“In 1939, our country could not tell the difference between an actual enemy and the victims of an enemy. In 2015, let us not make the same mistake.”
Image via (cc) Flickr user CAFOD Photo Library
More than a thousand rabbis have signed a letter urging Congress to “exercise moral leadership” in welcoming refugees from across the world who are fleeing conflict and strife. The letter, which was made public on December 2, represents a dramatic show of support for the embattled U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, which has come under fire recently from conservative politicians pushing back against the Obama administration’s efforts to resettle Syrians who have fled their country’s ongoing civil war.
Citing a history of Jewish immigration to the United States, the letter’s signatories explain that “we are therefore alarmed to see so many politicians declaring their opposition to welcoming refugees.”
The letter was released by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, a Jewish aid organization founded in 1881, which has been involved in immigration advocacy and refugee rights since its inception. In a statement put out by HIAS, Rabbi Jennie Rosenn, the group’s vice president of community engagement, says:
“This letter shows that support for refugees within the American Jewish community is overwhelming, and stretches across all denominations. More than 1000 rabbis have joined the call to elected officials to keep the door open to those who are yearning to breathe free. As rabbis, it is important to acknowledge that this is a frightening time in our world, but with confidence we can, and must, still welcome the stranger. We know all too well from our own recent history that the cost of not doing so can be tragically high.”
Signatories to the letter come from 46 states, as well as the District of Columbia. Among them are such notables as former National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership president, Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg, New York Times bestselling author and philosopher Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, and Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the governing body of America’s largest Jewish denomination.
In full, the letter reads (with boldface emphasis from the original):
We, Rabbis from across the country, call on our elected officials to exercise moral leadership for the protection of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program.
Since its founding, the United States has offered refuge and protection to the world’s most vulnerable. Time and time again, those refugees were Jews. Whether they were fleeing pogroms in Tzarist Russia, the horrors of the Holocaust or persecution in Soviet Russia or Iran, our relatives and friends found safety on these shores.
We are therefore alarmed to see so many politicians declaring their opposition to welcoming refugees.
Last month’s heartbreaking attacks in Paris and Beirut are being cited as reasons to deny entry to people who are themselves victims of terror. And in those comments, we, as Jewish leaders, see one of the darker moments of our history repeating itself.
In 1939, the United States refused to let the S.S. St. Louis dock in our country, sending over 900 Jewish refugees back to Europe, where many died in concentration camps. That moment was a stain on the history of our country – a tragic decision made in a political climate of deep fear, suspicion and antisemitism. The Washington Post released public opinion polling from the early 1940’s, showing that the majority of U.S. citizens did not want to welcome Jewish refugees to this country in those years.
In 1939, our country could not tell the difference between an actual enemy and the victims of an enemy. In 2015, let us not make the same mistake.
We therefore urge our elected officials to support refugee resettlement and to oppose any measures that would actually or effectively halt resettlement or prohibit or restrict funding for any groups of refugees.
As Rabbis, we take seriously the biblical mandate to “welcome the stranger.” We call on our elected officials to uphold the great legacy of a country that welcomes refugees.
The same day as the rabbis’ letter was made public, it was reported that Texas had filed a lawsuit against the federal government to block plans for the resettlement of six Syrian families inside the state, citing “reasonable concerns about [...] safety and security.”
“Some U.S. politicians are threatening to close our doors to refugees,” wrote HIAS president and CEO Mark Hetfield in his organization’s press release. “This is a false solution to a real problem, conflating terror with those who flee it. By fostering intolerance, such words and deeds play right into the hands of our enemies and weaken our national character. As the American Jewish community’s refugee agency for over a century, HIAS is proud to stand together with over 1,000 rabbis, moral leaders of our community, to stand up for Jewish and American values by welcoming refugees.”