January 28, 2017 (Rosh Chodesh Sh’vat 5777)
Where is the line between politics and human decency? Between too much hopefulness and becoming hard-hearted?
Last Wednesday night I was at Logan airport welcoming a family of Syrian refugees – a mother and father in their late 30s, and three children ages 12, 9, and 4.
Our community has been waiting for this family since 2015 when the shockingly tragic photos of Alan Kurdi’s tiny body washed up on the shore echoed through the world, confronting us, demanding we not turn away from the catastrophe of Syria.
At the time, it was obvious. Our history as Jews, our Jewish texts, teach that when human beings are suffering, we Jews are called on to act.
But then there was Cologne and Paris. A fear took root in the American psyche that “refugee” was really a cover for “terrorist.” What was so obvious became fraught.
Last Wednesday night, we brought flowers and stuffed animals to the airport. We brought festive red, white, and blue Mylar balloons.
Have you ever tried to get a Mylar balloon through airport security? It turns out, it’s no easy feat. Balloons, of course, float. As such, the x-ray machine couldn’t pull them along on the conveyor belt. Suddenly, what seemed simple, obvious and pure was complicated – in retrospect, a perfectly poignant metaphor for what we were doing there that night and in all the days since.
The family we welcomed once had a home and a business in Aleppo. They lost everything to the ravages of war and came to America with just the suitcases in their hands.
The mother’s siblings, who once all lived in the same tight-knit community, now are scattered throughout the world – Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Turkey. How will they stay connected so far, she worries?
The father spoke of life in Turkey, where they had initially found shelter; of discrimination against Syrians, which made it hard for him to find a job; and of how he worked tirelessly, taking any job he could, to keep his family afloat. He wondered aloud, will he encounter that same discrimination here?
Their children look just like our children – the oldest dressed in the latest fashion, the middle sweetly cradling a puppy dog stuffed animal, the youngest running around with a huge smile with a penny he found in his first moments in America, laughing at the sign of good luck.
Last Wednesday night, we embraced strangers who came from a different culture, a different religion. Ancient and modern enmity melted into the reality of human beings greeting each other.
Last Wednesday night, we waited for the family to come off the plane with hopeful excitement, holding signs in English and Arabic that read, “Welcome home.” Traveler after traveler greeted us with big smiles. One passenger explained, “The pilot told us we had Syrian refugees on the plane. We were so proud to be with them – that’s what America is about.”
Today, we stand in a nation whose official policy is a freeze on all refugees and an indefinite block to refugees from Syria. Today, helping this family has become politically fraught.
What should we do with that as Americans? What should we do with that as Jews?
There seem to be two conflicting answers.
- There is no commandment that appears more in the Torah than the obligation to welcome the stranger. We must stand up for refugees.
- Just as antisemitism is rampant throughout the Middle East, anti-Jewish and anti-Israel antipathy is a cornerstone of Syrian political policy and education. They hate us.
On the “no” side is a powerful warning. We were once victims of vicious antisemitism. Protecting Jews, this side argues, means not bringing into America more people raised on the poison of Jew-hatred.
Islam is meant to be a religion of peace, but, those with this perspective say, the Holocaust teaches us to be realists. Just as Hitler said he would kill the Jews and did, radical Muslims say they will kill Jews and attack the West. Take them at their word! Since we cannot know the level of support any given Muslim has for this anti-Jewish rhetoric, this side says, we should be safe rather than sorry.
For those who see the world in this way, the lesson of the Holocaust warns us that there is no appeasing those who hate us. We must harden our hearts, because even if it is not now, a real risk exists for us in the future if we allow mushy “do-gooderism” to overwhelm our vigilance for our own Jewish security.
Furthermore, in a world where there are many non-Jews and few Jews, isn’t it incumbent on us to put taking care of our own before others? Are there so many out there fighting for Israel, fighting against BDS, fighting against antisemitism, that we can afford to be distracted by helping Syrian refugees?
The reason we can have a row of trees at Yad Vashem for righteous gentiles is that they were so few and far between. If the Holocaust has taught us anything, it is that we must stand up for ourselves, for few outsiders will stand up for us.
To which the other side will say: exactly. We lament how few stood up for us Jews when the borders of the world were closed to us; that is precisely why we must stand for the refugees, for the downtrodden and suffering in our world, right now. We know all too well what it is to be turned away from the shores of nations. We know all too well that history will judge us by our compassion and condemn us for indifference. This is no time for hard hearts.
Indeed, this side will answer, Anne Frank’s father applied for, and was denied, visas into the United States. Anne’s mother, Edith, wrote in 1939: “All Germany’s Jews are looking around the world but can find nowhere to go.”
To the argument that Muslims today are a threat whereas Jews back then were not, Nicholas Kristof cited a 1938 article in the New York Times, which quoted the granddaughter of President Ulysses S. Grant suggesting that Jewish refugees were “coming to this country to join the ranks of those who hate our institutions and want to overthrow them.”
The Washington Post quotes historian Richard Breitman, “Otto Frank’s efforts to get his family to the United States ran afoul of restrictive American immigration policies.” As he explained, were it not for those policies, “Anne Frank could be [an 87]-year-old woman living in Boston today.” Instead, she died at 15 in Bergen-Belsen.
Standing face to face with that tragic reality, can we who remember do anything other than rise up to open our doors?
So many Jews were turned away, sent back to the hellfires of Nazi destruction. Can we face ourselves if Kristof is right when he concludes, “Today, to our shame, Anne Frank is a Syrian girl”?
It is from that place that our synagogue began the “Do Something” initiative, which came to fruition last Wednesday night when a host family from our congregation welcomed the family of Syrian refugees to their home with a festive Syrian feast on Kosher dishes. I can’t name them publicly, to protect their guests’ privacy, but to the hosts it was obvious that opening their home is a core Jewish act. Although they are now empty-nesters and could have their home to themselves after raising four children, they made room for the ball of energy of a 4-year-old, 9-year-old and 12-year-old again.
They are graciously sharing their home. They have ordered their days around a steady stream of social workers and translators from our partners at Jewish Family Service, volunteers from our shul, trips to the park to play soccer with the youngest, sitting in the living room crocheting with the older kids, and shleps to the Syrian market two cities away. Why?
The host says it is simple. She herself is the daughter of Holocaust survivors. Her mother stood in Mengele’s line at Auschwitz, at 13 years old – all her family told to go in one direction, she in another. She never saw them again.
The host’s father labored in a work-camp, escaped, and hard-scrabbled his way through the Nazi occupation, living by his wits. He went back to look for his family after the war, but they were all murdered.
This could have been a recipe for hard-heartedness, for turning their backs on the world. Instead, her parents taught her to see in others not the worst but the best – to see the humanity in all and find a way to help. Together, she and her husband learned from them the lesson of both our Torah and our history: when others are threatened, many will be bystanders. Jews must never be.
As a little Syrian boy now sits at their kitchen table, writing out their names over and over to practice his English, as the girls bake with her in the kitchen, they find their way into each other’s hearts. The host’s mother, the Holocaust survivor, taking on the role of joyful Bubbie for these Syrian children. Encountering each other for their Tzelem Elohim, the image of God that is the foundation of our shared humanity, they work to heal the rifts of history.
They are not alone.
Last Wednesday night, I sent an email to the congregation sharing the news of the arrival of the refugee family with a link to a website where people could sign up to help. That was at 6:00pm. At 7:45pm I received an email, then another and another, saying, “All the items have been donated – can you please add more so we can contribute?”
What started as, “Do something” has become, “How can we do more?”
Lest we think this is some liberal American phenomenon, the State of Israel this week announced a new policy to welcome Syrian refugees – with a plan to take in one hundred orphaned refugee children. Israel, who has the most to fear and the most to lose, is preparing instead to welcome.
So where does our Jewish tradition land? On the side of vigilance or the side of openness?
Rabbi Shai Held wrote this week, “Moses models that solidarity with our own people is necessary, but he also models that it is decidedly not sufficient. Ethnic solidarity must be entwined with broader human solidarity. Moses is an Israelite who speaks up for non-Israelites.”
Last Wednesday night, when I faced the question, how do you get Mylar balloons through security, it took one security guard reaching into the machine that clearly was not going to let them through. It took his willingness to pull them out by hand, to really look at each one personally and to find no reason to be afraid. As with balloons, so with people.
That is why we are helping a Syrian refugee family begin their new lives here in America. That is why I personally signed HIAS’s letter calling on our government to keep the doors of our country open to refugees and why I stand with them now. I invite you to join me. And that is why I believe what our Syrian friend Dima Basha said to me when she met the Muslim refugee family from Syria in our Jewish host family’s home: “If peace will happen, it will come in this way.”