In 1939, sailing from Hamburg, Germany, 938 refugee Jews boarded the St. Louis to flee the Third Reich. They were destined for Cuba. We all know the end of this story. Anti-Semitism and xenophobia prevailed in Cuba; efforts were made for the St. Louis to divert to the United States, but the same exclusionary forces prevailed here. Americans and Cubans alike feared that the Jews would steal jobs and that relaxed immigration policies and quotas would hurt economic recovery; politicians were persuaded that these Jews would somehow bring down, or perhaps sully, society. In that instance alone, 938 Jews were sent back to Europe, most to face extermination in the Holocaust. It is commonly accepted that it is the story of the St. Louis and others like it that helped secure the world’s support to establish the state of Israel at the conclusion of World War II.
“Keep them out.” “They will destroy our country.” “They will dilute our religious values.” “They are thieves.” “They will take our jobs, take over our cities and bring down our economy.”
While these could be the words of the Cubans or Americans who rallied against allowing the Jews asylum in 1939, the irony is that these are actually words spoken in 2010 and 2011 by Israeli citizens in reference to people fleeing genocide in Sudan and violence in Eritrea. (See the Jewish Journal cover article “When Africa Comes to Israel,” Jan. 7-13, 2011).
Unlike Cuba and the United States in 1939, Israel did take in those African refugees who would have faced death had they been turned away. This is an amazing fact, given all of the complex existential and security problems with which Israel is constantly confronted. Indeed, from the national security perspective alone, it is especially amazing for Israel to receive Sudanese and Eritrean refugees at its borders, many of whom are Muslim, and all of whom have come from enemy states or states aligned with Israel’s enemies. This Israeli policy is surely based upon not only our modern experience as Jews who were reviled and rejected, but also upon the teachings of our Torah and our ancient heritage.
However, Israel’s practice of receiving asylum seekers escaping genocide could be threatened by the voices of many in Israeli society who are villainizing and spreading untrue vitriol about the behavior or intentions of the refugees. Most disturbing is that, according to a recent Jewish Journal cover story, some of the loudest xenophobic expressions in Israel are coming from among the extreme Orthodox community. It was reported that the local rabbis in B’nai Brak recently sent a message to their ultra-religious community “not to rent apartments to refugees or illegal foreign laborers”; how do those rabbis reconcile their directives with the words of Isaiah 1:17 — “Do right. Seek justice. Encourage the oppressed” Or, exactly how do those rabbis understand Leviticus 19:33-34, which says, “The strangers who sojourn with you shall be to you as the natives among you, and you shall love them as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”?
Our own recent history, coupled with the core values articulated in the Torah, can and should be our guide as we consider today’s most perplexing and complex moral problems, such as giving asylum to those fleeing genocide and grave bodily danger. The founding core value of Jewish World Watch is found in Leviticus 19:16, “Do not stand idly by while your neighbor’s life s threatened ...” I hope and pray that the government of Israel will educate and respond to the asylum detractors, and that Israel will continue to realize its responsibility as a modern developed nation to open its arms to those fleeing genocide and certain destruction. By so doing, Israel and the Jewish people will embrace the compassion and humanity that form the foundational core of the Jewish people.
Janice Kamenir-Reznik is co-founder and president of Jewish World Watch.