The Jewish commitment to civil rights stems from our historical and current understanding of oppression. Throughout the civil rights movement in the United States, Jews stood steadfastly with other Americans and worked tirelessly for equal opportunity and protection for all Americans, particularly members of minority groups. Demonstrating this commitment to civil rights, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and the Central Conference of American Rabbis played an integral role in drafting and passing the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which helped protect millions of minority voters from discrimination and intimidation at the ballot box.
Now, in 1997, we face another civil rights battle generated by the English-Only movement. Again, we must speak out to protect the rights of all language-minority citizens and legal immigrants in the United States. The English-Only movement runs counter to the value we place on honoring the cultural integrity of all people. The liturgy of the Passover seder teaches us that our ancestors in Egypt did not alter their way of life, their convictions, their names, their heritage, their faith, or their language. We are commanded to relive the Exodus experience so that we are ever-mindful of fighting for freedom and dignity for all principles that are undermined by oppressive English-Only measures that stifle the right of individuals to express themselves in their native tongues. The English-Only legislation currently before Congress would declare English as the official language of the government of the United States, and its interpretation could lead to discrimination against foreign-born citizens and legal residents by denying language-minority citizens equal access to the rights of all citizens, including the right to receive an appropriate education and the right to vote. To date, eighteen states have enacted legislation declaring English to be their official language. Such efforts, at both the state and federal level, will serve to legitimize racial and ethnic discrimination and feed anti-immigrant sentiment.
With the growth in the number of Americans for whom English is a second language, some people argue that English will soon be lost. Yet English continues to be the most common language of both government and commerce in the United States; ninety-nine percent of government documents are printed in English. We remain committed to the goal of enabling all residents of the United States to speak and understand English, but believe that no legislative measure is necessary to encourage immigrants to learn English. In some cities, there are long waiting lists for English classes. Rather than punishing those who do not yet know English and denying adequate assistance to those who are actively seeking to learn the language, we believe it is more constructive to accommodate the growing demand for English classes.
THEREFORE, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations resolves to:
- Oppose all federal, state, and local government efforts that declare English as the official language of the government or that bar government agencies or their employees from communicating in any language other than English;
- Support the principle that all residents of this country should learn English, but oppose oppressive measures to accomplish that goal;
- Help educate the public, elected officials, and private employers as to why English-Only legislation and policies are divisive, discriminatory, and unnecessary;
- Support programs that encourage and enable all residents of this country to learn English, such programs to include but not be limited to: the formation of additional English classes to accommodate the growing number of people who wish to enroll in such classes and support for budget increases for classes teaching English as a second language;
- Encourage its member congregations to host, sponsor, or otherwise support and facilitate English classes in any community where the need exists; and
- Support protection of the rights of language-minority individuals to participate fully in the democratic process, and to have access to and ability to benefit from government services that are available to those who speak English fluently.