September 7, 1920 was one of those late summer days in New York when the sun plays hide-and-seek with the clouds; with a high temperature of 81 degrees, it was Goldilocks weather, neither too hot nor too cold. The front page of the New York Times reported on the presidential campaign of Senator Warren Harding, as well as boxer Jack Dempsey’s third round knock-out of opponent Billy Miske.
But the headlines didn’t much matter to a dark-haired, 28 year-old man standing on the deck of the Holland-America’s Nieuw Amesterdam as it sailed the Narrows between Brooklyn and Staten Island. For him it was the view that counted. To starboard he saw buildings far taller than any he had ever seen in Karlsbad, his point of departure in the newly created Republic of Czechoslovakia. On the ship’s port side stood the famous statue of Lady Liberty, her oxidized copper skin already an iridescent green by 1920. And there, just a few hundred yards beyond the woman whose “beacon-hand glows world-wide welcome” was Ellis Island, the portal through which “the homeless, tempest-tost” would have to pass to begin new lives in America.
That man was Chaim (Herman) Katz, my maternal grandfather.
My father was a refugee from Nazi Germany; my mother’s parents were both immigrants. Yet my family’s story, differs only in the particulars. We are a nation of immigrants; America was built upon the dreams of those who sought freedom under her banner. Or as George Washington put it, “The bosom of America is open to receive not only the opulent and respected, but the oppressed and persecuted of all nations and religions; whom we shall welcome to a participation of all our rights and privileges.”
America’s embrace of the newcomer, however, has not always been wholehearted; on the contrary, xenophobia and distrust of the stranger are as much a part of the historical record as genuine acceptance. In the 1850s nativist sentiment against Catholics led to the creation of the “Know Nothings,” a political party whose sole plank was the exclusion of foreigners. Thirty years later — right around the time Emma Lazarus penned The New Colossus, her famous poem celebrating immigration — Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 to severely limit Asians from entry into the United States.
As for Jews, four years after my grandfather arrived at Ellis Island, The Johnson-Reed Act clamped down on virtually all immigration by instituting a highly biased quota system against all emigrants, save those from Scandinavia and western Europe. 15 years later, desperate to escape the clutches of the Nazis, Jews found the door to America shut firmly. Even as reliable reports of the death camps began to find their way to Washington, the State Department stonewalled efforts to save Jews, claiming that Nazi spies and saboteurs could potentially infiltrate the country by pretending to be Jews — hence, better to keep the doors barred. We will never know how many hundreds of thousands of our people might have been saved. A few lines from W.H. Auden’s 1939 poem, Refugees Blues, captures the desperation of our Jewish brethren on the eve of the Second World War trapped in Europe:
Say this city has ten million souls,
Some are living in mansions, some are living in holes:
Yet there’s no place for us, my dear, yet there’s no place for us.
Once we had a country and we thought it fair,
Look in the atlas and you’ll find it there:
We cannot go there now, my dear, we cannot go there now.
Thought I heard the thunder rumbling in the sky;
It was Hitler over Europe, saying ‘They must die’:
O we were in his mind, my dear, O we were in his mind.
Saw a poodle in a jacket fastened with a pin,
Saw a door opened and a cat let in:
But they weren’t German Jews, my dear, but they weren’t German Jews.
According to the Talmudic tractate of Baba Metzia, there are 36 places in the Torah — 46, according to some — in which we are cautioned to do right by the stranger (Babylonian Talmud, Baba Metzia 59b). The actual number is considerably fewer; why, then, the hyperbole? Rabbi Avraham ben David (RaVaD), a great medieval Talmudic commentator, suggests the inflated number is based on inclusion of the stranger every place the Torah alludes to the poor, the orphan, or the widow, even when the former is not explicitly mentioned; all are entitled to compassion as the most vulnerable members of society
The classic injunction regarding how we must treat stranger is found in Parshat Ekev, this week’s Torah portion. “ וַֽאֲהַבְתֶּ֖ם אֶת־הַגֵּ֑ר כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם– You shall love the stranger because you were once strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:19). More than just refrain from wronging, we are commanded to stand up and actively protect the stranger. Why? Because we know what it’s like to be refugees.
It isn’t enough, however, to love the stranger because our ancestors once stood in her shoes. Historical memory grows faint, its ability to motivate action weakens with the passage of time. The rabbis tell us that at the Passover seder it is incumbent to look upon ourselves as having come forth personally from Egyptian slavery. But can we really? Surrounded by fine china, an endless parade of food from the kitchen, escape from bondage means nothing more than the hope that Uncle Max won’t insist on reading aloud every single passage of the haggadah. The force of memory has a relatively short half-life when measured over many generations.
Nachmanides (RaMBaN) teaches that, beyond historical sympathy, the reminder of our own redemption from slavery draws attention to a God who cares for the stranger. Our rescue once upon a time is not why we should care, but a reminder that it is God who cares about the weak and the powerless. To quote the words of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the founder of modern Orthodoxy, “Consideration and love of the stranger is the true test of your reverence for and love of God.” If we do nothing to protect the stranger, our espousal of love for God is hollow, an empty platitude devoid of substance.
What I have shared with you is neither a liberal take nor a conservative spin. It is simply what our Torah and two thousand years of Judaism teach. If we turn to the Torah to discern the Divine, then we cannot ignore the plight of refugees for the simple reason that we cannot escape the ethical imperative of a God who, “upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow and befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing” (Deuteronomy 10:12).
The oldest American NGO (non-governmental organization) addressing the plight of refugees is HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, whose advocacy today is not for those fleeing the pogroms in Eastern Europe, but rather the war-torn lands of central Africa and the Middle East. From the Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, to the National Council of Jewish Women and the Jewish Federations of North America, Jewish organizations take stands and issue policy statements in support of protecting refugees and offering them safe haven. They do so for the same reason: “ וַֽאֲהַבְתֶּ֖ם אֶת־הַגֵּ֑ר כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם– You shall love the stranger because you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.”
“But rabbi, what if terrorists disguise themselves as refugees and enter our country with intent to maim and murder? Doesn’t the Torah teach us to defend ourselves from enemies?” Yes, the Torah commands self-defense; and no, there are no ironclad guarantees against terrorists posing as refugees . . . any more than 75 years ago critics of the State Department’s policy barring Jewish refugees could offer 100% assurances that no Nazi saboteur posing as Jew might slip through the vetting process.
As some of you may know, our synagogue’s 12th-grade Confirmation class, works with refugees here in Jacksonville. Over the past five years we have partnered with the local affiliate of World Relief International in helping families from Burma, Darfur, Afghanistan, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic adjust to their new homes. From personal knowledge of the process, I can tell you that the screening of refugees and the granting of political asylum in the United States involves an incredible degree of scrutiny. Indeed, less than 1% of the world’s refugees qualify to even begin the process of receiving asylum. For the lucky few who do, they will undergo multiple extensive background checks at different times by the the State Department, the FBI, the National Counter-Terrorism Center and the Department of Homeland Security. Fingerprinted several times (Syrian refugees undergo retina scanning as well), they are personally interviewed separately by the State Department, again by special agents of the Department of Homeland Security, and finally by the NGO refugee organization assigned to resettle them. They are screened yet again by US Customs and Border Protection agents before entering the country, and as a condition for being given political asylum, must apply for Green cards within a year, which involves a new round of scrutiny, or face deportation. There are clearly threats to the U.S. from abroad, but they are far likelier to come from someone with a tourist, student or commercial visa than from a refugee granted political asylum.
Over the course of the past several years, the perpetrators of domestic terrorism have been largely American. Rizwan Farook, who killed 14 in San Bernadino was born in Chicago; Omar Mateen, whose attack on the LGBTQ community of Orlando was responsible for the murder of 49 innocent people, was born in a Long Island suburb. Major Nidal Hasan, the Fort Hood shooter, was born in Arlington, Virginia, not far from the Pentagon. As for other acts of domestic terrorism in recent years, Sandy Hook, the Emanuel A.M.E. church in Charleston, the Sikh Temple shooting in Wisconsin, the JCC in Overland Park, Kansas, or the attack on Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs — they, too were the acts of homegrown fanatics with the blandest of American surnames.
I urge you to visit the website of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society to learn more about the plight of refugees and what you can do to make a difference. Specifically, I encourage you to advocate on behalf Senate bill S.3241, the Refugee Protection Act of 2016, which proposes a way of streamlining the vetting of refugees facing death or torture without undermining the rigorous process and necessity of ensuring we don’t give entry to radicalized Muslim terrorists. Navigate the HIAS website and send a message in support of this legislation to your Senators. Equally important, when you hear the same xenophobic mistrust expressed about today’s refugees that once was used to deny Jews asylum in the 1930s, take the time to set the record straight. Those granted political asylum are NOT illegal immigrants; while a compassionate embrace of those running for those lives need NOT compromise rigorous screening and vetting.
These are but small steps, but ones which reflect the better angels of America’s legacy as a haven for “the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Small steps, but ones that remind us that because God cares for the stranger, we are commanded to as well. Once we helped refugees because they were Jewish; now we help them because we are Jewish.