This Friday night, Jews around the world will gather at Seder tables with friends and family to tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt. We are commanded to tell the story as if we had personally fled slavery, transforming the experience from the simple recounting of an ancient tale to an exercise of empathy and reflection on the suffering of others.
Today, as 60 million people have been forcibly displaced from their homes around the world, we face the worst refugee crisis since World War II. Many are caught between the terror of the Islamic State and the barrel bombs of Assad's regime and his Iranian backers in Syria. Others flee the terrifying grip of Boko Haram in Nigeria, or extreme gang violence in Central America. Still others flee other countries where they are persecuted and tortured because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. There is one thing that unites all these refugees: No matter their home country, they are fleeing for their lives and seeking safety in new lands.
In place of compassion and open arms, however, too often refugees have been met with hateful rhetoric and closed doors. More than half of U.S. governors have either said they will not accept refugees in their states or have asked the federal government to shut our doors. A bill pending now before Congress, the ill-named "Refugee Program Integrity Restoration Act" (H.R. 4731), would drastically reduce and cap refugee admissions and create new procedures that would substantially delay resettlement for many refugees whose lives are in danger. It would also allow state and local governments who "disapprove" of a group of refugees to veto resettlement in their communities.
Shutting our doors to those fleeing extreme violence is un-American. It flies in the face of our values as a nation that has served as a beacon of hope for those around the world seeking a better life. But, sadly, it is not the first time we have seen this kind of ugly response to a refugee crisis.
For those of us in the Jewish community who have family members, like my grandfather, who fled Nazism in Europe, this narrative is all too familiar. In July 1938--three years after the Nuremberg Laws had stripped Jews of German citizenship, deprived them of most political rights, and left hundreds of thousands of Jews seeking international refuge--Fortune magazine asked Americans, "What is your attitude toward allowing German, Austrian, and other political refugees to come to the U.S.?" Shamefully, more than two-thirds said we should keep the refugees out.
The following year the St. Louis, carrying 937 German refugees--mostly Jews fleeing Nazi Germany--set sail for Cuba. Most had applied for U.S. visas. Turned away from Cuba, as the St. Louis sailed so close to Florida that the passengers could see the lights from Miami, they appealed to President Franklin D. Roosevelt to give them safe harbor. With public opinion opposed to lifting the stringent immigration quotas or to making an exception for the ship's passengers, the St. Louis returned to Europe. Almost a quarter of the passengers perished in the Holocaust.
It was unconscionable to turn our backs on Jewish refugees fleeing Europe in the 1930s, just as it is unconscionable today to seal our borders to those fleeing extreme violence around the world.
The temptation may be to give into fear and fear-mongering claims that terrorists will slip into our midst disguised as refugees, but America has put up the highest hurdles in the world for refugees seeking entry. In fact, refugee status is the single most difficult way to enter the United States. Refugees must pass difficult and thorough screenings by the U.S. Department of State, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, international intelligence agencies, and the United Nations. Refugees are not terrorists. There may be even more that can be done to educate refugees as they seek to integrate into our society, but we must remember that they are people fleeing the very same brutality we fear.
As we gather around the Seder table, and we tell the story of the Exodus as if we too were fleeing Egypt, may we also have compassion for those fleeing brutality today. The Passover story is the story of people fleeing slavery. It is the story of people seeking safety abroad. It is the refugee story. This Passover, may we open our doors to refugees and grant safe harbor to those fleeing for their lives. For once we were strangers, too.