Once We Were Strangers Too: The Jewish Responsibility to Welcome Refugees

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by: Jonathan A. Greenblatt | November 24, 2015


In September, if people were to close their eyes and picture a Syrian refugee they would likely see the heartbreaking image of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi’s lifeless body face down in the waves. Three months ago the haunting image of the young Kurdish boy who had drowned seeking refuge ignited social media and captured the hearts and minds of millions. Leaders around the world, stirred to action by the photo, began announcing that their countries would take in more refugees. President Obama soon announced that the United States would open its doors to 10,000 Syrians seeking refuge.

In the past few days there has been a dramatic reversal. With news that one of the attackers in Paris may have slipped into France among Syrian refugees with a fake passport, fear-mongers have promoted another image: the specter of an ISIS terrorist, masquerading as a refugee, using the humanitarian crisis as a cover to slip into the United States.

Giving into – and stoking – that fear, more than half of U.S. governors in the days following the horrific attacks in Paris said either that their states would not accept Syrian refugees or called on President Obama to seal the borders altogether to those fleeing violence in Syria. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who had once called the image of Aylan Kurdi “a symbol for this country’s inaction,” now said he would not even allow in orphans under the age of five. The U.S. House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly in favor of a bill temporarily freezing Syrian and Iraqi refugees’ entry into the U.S.

While anxieties over security understandably run high, the United States cannot allow fear to govern. The Syrian refugees—the very same people fleeing a civil war fueled by ISIS’s brutality—are victims, not perpetrators of terror. Turning our backs on refugees now would hand ISIS a victory, trapping millions in their brutal grasp and bolstering their claims of a religious and cultural war.

In rushing to appear “tough” on national security, our leaders have ignored or overlooked what the U.S. is already doing very well. The screening process for refugees is more rigorousthan other entry method for the U.S., making it the single most difficult way to enter the country. Compare this to the means by which more than 60 million tourists visit the U.S. every year – tens of millions hail from 38 countries where no visa is required – with hardly any screening at all. By contrast, people fleeing conflicts seeking refugee status must first undergo a multi-year screening process that includes interviews and background checks with American embassies, the Department of Homeland Security, and domestic and international intelligence agencies.

Of the millions of refugees admitted to the United States since 1980, including hundreds of thousands admitted since 9/11, there have been no recorded terrorist attacks in the U.S.committed by those refugees.

This is not the first time the U.S. —a nation of immigrants—has shut its doors to refugees and turned a blind eye to those desperately seeking safe harbor. In January 1939, two months after Kristallnacht, a poll asked whether the U.S. government should permit “10,000 refugee children from Germany—most of them Jewish—to be taken care of in American homes.” Anastounding – and shameful – 61 percent said no.

Later that year, the USS St. Louis carrying 937 German refugees—mostly Jews fleeing the Third Reich—set sail for Cuba. Most had applied for U.S. visas. Turned away from Cuba, as the St. Louis sailed so close to Florida that the passengers could see the lights from Miami, they appealed to President Roosevelt to give them safe harbor. With public opinion opposed to lifting the stringent immigration quotas or to make an exception for the ship’s passengers, the St. Louis returned to Europe. Almost a quarter of the passengers perished in the Holocaust.

In hindsight Jewish refugees of the 1930s and 1940s seem unthreatening. Yet then, as now, government officials—from FBI agents and members of the State Department to President Roosevelt himself—argued that refugees posed a serious threat to national security. Of course, anti-Semitism was undeniably an undercurrent of the push to deny Jews refuge, just as Islamophobia undergirds much of the anti-refugee sentiment today. It was wrong then, just as it is wrong today.

I speak as a citizen of the U.S., but we all—as citizens of the world and fellow human beings—have a moral responsibility to open our hearts and our doors to refugees. For those of us in the Jewish community—those of us whose parents or grandparents, neighbors or community members once faced a similarly callous and unwelcoming world in the darkest of times—there is a particular responsibility to welcome in refugees. For we, too, once were strangers.

Once our families were so desperate to flee that they often risked their children’s lives on treacherous journeys. This is not an abstraction or a turn of phrase. This cohort includes my paternal grandfather, my wife and her family and countless other Americans.

When world leaders from around the globe, and the Senators about to vote on the bill on Syrian and Iraqi refugees in the U.S., close their eyes and think of a refugee, may they once more think of that innocent little boy who drowned trying to reach safety.  And may that image stir the world to action.

"For those of us in the Jewish community—those of us whose parents or grandparents, neighbors or community members once faced a similarly callous and unwelcoming world in the darkest of times—there is a particular responsibility to welcome in refugees. For we, too, once were strangers."