At the tangled intersection of American, Jewish and Israeli, how do Israeli-Americans feel about President Donald Trump?
A recent Gallup poll found that Trump’s current approval ratings among Americans in general is 37 percent. The same poll ranked him at 31 percent among American Jews, down 11 percent from inauguration day. The drop was attributed to Trump’s omission of Jews from a White House statement marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day and his perceived too-slow denunciation of the recent anti-Jewish hate crimes.
With Israeli Jews, Trump remains popular. A poll published by the Israel Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University in January showed that 69 percent expected him to be friendly to Israel; earlier this month, 62 percent felt his recent meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu bodes well for Israel.
Poised between the two groups, Israeli-Americans — the estimated 500,000-plus Israeli immigrants living in the U.S. — haven’t been polled. A 2013 online survey, conducted by the leading national Israeli American organization, the IAC (Israeli American Council), and Israel’s Ministry of Absorption, found that the majority of Israeli-Americans see themselves as Israelis, rather than American Jews, and that their political alliances align with Israel. Based on that, Trump should be right up their ideological alley. But from more than a dozen interviews and casual conversations it appears that while many Israeli-Americans do like the president for his perceived pro-Israel stance, his anti-immigration policy and the rising xenophobia here in the wake of his election present far more pressing concerns.
Omri, a New York-based salesman, said he was initially enthusiastic about Trump, advocating for him as “the best American president for Israel.” Once Trump was elected, though, Omri began fearing for his own skin. In February, following the original presidential executive order temporarily banning from the U.S. refugees and immigrants from seven Muslim-majority nations, Omri married his neighbor. Love had nothing to do with it: Omri did it for a permanent green card and a safe path to citizenship, and she did it for $13,000 in cash.
Omri wasn’t illegal at the time — he has almost two years left on his H-2B — but the ban shook his faith in the system. “If people with student visas and even green cards can wake up one day and find themselves locked out of the country, marriage is the only safe path,” Omri explained. (President Trump’s second executive order revoked the ban on green card holders.) He noted that his fears were exacerbated by the fact that he is dark-skinned and was born in Yemen, one of the countries included in the both the original and subsequent travel bans. He asked we not use his full name since his actions are illegal and punishable by deportation.
Omri’s real-life girlfriend (who asked not to be named) is also Israeli. She attended the wedding, serving as one of the “couple’s” witnesses in City Hall and snapping pictures for the wedding album, an item that might be called for to validate the wedding’s authenticity. While she and Omri joked about the situation through the mock-reception that followed, it was a painful event for them both, since it will prevent them from marrying each other for years to come. Omri described his wedding night as “one of the most mortifying and depressing events of my life.”
Omri’s story is emblematic of the fears of thousands of Israeli-American immigrants “who don’t know what will happen next,” said Liran Jakob Rosenfeld. Rosenfeld, a California-based, Israeli-American immigration specialist, is CEO and founder of Shopimmigration.com, an online marketplace for immigration lawyers and specialists.
Rosenfeld told The Jewish Week that over the past couple of months, he has received calls for help from “dozens, if not hundreds” of Israeli-Americans of varying immigration statuses. The calls reached a fever pitch earlier this month when the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced that on April 3 it would temporarily suspend premium processing for H-1B visas.
The H-1B visa allows certain highly qualified foreign professionals to work in the U.S. for up to six years. Used heavily by Indian outsourcing firms, as well as by most Israelis in the high-tech sector, it has been criticized for hurting American workers and undercutting salaries. With visas capped far below their demand, processing is backed up, and applicants depend on the expedited — and more expensive — premium processing for a timely reply.
The suspension of this option has left thousands hanging in limbo.
Among Israeli immigrants, said Rosenfeld, the situation is particularly painful for graduates at the end of their OPT (Optional Practical Training) year. “OPT is a period during which foreign graduates are allowed to work while still on a student visa. When it ends, in April, they typically apply for an H-1B to continue working,” Rosenfeld explained. “Without premium processing, their applications won’t be answered for months; by that time, their student visas would have expired, making them illegal and unemployable. People are terrified that after investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in their education, and a year on the job, they will be forced to leave empty-handed.”
Still, for Israeli investors and businessmen things aren’t looking bad, Rosenfeld noted. Favorable policy shifts, initiated by the Obama administration, are set to go through as planned. The International Entrepreneurs Rule, granting foreign investors a five-year “parole status” on their visas as they build up their businesses, should take effect July 17; the coveted E-2 “Treaty Investor” visa, which has so far been unavailable to Israelis, is set to become attainable soon; an easing of requirements for the National Interest Waiver — a waiver granted to foreigners whose work is determined to be in the “national interest” of the United States – opens a major new path to permanent residency for certain entrepreneurial, tech, and cultural mavens. It’s the rank-and-file Israeli immigrants — the salesmen, movers, locksmiths and, of course, estimated thousands of undocumented immigrants — who are feeling the heat. “I can’t be sure it’s a Trump thing, but there have definitely been more weddings going on,” one professional who works with Israeli immigrants said.
Yediot America is a New York-based Hebrew weekly newspaper, serving Israeli-American communities across the country. Maayan Tal-Or, head of the paper’s advertising department, spends most of his day talking to Israeli-American advertisers. Trump comes up often, he said, and while comments generally follow party lines — “People on the left say ‘This is terrible,’ people on the right say ‘Give him a chance’”— overall “there is fear in the air,” Tal-Or described. “You can really feel it. [They talk about] xenophobia, rising anti-Semitism, tightening of immigration laws. … As immigrants, we are all scared. Today it’s ‘Muslims go home.’ Tomorrow it could be us.”
In off-the-record conversations with The Jewish Week, about a dozen Israeli-Americans mentioned small but real ways in which these fears are impacting their lives. A mother planning to enroll her toddler in a large Jewish preschool became hesitant, saying she “had enough bomb threats” in her life. A young couple debating whether to raise their child here or in Israel are now swaying more toward Israel. A left-leaning peace activist, who shuttles between Israel and the U.S., said he recently renewed his Polish passport, “just in case I get kicked out of both my homes.”
But as Israeli-Americans grow skittish, community leaders say: Wait.
“Feeling insecure is a natural part of being an immigrant,” Shoham Nicolet, founder and CEO of IAC, said in a telephone interview. “Every little thing that happens, you’re afraid it might uproot you. I know, I’ve been there.” But as the case with the bomb threats that turned out to be coming from Israel demonstrated, one should not take every perceived threat at face value, or respond to it immediately.
“Take a deep breath,” Nicolet continued, “wait and see what happens. Be calm … that’s what the community expects from us as leaders, and that’s what I expect from the Israeli-American community.”