Rabbi Shaul Robinson, spiritual leader of Lincoln Square Synagogue on the Upper West Side, circulated a letter last week in which he urged members of his community to pray “for the innocent victims of this [Syrian] barbarity.
“The words ‘Never Again’ feel painfully hollow as we witness murder and massacres proceeding with no one to come to the aid of the wretched victims,” Rabbi Robinson wrote.
The ongoing refugee crisis in Syria reached another turning point in the last week with the recapture of Aleppo by the military forces of President Bashar al-Assad — with the help of Russia, Hezbollah and Iran. The evacuation of thousands of refugees under United Nations monitoring presents a new challenge — and opportunity — for American Jews.
An estimated 11 million Syrians have fled their homeland since the outbreak of civil war five years ago, and another 13.5 million are in need of humanitarian assistance within the country. Hundreds of thousands have perished.
The plight of refugees, their frightened faces and emaciated bodies a daily image in the news, stirs strong feelings in many of us. Jewish history and tradition through the ages have sensitized us to the suffering of others, in large part because the Torah tells us to care for “the other,” and because we have been “the other” too often in our history.
Why was the world silent when the Nazis were murdering Jews? we wonder. Can we afford to be silent today?
“In the Syrian refugee of today, we should see the Jewish refugee of World War II,” President Obama said in response to then-Republican candidate Donald Trump’s border-closing pledges.
But, on the eve of a new and less sympathetic administration, there are those resistant to a new wave, however modest in numbers, of immigrants on our shores. The fact is that the Muslim world, of which Syria is a part, has produced the majority of the current generations of international terrorists. And Syrians grew up in a country that has waged war against Israel and refuses to recognize it diplomatically. “It’s not far-fetched to speculate that perhaps 80 percent of Syrians harbor anti-Semitics attitudes,” Tablet magazine reported recently.
Does the compassionate impulse to admit more Syrian refugees to our shores outweigh their possible threat?
The answer, in most cases, in this country and in Israel, has been “yes.” Ten prominent American Jewish organizations signed a letter to Congress last year in favor of sustained admittance of Syrian refugees. “Once, we helped refugees because they were Jewish,” said a HIAS fundraising statement. “Today, we help refugees because we are Jewish.”
Israel, which is officially neutral in the Syrian conflict, has allowed its hospitals to treat civilians injured in the fighting and its doctors to travel to a refugee camp on the Syrian-Jordanian border.
And a grassroots organization is raising money in a crowd-funding campaign for emergency supplies for Syrian children to be transferred under the auspices of the Israel Flying Aid organization. “There is no nation that knows better than us how lethal apathy can be,” stated Jerusalem City Council member Yoav Bakshi Yeivin, who organized the campaign.
As a community that too often has been on the “taking” side of the refugee issue, we are now in a position to be on the “giving” side, to lobby our government representatives to admit more refugees, to financially support Jewish organizations that have taken up the banner, and to assist the refugees’ resettlement in our local communities.
Jewish faith and fate demand no less.