Beliefs Culture Ethics Institutions Jeffrey Salkin: Martini Judaism Opinion

What should we do about the Syrian refugees?

Syrian refugees on the road from the accommodation camp to the Slovenian Austrian border. Credit: Denis Rozan, via Shutterstock
Syrian refugees on the road from the accommodation camp to the Slovenian Austrian border. Credit: Denis Rozan, via Shutterstock

Syrian refugees on the road from the accommodation camp to the Slovenian Austrian border. Credit: Denis Rozan, via Shutterstock

Rock star Tom Petty put it this way, back in the 1980s: “You don’t have to live like a refugee.”

Actually, if you’re a Jew, you do. Or, you did. And you have to think like one.

The Torah is the story of a refugee people. Abraham and Sarah left Ur, and then Haran, as refugees. Here is a list of ancient Israelite refugees: Hagar, Ishmael, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, David, Ruth and Naomi.

On the festival of the first-fruits, the ancient Israelite had to declare: “My father was a fugitive Aramean…” (Deut. 26: 5ff.) That text is the core text of the Passover Haggadah.

Translation: “I come from refugees.”

Jewish history is the story of refugees. From the land of Israel in the wake of the Roman destruction. From England, Spain, France. From eastern Europe and Germany. From the Soviet Union, from Arab lands and Iran and Argentina and….

No wonder that someone once said: “The most valuable thing a Jew can own is a valid passport.”

Which leads to the most pressing question in America today: what is our nation’s responsibility in absorbing Syrian refugees?

As far as I can tell, there are two distinct ways of dealing with this weighty issue.

Two words that begin with the letter S — security and soul.

First, security.

Last week, the House of Representatives voted to drastically tighten screening procedures on refugees from Syria. The bill would require that the director of the F.B.I., the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, and the director of national intelligence confirm that each applicant from Syria and Iraq poses no threat.

But, for the governors of at least 31 states, even that is not enough. No — they want to create their own refugee policies.

  • Governor Greg Abbot of Texas: “Opening our door to them [Syrian refugees] irresponsibly exposes our fellow Americans to unacceptable peril.”
  • Governor Rick Snyder of Michigan: “Michigan is a welcoming state and we are proud of our rich history of immigration. But our first priority is protecting the safety of our residents.”
  • Governor Mike Pence of Indiana: “Indiana has a long tradition of opening its arms and homes to refugees from around the world, but my first responsibility is to ensure the safety and security of all Hoosiers.”

Our nation must do everything necessary to make sure that those who enter our country will not pose a threat to America.

Moreover, many Syrian refugees are not exactly kumbaya types. As an article in JTA reports, many of them harbor classic anti-semitic and anti-Israel attitudes. This has caused German Jewish leaders, among others, to think long and hard about these refugees.

So, yes — we are allowed to be concerned.

So much for security.

Now, what about our nation’s soul?

Concern is one thing; slamming the door is another.

Recall Emma Lazarus’s words on the base of the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teaming shore…”

Those “huddled masses” and “wretched refuse” were Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe — the ancestors of today’s American Jews.

Which makes you wonder: regarding those with hardened hearts towards todays huddled masses — how much Jewish history are you willing to forget?

Try this one.

In January, 1939, a national poll in this country asked: how do you feel about accepting 10,000 Jewish refugee children who were fleeing from Germany?

By a two-to-one majority, the respondents said that the United States should not accept those children. After all, European Jews might be Communists.

Laura Delano, President Roosevelt’s cousin, snarled: “Twenty thousand charming children would all too soon grow into 20,000 ugly adults.”

(God’s sense of humor: Ms. Delano has Jewish descendants.)

The Jewish children that Ms. Delano disdained? Most never became any kind of adult. They died.

That memory animates the work of jewish organizations like HIAS. It is why so many American Jewish organizations favor accepting Syrian refugees. American Jews remember how we were turned away from these shores. They remember the “St. Louis,” the “voyage of the damned,” turned away from American ports, forced to return to Germany.

That is why the US Holocaust Memorial Museum is one organization that is supporting refugees.

Because this issue has Jewish echoes and resonances.

Is the plight of the Syrian refugees exactly like refugees from Nazi Europe? No situation is ever completely like any other situation. But, it is close enough for us to learn from it, and to vow not to repeat its mistakes.

So, yes — there’s the security of America, and there’s the soul of America.

As for me, I agree with that long list of American Jewish organizations. At this particular time, I worry more about the American soul than about American security.

I applaud every stringency that must be taken to keep America safe, but not at the risk of casting aside our soul and our story. There are many kinds of threats to America. The threat to our moral identity is not to be dismissed cavalierly.

Oh, by the way. That ancient declaration from Deuteronomy: “My father was a fugitive Arabian….”

Aram was located in what is today — Syria.

So, my Daddy was a fugitive Syrian. Yes, an ancient Syrian. But, a Syrian, nevertheless.

Just saying…


About the author

Jeffrey Salkin

Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla., and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality and ethics, published by Jewish Lights Publishing and Jewish Publication Society.


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  • “What should we do about the Syrian refugees?” Send the Sunnis to Saudi Arabia and the Shiites to Iran. Both have sufficient funds for housing and educating their sisters and brothers with the added benefit that said refugees can walk to their new homes. And if there are any Jewish refugees from Syria, I am sure Israel can do likewise.

  • I think that sometimes we make our decisions based on fear and lies that we have been told. Thank you for reminding us about the past mistakes we have made. I pray as a nation that we will not repeat these same mistakes. Thank you for your convictions and being brave enough to say them during this time that we are living in.

  • Why do Jews who live outside of Israel, always want us to take in refugees, but Jews who live in Israel do not want to take in refugees. We Jews are hypocrits when it comes to refugees, immigration reform and migrants. Israel has an atrocious record when it comes to african Jews wanting to come to Israel. We actually sterilized them temporarily with birthcontrol shots. We should not now or ever under any circumstances be for refugees, immigration reform and migrants because many of them carry anti-Semitic belief systems. Many of them see the Holocaust as being deserved by Jews. Many of them see Jews as colonial oppressors (Israel). Many Hispanics think the genocidal maniac Christopher Columbus was a Jew. Many non-Jews see Israel as an Apartheid State. Many of the people supporting the BDS movement are people whose national origin is from non-White countries. Please stop reducing everything to WW2. Please stop reducing everything to the Holocaust.