Like so many Americans, I was horrified last week to read tweets by the president of the United States telling four United States Congresswomen to “go back” to where they came from. My horror turned to anger as I watched the president silently watch — and implicitly condone — thousands of his supporters at a North Carolina campaign rally chanting “Send her back,” referring to Rep. Ilhan Omar. And quickly, my anger became sadness as I thought of every refugee, asylum seeker, immigrant, religious minority and person of color who has suffered when such hateful rhetoric leads to hateful actions. Which it always does.
“Send them back” is a phrase that my friend, Kindertransportee Manfred Lindenbaum, knows well. The Germany in which Manny spent his childhood was, of course, rife with rallies and their hateful anti-Semitic chants, which were reflected on the school playgrounds where, knowing they would not be punished, other kids beat up Manny’s brother Sigfried for being a Jew. When he was 6, Manny’s family, which was of Polish ancestry, was stripped of their German citizenship and “sent back” to Poland, even though Germany was the only home they had ever known. Manny’s parents and sister Ruth were later murdered at Auschwitz. He and his brother escaped on the last Kindertransport to England. With the assistance of HIAS, they were ultimately brought to the United States and became American citizens.
When I reached out to Manny after the North Carolina rally, he wrote to me, “I am scared for the country of my choice. To be patriotic Americans, we have to actively work to make sure America lives up to the idealism on which it was founded. I am scared not of the racists, but of the bystanders whose silence gives permission to let hatred lead us down a dark path.”
“Send them back” is the message that the United States government had for the MS St. Louis in 1939 as it approached the Florida coast. The ship’s 937 passengers, most of whom were Jews fleeing Germany and Eastern Europe, and many among them children, could see the lights of Miami from the deck. But they would never set foot on U.S. soil. The ship was forced to turn back to Europe. Ultimately, 254 of those passengers perished in the Holocaust.
“Send them back” is the message that the United States government is sending again now, 80 years after the St. Louis’ fateful journey, to asylum seekers hoping for safety and freedom in our country. Under this administration’s cynically misnamed Migrant Protection Protocols, better known as the “Remain in Mexico” policy, thousands of Central Americans fleeing violence and persecution are being denied their legal right to asylum in the U.S. After their asylum claims are processed, each is given a date to return for an immigration court hearing before being sent back across the border. Those hearings are many months away. HIAS legal fellows in San Diego and El Paso who are providing representation to asylum seekers along the border have seen firsthand how this policy is devastating families.
“Send them back” is the message the United States government is sending now as it considers further ratcheting down the number of refugees to be resettled in this country in 2020, below the record low numbers set in 2018 and 2019, in the midst of the largest refugee crisis in world history. In his State of the Union address, the president said he wants “people to come into our country in the largest numbers ever, but they have to come in legally.” Yet his actions — slashing the number of refugees legally vetted and resettled to this country — convey a message of “send them back.”
The Jewish community has a moral obligation to stand up and speak out for anyone among us who is told to “go back” to where they came from. The Minnesota Rabbinical Association did exactly that soon after the North Carolina rally by issuing a public letter that stated:
“As rabbis across the state of Minnesota, we are dismayed at the vitriolic language being used by President Trump, and many in our own community, to suggest that Rep. Ilhan Omar should ‘go back to where she came from.’ This type of language has been used against Jews on many occasions to suggest that we were unequal, or even illegitimate citizens in the countries we have lived, worked, served and loved. When we hear this language used today against other minorities, and especially refugees, we have a responsibility to stand by their side in support of their right to live and serve our amazing country with respect and equality.”
The 39 Minnesota rabbis made it clear that, while they have often expressed “profound disagreement and disappointment” with Rep. Omar’s views, they have dealt with that by engaging in dialogue with her, and will not “give up on [their] ideals and values in the face of those whom may hold a different opinion or belief.”
The Minnesota rabbis set a strong example for us all.
The 14th Amendment to the Constitution makes it clear that all citizens — born or naturalized — are equal under the law. It is up to each and every one of us, as Americans, to ensure that is the way we treat one another, and to hold one another accountable when we falter or fail. As my friend Manny said so well, we can’t afford to be a nation of bystanders.
Mark Hetfield is the president and CEO of HIAS.