borders to those Jews.

Put another way: If 10,000 Yazidi, beginning to get a foreboding feeling, had applied to the United States or Canada for asylum last year, how welcoming would we have been? If, having had a premonition, they had said that they were afraid they’d end up trapped on a mountain, their infants dying of thirst, would we have invited them into our land?

At a time when the United States has thoroughly abandoned its self-conception as a liberal, pluralist, open-immigration country, we cannot reasonably reject another country’s imperfect, stopgap solution to one sliver of the world’s refugee problem. A hundred years ago, the Yazidi, the Italian, the Jew, the Latin American boy who didn’t want to join a gang—they all would have been invited to become Americans. Today, it’s unclear if any of them would. The United States is no longer serious about accepting refugees; Israel, in its own limited, blinkered way, is. Israel would accept me anyway, and my wife, and my children. We’re no better or worse than other people, no more deserving of sleeping the cozy, drowsy sleep of the happy, safe, and unafraid. But we get to be Americans, because our ancestors came a long time ago. They didn’t have unusual skills, they weren’t about to build whatever was the equivalent of smart-phone apps in 1904. They were just people who wanted to live someplace better, and that used to be enough.

***

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Zionism for Refugees

With Central American children at our borders, the United States, and the West, cannot just criticize Israel