More than any other people, the Jewish people know precisely when and where the Syrian refugee crisis first began. Every year, every Jew, at every Passover Seder table recites the words “Arami Oved Avi.” Sometimes translated as “My father was a wandering Aramean,” sometimes translated as “An Aramean sought to destroy my father,” we recall the plight of our forefather Jacob who fled the hostile conditions of his Aramean surroundings. Aram, as many may know, is the Biblical name for the land that up until recently we all called Syria. “Come and learn,” we call out to each other at the seder table, “what Laban the Aramean sought to do to our father Jacob.” Jacob was a refugee twice over, first having taken flight from the murderous intentions his brother Esau, and now in this past week’s Torah reading, seeking refuge from the hostile pursuit of his father-in-law Laban. “My father was a wandering Aramean.” Year after year we come back to the core text of the core ritual that lies at the very heart of who are as a people. The very first Syrian refugee was a Jew – not just any Jew, but the very patriarch who would go on to become Israel, the namesake for our entire people.
At risk of stating the obvious, to be a Jew means to identify with the stranger in our midst. “You shall not oppress a stranger,” we read in Exodus,” “for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Ex 22:21) Or, alternatively, as stated in Deuteronomy, “You shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deut 10:19) The obligation goes beyond merely a requirement to recall our alien status. Specifically, it is the forced migration from one place to another, “zecher litziyat mizrayim,” a remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt that we recall. As the great scholar David Daube explained, the flight of Jacob from the House of Laban foreshadowed Israel’s national Exodus from their oppressive conditions in Egypt, a cycle that would repeat itself over and over again. (D. Daube, Exodus Pattern in the Bible). Genesis or Exodus, tribal or national, in the prayer book or the Haggadah, the DNA of the Jewish people is ever mindful of our own historical experience. From our ancient migrations to the pogrom induced tenements of the Lower East Side; be it the Exodus of Soviet Jewry or the rescue of Ethiopian Jewry we know ourselves to be a people of displaced immigrants. It is a self-awareness that is not meant to be solely inward looking, but always leveraged towards impacting well beyond the boundaries of our people. To be a Jew is to possess a reflexive sort of empathy, that no matter what our comfort level may be, when we see another in the displaced condition that was once our own, muscle memory kicks in, we identify with that other, we are prompted to compassion and most importantly we are impelled towards acts of radical hospitality.
Recent days have been difficult ones continue to reel at the news of the barbaric attacks in Paris. We are all trying to acclimate ourselves to this new and terrifying normal of indiscriminate terror attacks – in Paris, Beirut, Baghdad, over Egypt, Mali and otherwise. As Jews we are acutely aware of the parochial dimensions of this conflict, the Jews of Europe serving as the proverbial canary in the coal mine. A radicalized, violent and rabidly anti-Semitic strain of Islam – a Jewish teacher brutally stabbed this week in the French southern city of Marseilles. We are all struggling with so many questions. What exactly should the military commitment of the United States be in this conflict? What are our goals and with whom should we be allied? How do you fight a war against an enemy who exists both beyond and within your borders? Why have I yet to hear a Muslim authority forcefully denounce the attacks of recent days in religious terms, repudiating the perpetrators as a misrepresentation and affront to Islam? What is the right balance between our own civil liberties and the security measures necessary to protect those liberties? It has been an altogether sobering and troubling time, a time that has left us with more questions than answers.
But what I don’t question, what I feel secure in saying and sharing with you today, is what the stance of American-Jewry must be regarding the Syrian refugees. It has been with great alarm and dismay that I have heard presidential candidates play to our baser selves in their declarations of opposition towards the refugees. The comments have ranged from the suggestion to only admit Christian refugees, repulsive comparisons of refugees and rabid dogs, and dark suggestions that America use a database to track Muslims. State after state, governors have made pronouncements refusing refugees on grounds of safety or security. There is an irony, as one columnist noted, that a state would refuse to admit refugees on security grounds but be willing to issue semi-automatic guns with the most minimal background checks. The violence of this past week has served to stoke fears that have given rise to a strain of xenophobia, an intolerance that has resulted in a combination of foot-dragging and inaction as the suffering of so many continues.
“My father was a wandering Aramean.” The Jewish community must be on the side of the refugees because it is our moral, legal and historical mitzvah to fulfill. We all know the story of the St. Louis, the doomed ship carrying over 900 German Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany in May of 1939. It was a time of strict immigration quotas, a time when many Americans viewed Jewish refugees with suspicion, potential foreign agents capable of attacking the American way of life; most did not want to welcome in Jewish refugees. The combination of security and economic concerns, veiled and unveiled bigotry, all served to curb the immigration numbers precisely at the moment when they needed to be loosened up. The infamous Evian Conference, where 32 nations convened to discuss the plight of world Jewry, euphemistically dubbed the “refugee problem.” The delegates met for nine days, the declarations of sympathy intermingled with excuses as to why the strangling quotas must remain. As the Australian delegate stated, “We don’t have a racial problem and we don’t want to import one.” No country save the Dominican Republic offered to receive more Jews. Even Palestine, which due to the British White paper of 1939, was effectively shut off from immigration. As David Ben Gurion would rail in the years to come “What have you done to us, you freedom-loving peoples, guardians of justice, defenders of the high principles of democracy and the brotherhood of man? Why do you profane our pain and empty wrath with empty expressions of sympathy which ring like a mockery in the ears of millions of the damned in the torture houses of Nazi Europe?!” Then it was the Jews, now the Syrians. The weight of Jewish history demands that we not sit idly by.
There are many reasons why the American Jewish community should come out forcefully on behalf of the refugees. We should do so because we are not only Jews, but we are Americans – a nation of immigrants, the wretched refuse of the world. To turn our backs on refugees contradicts our political DNA, our standing order for all those huddled masses yearning to breathe free. We should do so because to refuse the refugees will serve to validate the actions of our enemies, no different than the refusals of the Evian delegates to provide refuge only served to bolster Hitler’s murderous intentions in that he saw a world uncaring to the Jews. We should accept the refugees because, while nothing is foolproof, it is actually really, really to achieve refugee status in the States. As Jonathan Greenblatt, the new head of the ADL recently wrote, there already exists a high vetting process for any person seeking to be a refugee, a combination of background checks, fingerprints, photographs, and interviews – far more rigorous than being here on a student visa. We should welcome refugees because to do so shows the world that it is not either/or but both/and – that we can hold multiple narratives at one and the same time. We can take the fight to ISIS and be compassionate at home. We can offer assistance to those suffering in a war torn region and protect those fleeing that very region. To repackage the words of Ben Gurion: We must fight ISIS as if there is no refugee crisis and we must welcome the refugees as if there is no ISIS. Finally, American-Jewry should advocate for the refugees because to do so is to perform moral jujitsu on the world at large. A few weeks ago, it was a feeling like no other to volunteer, yarmulke in plain sight, at a Syrian refugee center in Berlin. What a yummy feeling it was to watch those present try to figure out why a Jew would help Arab refugees. Jews should be a forceful voice on the refugees because to do so is a sanctification of God’s name, to do so shames those enemies of Israel who sit idly by as their Arab brethren suffer, and because to do so, might just prompt the world to work together to address the greatest humanitarian crisis of our time.
There are many reasons why American-Jewry should come out forcefully on behalf of the refugees. Perhaps most simply, we should do so because we should always strive to be on the right side of history, and I for one am hard pressed to think of a time when the judgment of history has looked kindly on the decision of a country to refuse refugees. Are there reasons not to accept refugees? Undoubtedly there are. But as Jews, as American Jews, there is nothing wrong, in fact there is everything right with taking a principled stand – popular or not, and then taking action together as a community.
Born in Poland, leader of the militant Irgun, and founder of the Likud Party, nobody would ever characterize Israel’s sixth Prime Minister, Menachem Begin, as a bleeding heart liberal. Which is why it is all the more remarkable that his very first act as prime minister in 1977 was offering asylum and resettlement to Vietnamese boat people. When asked by President Carter what prompted him to do so, Begin explained, “We never have forgotten the boat with 900 Jews [the St. Louis], having left Germany in the last weeks before the Second World War…traveling from harbor to harbor, from country to country, crying out for refuge. They were refused…Therefore it was natural…to give those people a haven…”
“My father was a wandering Aramean.” To be a Jew is to remember our own wanderings and apply those lessons to our present. To be a Jew is to know that our parochial loyalties not only do not stand in conflict with our responsibilities to our common humanity, but actually serve to inform those obligations. To be an American-Jew is to stand heir to the two greatest immigrant traditions on record. May we live up to the mission of our dual heritage, respond to the cry of Syrian refugees and heed the call of this desperate hour.
Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove is spiritual leader of the Park Avenue Synagogue.