It’s Not About Morality, Stupid

Our stance on Syrian refugees should not be shaped by ‘Jewish values.’

Syrian refugees disembark on the Greek island of Lesbos after crossing the Aegean sea on a dinghy from the Turkish coast, Nov. 14, 2015

I mentioned in passing in last week’s column that it’s wrong to compare the plight of Syrian refugees today to that of Jews in the 1930s. I did so in the belief that most Jews would be clear on the imperative to welcome today’s refugees to the West and therefore shouldn’t be using unnecessary and shoddy historical comparisons, which automatically cheapen any argument. It seems I was wrong. What’s obvious to one Jew is anathema to another.

Oskar Deutsch, head of the Jewish Community Organization in Austria, said this week that the country, a main link on the route of refugees traveling from the Middle East to Europe, has “reached the end of our capacities” to receive more of them and that “some of these so-called refugees will have grown up thinking anti-Semitism is normal; it would be terrible if this were to happen in Austria.” Meanwhile, Josef Schuster, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, said in an interview that his country which has already accepted 900,000 refugees this year “sooner or later won’t have a choice but to set an upper limit” and that while many of the refugees just “want to live in peace and freedom, but at the same time they come from cultures where hatred of Jews and intolerance are an integral part of life.”

Mort Klein’s motives

At the same time, across the Atlantic, in a gala banquet in Manhattan the president of the Zionist Organization of America, Mort Klein was using the 1930s comparison for just the opposite purpose. He forcefully joined the debate over refugees in the United States, saying according to the report in Haaretz. “Don’t bring these refugees here. Treat as pariahs all those who promote radical Islam... We must crush radical Islam as we crushed Nazism.”

Naturally one feels more sympathy for this argument when it is being made by Jewish leaders in Germany and Austria, countries already dealing with a large influx of Muslim refugees and where the memories of those days still resonate. Certainly more than for the likes of Klein who was speaking from just about the most secure place for a Jew to be, standing on the podium next to one of the richest and most influential Jews on earth, Sheldon Adelson. If Klein feels so insecure in New York that the relatively small number of Syrian refugees the U.S. has agreed to take in can transport him to such rhetoric heights, you’ve got to ask yourself what kind of a haven American Jews like him believe they have built for themselves. Of course, it could just be part of the political-cultural debate in America, where those on the right feel a visceral need to attack anything Barack Obama supports. Hence, when Obama champions welcoming refugees, people like Klein have to abominate them as pariahs. But it goes deeper than that.

While for many Jewish leaders and pundits speaking out in favor of their countries welcoming refugees seems part and parcel of their role – a clear evocation of basic Torah commandments on loving the stranger and remembering our sojourn in Egypt and the fundamental lesson of our generations of wanderings, for other Jews, such as the 1000-strong audience at the ZOA gala, the opposite view is rapturously applauded. It’s important to recognize that you can be a Jew fully versed in Yiddishkeit, steeped in history and identity and still be emphatically opposed to seeing refugees next door. Also, for many of those on the fence on such matters, the sight of other Jews picking which specific mitzva they want to fulfill, choosing the one that fits their liberal sensitivities while disregarding all the rest, is hardly persuasive.

The urge for self-preservation

It would make much more sense, for those of us who instinctively feel that Jews should be pro-refugee and pro-immigration, to first of all acknowledge why this isn’t the case for all of us. Sure part of it is racism, narrow-minded parochialism and political partisanship, but not all of it. For some Jews, the basic rule will always be self-preservation, even if on the face of things Jews nearly anywhere in the world have never been so (relatively speaking at least) secure. And for others, the question will remain why do we Jews who have suffered so much, even today when things are so much better, have to be different from anyone else? Which also explains why Israelis are shamefully refusing to accept the relatively small number of African refugees huddling in south Tel Aviv. And it’s not like any of the societies we live in, save perhaps nowadays for a certain part of German society which has enough of a burden of guilt to deal with anyway, are falling over themselves to extend a hand of friendship to refugees. It doesn’t matter whether you’re Jewish or not, German, Austrian, Israeli or American, human nature doesn’t lend itself to openness to foreigners.

So we can count all the times in the Torah it says to love the ger, the disenfranchised stranger, but there will be as many loopholes as there are commandments and twice as many contradictory edicts that compel us to first look out for our own. It’s a losing argument. You can build a case based on “Jewish values” for just about any cause and even tikkun olam, repairing the world, can be construed to mean getting rid of all the pariahs, instead of helping them. To win this, you have to admit that your opponents aren’t inherently evil or ignorant of what it means to be a Jew and of what Jewish history teaches us. The argument has to be won on the one basic Jewish value that has got us through everything and that’s pragmatism.

They’re here already

It may not be a particularly inspiring argument but it’s much more valid than closing our eyes to the possibility that some of the refugees may also harbor malicious intentions, or could do so in the future. Yes, they have come from a society where Jews and other groups are routinely demonized and it’s pointless to expect that some of that demagogical propaganda hasn’t sunk in and may be impossible to eradicate. But the fact remains that these human beings are now fleeing those murderous entities — the Iran-backed Assad regime and the jihadist Islamic State and in some cases, both. There’s no reason to idealize them but trying to keep “the pariahs” out simply won’t work; they’re here.

Jewish experience teaches us that minority groups can be stigmatized and victimized, and can prosper, integrate and succeed. Emigration and successive increasing waves of refugees are a fact of life today and will continue being so in the coming years. Let’s forget about morality for the moment. For Jews and their communities to bury their heads in the sand now is positively dangerous. As refugees continue to arrive in the West, the way they are received will have a major impact on the success of their integration or, conversely, the alienation of the next generation. Jewish values aren’t the issue, Jewish pragmatism is.