Jews, Israel and the refugee crisis

September 21, 2015
Richard Kuper



4 Reasons We Should Think Before Acting Rashly on Migrant Crisis

Deborah E. Lipstadt, Jewish Forward, 9 September 2015

I have watched the unfolding refugee crisis with horror. Who could not be moved by the sight of families risking their children’s lives in rickety boats and on rafts designed for leisure and not for escape routes on rough waters?

The picture of little Aylan Kurdi in blue shorts and red shirt dead on the beach left us all speechless.

As a student of Jewish history, I find the image of suffering innocents desperate for refuge stinging. Years ago I began my exploration into the Holocaust by studying the American response. I was appalled by the deep-seated hostility American officials and bureaucrats showed toward Jewish immigrants. They erected, in the words of historian David Wyman, “paper walls” to keep out the foreigners. Jews were turned away simply and solely because they were Jews, even when that meant they would be sent to concentration camps. Seeing Aylan’s lifeless body washed up on a beach, who among us does not wonder: Is history repeating itself?

Everywhere I go, this plagues people. I have listened to friends and acquaintances, from the well informed to those who intentionally avoid the news — whether at my gym, at dinner tables or in departmental meetings — ask: “What do I do to help?” Deeply caring people declare, “The failure to help them is a reflection on the failure of Western society.” I have found myself remaining strangely and uncharacteristically silent.

I am beset by four sets of unanswered questions that require nuanced responses. For some, the very thought of hesitating to act while working through questions in the face of traumatized children is to be hard hearted. Act now, they say, and question later. Yet the decisions that are being made now have tremendous long-term implications. With deep and abiding respect for the dead, there is still much to be learned. We need to go beyond the emotional response to desperate images and grapple with the social, political and moral implications inherent in our response.

  • Are these migrants fleeing for their lives, or are they trying to find a better economic and social future for their families? Some are coming because of intolerable and swiftly deteriorating security conditions; others may well see a strategic opening. We must be vigilant about humanitarian issues and more wary of an unquestioning open-door policy.

I say this well aware of the fact that both my parents came to this country in search of a better economic future. But they were immigrants who moved here as part of an articulated immigration process; they did not uproot themselves and make their way across the border.

Maybe we have to differentiate between those who are fleeing a poor country and those who are fleeing a war zone like Syria.

  • How will this influx of people change the face of Europe? Will they prove willing to be integrated into European society? And conversely, is Europe willing to do what is necessary to integrate them?

I do not care if they do not become aficionados of European art and culture. That is not sacrosanct. What I care deeply about is the extent to which these new immigrants will commit to democratic principles and to the messiness of a democracy.

Will they prove able to accept that democracy entails the willingness to have one’s most basic belief challenged? Do they understand that the freedoms of speech and expression have no “but” associated with them? Will an influx lead to a powerful right-wing nationalist backlash? And if so, how can that be addressed and prevented?

  • And why, for that matter, have so many Muslim countries shut their doors to them? While huge numbers of those fleeing Syria have found refuge in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, what of the oil-rich Gulf States? They have welcomed none.

Muslims are asking the same question.

  • What about Israel? In a rare personal turn, I find myself almost agreeing with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision not to accept any refugees. Israel has given extensive medical aid to Syrians caught in the bloody civil war. Many of them, while grateful, hide the fact that Israel helped them, and they do so because of the open hostility Syria’s citizens feel toward Israel.

How, then, is Israel to open its doors to Syrian refugees? How does Israel check fleeing crowds for associations with extremist groups bent on Israel’s harm? Yet might it not have been possible to symbolically accept a few thousand who were properly and thoroughly vetted? Wouldn’t this send a message about Israel’s commitment to Jewish values?

If you detect ambivalence and struggle in my questions, you are right. I, like many of you, am trying to discern what is happening here. Even as I do, I wonder whether my compassion has been derailed by my skepticism or my logic has been derailed by my compassion.

Nonetheless, even as I donate to a refugee assistance fund I am asking these questions. When people are drowning and babies are suffering, the time to deliberate and search for answers may well be a luxury. I understand. However, we cannot afford to respond without also thinking about the broader implications of our actions.

Deborah Lipstadt is the Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies at Emory University, and a contributing editor at the Forward.





How Jewish Skepticism on Refugees Boils Down to Double Standards

Lisa Goldman, Jewish Forward, 10 September 2015

Deborah Lipstadt, a prominent and respected Holocaust Studies professor who often provides commentary for leading radio and television magazine programs, writes in the Forward that she believes we should think carefully before we indulge a rash and emotional response toward migrants and refugees. She says she has four questions about the current migration crisis that require nuanced responses. But there is a difficulty here, because her questions are not nuanced.

Let’s take a look at what’s worrying her.

1) What if these migrants are not fleeing for their lives but looking for “a strategic opening” to secure a “better economic and social future for their families”?

The great wave of Jews from Eastern Europe that came over in steerage in the 1880s, 1890s and first decade of the 20th century did not come with passports. They did not speak English. They were economic migrants — pogroms were not the main push factor, as prominent Jewish historians like Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi have shown in their research. They immigrated under America’s open door policy. And they did not know from democracy. A few of them became mobsters, but the vast majority became productive and proud citizens within one generation.

Lipstadt acknowledges that her own parents immigrated for economic reasons. But, she says, they came as “part of an articulated immigration process.”

That’s exactly the point, though: There is no articulated immigration process for the people currently risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean on overcrowded rubber rafts, or facing down hostile security forces in Europe. Does that mean we should do nothing?

One might also point out that a person who undertakes a harrowing, life-threatening journey to a new country, weighed down by children and babies, is by definition desperate. War causes poverty. Poverty leads to starvation and starvation leads to death, which means that a person fleeing poverty is indeed fleeing for his life. But the bottom line is that every human being has the right to live in a place that is safe and allows them to earn enough for food, shelter and clothing.

2) Can Europe absorb the refugees and can the refugees adjust to life in Europe?

Well, interesting question. Europe is now looking at about 350,000 mostly Middle Eastern refugees to resettle. They comprise a minute fraction of the E.U.’s population of 503 million people. For comparison, there are 4 million Syrian refugees currently spread out between Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan, none of which are rich countries.

Since the establishment of the E.U. and the end of the Cold War, millions of Europeans have migrated around the continent — many of them born and raised in countries that have no tradition of democracy. But no one is asking if the 78,000 Poles living in Sweden or the 79,000 Hungarians living in England can adapt to the values of their new country. Perhaps this question is asked more frequently of brown people in general and of Muslims specifically.

3) Why aren’t the rich Gulf States taking in refugees from Syria?

They should, of course. But they are not, and their reasons for failing to do so are not at all flattering.

Yet the point of Lipstadt’s question is unclear. Are we going to suspend help and sympathy for some Arabs because other Arabs refuse to come to their aid? Since when is “Hey, they’re much worse than us” a sound basis for foreign policy?

4) What about Israel?

In the last section of her article, Lipstadt responds to those who say Israel should take in a few Syrian refugees. Not a good idea, she thinks. But there is a logical gap in her argument. She first posits that Israel has no way to vet refugees for security risks, imagining crowds of asylum seekers breaking through the border. This ignores the fact that there’s no physical way for Syrian refugees to enter Israel — certainly not en masse. The borders are sealed and very well protected by the army.

She also argues that Israel has already been sufficiently generous by offering medical treatment to wounded Syrians who accepted it but won’t talk about it because their fellow Syrians hate the state that provided it. That’s just not an accurate reading of the Middle Eastern political climate. Anti-Israel sentiment is a populist issue that is exploited by various groups for political gain, but that does not mean that Syrians are waiting for an opportunity to attack Israel. Obviously, they have much more pressing concerns right now than an old political grudge that long ago lost its power to animate the masses in the Middle East.

The subtext of Lipstadt’s concerns seems to be that if Europe accepts refugees from Syria, it will change. Given the images of death and desperation we have seen in recent years and months, indulging in this concern seems quite cruel. I don’t think anyone would retroactively ask for nuance in judging those who once turned away desperate Jews during the Holocaust, consigning them to genocide, because they were not Christian and might not fit in.



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