Strangers in a welcoming land

Strangers in a welcoming land

didn’t cry when I first saw the Western Wall, but I bawled like a baby when I first visited Ellis Island. 

I thought about this over the weekend as I watched Brooklyn, director John Crowley’s emotionally devastating adaptation of Colm Toibin’s 2009 novel about an Irish woman who comes to the United States as an immigrant in the early 1950s. I cried when she said goodbye to her mother and sister at the docks in Ireland. I cried when she passed through a door into her new world. Mostly, I cried over each of the kindnesses paid to her — by fellow immigrants, by a neighborhood priest, by the young women she meets along the way. 

I have a hard time imagining the frightening leap taken by my grandparents when they left a dismal Eastern Europe for America. Persecution and grim economic prospects made leaving the right choice, but that wouldn’t make their landing any easier. Brooklyn captures the fear, homesickness, and loneliness of immigration. I can only hope that my relatives also found some kind faces on the other side.

Zionism and immigration were the two great Jewish success stories of the 20th century, each coursing around the gaping maw that was the Holocaust. If Ellis Island moves me more than the Kotel, it is because immigration is my family’s story. Our parents, our kids, and we enjoyed FDR’s “Four Freedoms” because of the sacrifices made by at least eight beleaguered souls who traded one life for another. Honestly, I can’t say whether they were “economic migrants” or refugees, but I know what their fate most likely would have been had they decided to stay.

The great age of Jewish migration ended with the exodus of Soviet Jewry. And it is tempting to declare “mission accomplished” and turn our focus to other priorities. We can decide as a community that the lessons learned in the past 100 years were about a particular people in particular times and particular places. That, I fear, is the decision being made by those Jews who refuse to even consider extending a welcome to refugees from Syria and other parts of the benighted Middle East. After all, it isn’t in our best interest to welcome people who are likely hostile to Israel, hostile to America, and potential rapists (that’s the argument being put forth by one prominent Jewish group). The “softer” objection is that no one can guarantee that a terrorist won’t slip in with the huddled masses, despite a screening process that takes as long as two years.

Maybe there is something to all these objections. We all want solid policies and fool-proof procedures that protect us from those who will do us harm. But it seems we become a much lesser people, and a much weaker country, when we surrender to the idea that we can’t afford to open our doors to those in need. We seem to be suffering from astounding amnesia when we say that the lives we’ll definitely save aren’t worth the risks of what could go wrong. We forget the hostility of those who feared our grandparents and their foreign ideas. We forget how those who grew up surrounded by violence and loss yearned for the kinds of freedoms that could be found only in America. We forget what it once meant to be American, and we forget what it means to be Jews. 

Happily, most Jewish organizations haven’t forgotten. HIAS, which helped our grandparents resettle here, wants to help Syrian refugees “start new lives in safety and freedom, as so many others have before them.” The Orthodox Union’s statement was a model of realism and Jewish values, recognizing the need to address legitimate security concerns while acknowledging that “the majority of these refugees are fleeing terror themselves.” The OU is honest about these tensions, but concludes that our national goal should be “getting to yes.” 

I’m not naive about terrorism. But I do believe that American exceptionalism extends to the way it absorbs and transforms people, and peoples. If you truly believe that Syrian families are coming here to recreate the miserable, oppressive conditions that they are fleeing from, then you don’t really trust in America. 

In our legitimate fear of terrorism, too many of us have forgotten that the American idea is not only strong, but highly contagious.

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