The images of Syrian refugees attempting to flee the unrelenting efforts by the Assad government to murder its own people in a civil war that has gone on for more than four years, resulting in one of the largest population upheavals since World War II, are searing, unforgettable and heartbreaking. Eleven million Syrians (half of the pre-war population) are displaced; 4 million are currently living in five neighboring countries (Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Iraq and Turkey); and hundreds of thousands are attempting to reach Europe by crossing the Mediterranean from Turkey to Greece, a very dangerous and life-threatening journey.
As a people whose collective memory is marked by serial efforts to annihilate us over the millennia, most notably during the Holocaust, we have particular reason to identify with the Syrian refugees. The world stood by when Hitler and his nefarious accomplices wiped out the Jews of Europe. While Bashar al-Assad is not necessarily the modern equivalent of Hitler and the Syrian civil war is not equivalent to the “final solution” to rid Europe of its Jews, the parallels in human suffering are manifest. Unlike 75 years ago, today’s world is instantly united via the Internet, by the access to images and videos in real time, leaving the extent of human suffering undeniable. The image of 2-year-old Aylan Kurdi’s lifeless body being carried ashore by a Turkish policeman captured the world’s attention — if only for a moment. The question is how to prevent more needless loss of life and how to give these refugees a safe haven in which to begin their lives anew.
In the 1930’s and early 1940’s, a similarly desperate population tried to escape Nazi Germany and the surrounding countries as they fell quickly to Nazi rule. The White Paper of 1939, promulgated by the British government under then Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, restricted Jewish immigration to Palestine to a maximum of 75,000 between the years of 1940 and 1944 — precisely the time when the ability to make aliyah was most needed. More than 100,000 Jews attempted to illegally enter Palestine by boat under Aliyah Bet between 1939 and 1948. Most refugees were intercepted by the British and sent to camps in Cyprus; some were sent back to their countries of origin; others drowned at sea; and only a few hundred actually managed to make it ashore to the Holy Land. The United States was equally culpable of restricting immigration before and during the war years — a notorious example was the S.S. St. Louis, which left Hamburg, Germany, in May 1939 with nearly 1,000 Jews fleeing Nazi Germany on board. After only a few passengers were allowed to disembark in Havana, the United States refused to allow the remaining passengers to enter via Miami, and the boat was sent back to Europe in June of 1939.
Given our own collective experience, how can we Jews turn our backs on an equally desperate population of refugees? Our tradition teaches us that we know how it feels to be a foreigner, because [we] were once foreigners in the land of Egypt (Exodus 23:9). The exodus from Syria is a global problem, but the United States can do its part to welcome some of the refugees who seek asylum, safety and a new life, and we can join in a Jewish response to this humanitarian disaster by supporting the ongoing efforts of the Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief, being administered by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC).
As we enter the Days of Awe, the Yamim Nora’im, and contemplate what we can do to make the world a better place in the months and years ahead — we can start by helping those most desperately in need, who inhabit our living rooms every evening on the national news. Let us not turn a blind eye to the suffering of others, lest our own painful history be repeated with our fellow human beings — lest Europe of 2015 become Europe of 1940.
Susie Gelman is a part-owner of Mid-Atlantic Media, publisher of Washington Jewish Week.