It is our duty as Jews living in the United States of America to defend the rights of Syrian refugees and to welcome them into our country. As Jews, we try so hard to educate our children about the Holocaust and its tragedies. We frequently talk about the Holocaust as we try to share the message that discrimination is wrong, and preach acceptance of all people. In light of the Syrian refugee crisis and the charged political atmosphere in certain European nations, many have been invoking the Holocaust and referencing events that happened in Europe in the last century. But rather than focus our attention on events overseas, we must examine what happened in America during that time.
Just seventy-six years ago, in 1939, America turned away the SS St. Louis, a ship containing refugees from Germany, and sent it back to Europe. Almost all of the nine hundred and thirty seven passengers aboard that ship were Jewish, and over a quarter of them were captured by the Nazis and murdered upon their return. Americans have a longstanding history of not wanting to accept refugees in the aftermath of atrocities for fear of their corrupting American society. Following the events of Kristallnacht, Gallup released a poll on January 20, 1939, that asked Americans if they would be willing to accept ten thousand “refugee children from Germany — most of them Jewish — to be taken care of in American homes.” Sixty-one percent of Americans said no. Nine percent had no opinion (of whether they should save the lives of Jewish children).
Since 2012, the United States has accepted just over two thousand (of the four million) Syrian refugees with the commitment to accept just ten thousand by next year. Compare the American position to that of Germany, which has already accepted over fifty-seven thousand refugees, and intends to accept over one-hundred thousand, and the ‘just’ is ified. The vetting process to enter our country, according to the Migration Policy Institute, “typically takes 18-24 months, with high hurdles for security clearance.” It begins with multiple interviews that consist of hundreds of questions. Once the refugees are vetted through the UN, they are sent to be considered for refuge in accepting countries. After another set of interviews with every committee/department dedicated to our security, they are subjected to multiple rounds of finger-printing which is scanned through almost all of our terror-suspect databases. Simplified into just two questions, a recent refugee who took asylum in New Haven, Connecticut said he was asked this: “Do you want to go to America?,” and, “Did you engage in terrorist activities?” His response to Ian Parker of the New Yorker was simply, “I’m trying to escape terrorism.”
There is a fear being widely spread that refugees cause terrorism. Yet of the 784,000 refugees accepted into the United States since September 11, 2001, three have been arrested for planning terrorist activity. Of the three, two were not planning their attacks on American soil. Not that this makes their activities better or more acceptable, but it does help put matters into perspective and further amplifies our vetting system. (An often referred-to statistic is that the Boston bombers were refugees. Yet this is false. Tamerlan Tsarnaev and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the brothers who perpetrated the bombings, were in America on student visas.)
A recent letter sent to Congress from a host of national security experts urged our lawmakers to stop proposing laws that will prevent refugees from entering the US. “We believe that America can and should continue to provide refuge to those fleeing violence and persecution without compromising the security and safety of our nation. To do otherwise would be contrary to our nation’s traditions of openness and inclusivity, and would undermine our core objective of combating terrorism. The process that refugees undergo in order to be deemed eligible for resettlement in the United States is robust and thorough,” reads the letter. “Refugees are victims, not perpetrators, of terrorism. Categorically refusing to take them only feeds the narrative of ISIS that there is a war between Islam and the West, that Muslims are not welcome in the United States and Europe, and that the ISIS caliphate is their true home.” Amongst those who signed the letter were former Secretary of State and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, former Director of the CIA General David H. Petraeus, and seventeen other highly qualified, bipartisan individuals.
Syrian people flee in order to survive. Ghaith, a law student in Syria, fled to Sweden in order to obtain refugee status there. To sum his story up in one sentence would belittle his struggle and journey: Penniless, he spent tens of thousands of dollars he did not have, lost many friends along the way, was schemed and taken advantage of multiple times, and had to leave his wife behind with the hope that his new status would make her journey easier. This decision is one that plagues him daily. “In Greece, someone asked me, ‘Why take the chance,’” Ghaith began, “I said, ‘In Syria, there’s a hundred-per-cent chance that you’re going to die. If the chance of making it to Europe is even one per cent, then that means there is a one-per-cent chance of your leading an actual life.’”
We must be on the front lines of this struggle, proudly wearing yarmulkes to show the world that we stand with the Syrian refugees. They are lawyers, doctors, businessmen, and university students (!) stripped of their identities by the Assad regime or ISIS. I fail to see a difference between us (then) and them (now). The recent attacks broadcasted throughout the world should not discourage us from helping people from the Middle East, regardless of their religious affiliations. For radical jihadists are perverting a religion, and popular figures are feeding off of the fear of the American public in order to win an election. Sadly, saving the lives of Syrian refugees has become a political argument. Governors are not allowing refugees to settle in their states despite it being a federal decision, and certain presidential candidates are claiming that only they can save this country from impending doom. Similar strategies were deployed by a certain politician in Germany prior to World War II.
I want to pose a question to you: How would you define yourself? Perhaps you would claim to be a college student, or a maybe a young adult, an older brother or sister. You might add a hobby: you like to ski. When you're curled up in bed, and need to get some sleep, you watch one last Louis CK clip. You’re twenty-one years old. And what about your family: your sister, your cousin, your uncle, bae? All pretty much going through the stages of life, right? Now, what about Ghaith? A university student studying criminal law. His family? They have either have taken refuge thousands of miles away from where he resides today or remain in Syria, living each and every day in fear for their lives.
The morality of our country, and of our people, depend on our action.