In a political climate increasingly hostile toward Syrian refugees, let's remember that our own history is one of seeking out new homes from war-torn lands. Fear is normal, but we must move beyond it.
Turning Away from Fear: Our Duty to Aid in Refugee Resettlement
As many of you know, I grew up in Virginia. I’m from a city called Roanoke, which most people have never heard of – at least, until recently. Last week, Roanoke topped the charts of social media trends.
It all started when Roanoke’s Democratic mayor, David Bowers, released a statement instructing all local agencies to “suspend and delay any further Syrian refugee assistance.” He went on to explain his logic:
I’m reminded that President Franklin D. Roosevelt felt compelled to sequester Japanese foreign nationals after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and it appears that the threat of harm to America from Isis now is just as real and serious as that from our enemies then.
The Roanoke City Council immediately and unanimously opposed the mayor’s sentiment, and media outlets around the world conveyed outrage that Bowers would endorse America’s deplorable treatment of Japanese-Americans during World War Two. Last Friday, the mayor apologized for his remarks about Japanese internment camps. He reiterated, however, that he still believes that Syrian refugees should not be allowed into Roanoke nor even the country at large.
Mayor Bowers is part of a national movement. Politicians across America are calling for the suspension of efforts to resettle Syrian refugees in the United States. So far, 31 governors and 289 members of Congress have declared in no uncertain terms that Muslim Syrian refugees are not welcome in their states. Commonly, these politicians claim that security is their number one concern. For example, Kansas Governor Sam Brownback asserts “we cannot allow an influx of Syrian refugees, without any meaningful security checks, while ISIS is promising to infiltrate the refugee process.”
Governor Brownback states that the refugee resettlement process lacks “any meaningful security checks.” This, however, is patently false. Refugees being considered for resettlement in the United States undergo rigorous and extensive security screening. The entire process takes a minimum of 18 months, often more than two or three years. And the process works. Take for example refugees from Iraq. In the past dozen years, we’ve resettled over 100,000 Iraqi refugees without a single security incident. Why should refugees from war-torn Syria be any different?
Focusing attention on refugee resettlement is a red herring. There are much, much easier ways for potential terrorists to make it into our country. The mastermind of the recent attacks in Paris, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, was Belgian, and the other attackers who have been identified were all French. Any one of them could simply have boarded a plane and flown to the United States with only a single metal detector standing between them and Times Square. To invoke security as an excuse to turn away refugees, who are themselves victims of terrorism, is misguided to say the least.
Is resettlement of refugees into the United States risk free? Of course not. There is—and always has been—risk involved in resettlement, just as there is risk involved in granting visas to citizens of countries all over the world. But expert after expert has asserted that the security threat of Syrian refugees is very small. That’s why the government of France, less than a week after the horrifying attacks in Paris, confirmed its commitment to resettle 30,000 Syrian refugees over the next two years.
If refugees pose no plausible security threat, why do we hear so much rhetoric about keeping them out? I believe one major reason is that we are afraid. Like our ancestor Jacob, we can’t imagine living with people we fear are our enemies.
In this week’s Torah portion, we read the conclusion of the drama between Jacob and his twin brother Esau. Earlier, Jacob had fled from his home after stealing Esau’s birthright and blessing. He was afraid of his brother, who had sworn to kill him in revenge. Jacob resided for many years with his uncle Laban, building a large family and amassing significant wealth.
When Jacob strikes out again on his own in this week’s parashah, his first order of business is to reach out to his brother. Jacob sends Esau generous gifts and placating overtures “in the hope of gaining [Esau’s] favor” (Gen. 32:6, 33:8). Nevertheless, just before he meets his brother, we read that “Jacob was greatly afraid” (Gen. 32:8). And yet, when the two come together for the first time in more than fourteen years, “Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, kissed him; and they wept” (Gen. 33:4). Apparently, Esau has come to forgive his brother and has forgotten his oath of vengeance. Esau meets Jacob’s family and invites Jacob and his household to return with him to his home. Jacob agrees—but as soon as he’s out of sight of Esau he changes directions. And the two of them dwell apart for the rest of their lives.
In the end, Jacob is overpowered by fear. He saw that Esau had changed, that he was perfectly safe. But his heart couldn’t listen to his mind. He turned his back. He gave in to fear.
We can’t blame Jacob for succumbing to his deep distrust of his brother. Fear is natural.
Likewise, we can’t blame Americans who are afraid of welcoming refugees from Syria, a land ravaged by war and infected with the ideology and militancy of ISIS. Fear is natural.
But our tradition urges us not to give in to our fear, to acknowledge that we can act with both prudence and compassion. Just as Jacob and Esau later reunite in a time of crisis to bury their father, so can we put aside our fears when the stakes are high and we are called to act.
Now is one of those times. For years, our country has limped through the Syrian refugee crisis, resettling about 1,500 refugees since 2011—only 9% of the recommended number. Of these Syrians, “half are children, 25 percent are adults over 60, [and] 2 percent are single men of combat age.” Refugees applying for resettlement in the United States currently live in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, and Egypt; if they don’t find a permanent place to live, they may join the quarter-million displaced persons who stream into Europe each month. We have not only the responsibility but also the ability to alleviate at least some part of this international disaster.
The Torah tells us over and over again, “You shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 10:19). Why is this commandment repeated so often? Why are we reminded again and again of our own history as refugees and our concomitant responsibility to help those in need? Rabbi Eleazar the Great taught in the Talmud that it is מִפְּנֵי שֶׁסּוֹרוֹ רַע, “because wickedness is [part of] human nature” (Bava Metzia 59b). In other words, though our fear is natural—though we can’t be blamed for being afraid—nevertheless Torah urges us to overcome our fears, to acknowledge that we have a responsibility to care for those who are disempowered, and to reach out to people we do not know with a hand of compassion and support.
When Jacob meets his brother Esau, despite his misgivings, he knows love. He says to his brother, “Seeing your face is like seeing the face of God” (Gen. 33:10). Let us try as well to see the face of God in those victims of terror who seek refuge on our shores. Then we may live out the words of our Torah, “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your [own] citizens, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I the Eternal am your God” (Lev. 19:34).
 See, for instance: http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/11/can-terrorists-really-infiltrate-the-syrian-refugee-program/416475/, http://www.cnn.com/2015/11/21/opinions/bergen-syrian-refugees-not-a-threat-to-us/, http://www.cato.org/blog/syrian-refugees-dont-pose-serious-security-threat,
 See, for example, Ex. 22:20, Ex. 23:9, and Lev. 19:34.
 See the commentary of Ha‘amek Davar in Nehama Leibowitz’ New Studies in Bereshit (Genesis), p. 376.
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