In refugee debate, let’s keep sight of the real issue

In refugee debate, let’s keep sight of the real issue

Imagine if “Millions of European Jews Face Annihilation — Roosevelt Administration Blames Climate — Pledges to Allow 10,000 Jews to U.S. by 1943” headlined The New York Times in 1941. Replace Jews with Christians, Muslims or Yazidis, change the dates, and it could be a laughable headline from today.

The current Syrian refugee debate is the political equivalent of a magician’s misdirection: We focus on the “distraction stage left” over a future solution for .05 percent of the region’s refugees and ignore the “real problem stage right,” an estimated 20 million Syrian refugees who are displaced and dying right now under the boot of Bashar al-Assad and the sword of the Islamic State. As our elected leaders parrot “silly season” sound bites and debate this 10,000 refugee straw-man, the American public grows more skeptical and a larger solution becomes more elusive. As Jews, we have a moral and halachic obligation to demand a comprehensive and immediate solution to the largest global refugee crisis. Here are three traditional Jewish concepts we can incorporate to elevate the immigration debate.

Dial down the rhetoric

A well-known Talmudic passage in Eruvin (13b) explains why we interpret Jewish law according to the views of Hillel. The sages respond: “Because they (Hillel) were easygoing and tolerant; because they would study both their own opinion and the opinion of Beit Shammai (the opposing view) and, what’s more, they would state Beit Shammai’s position before their own.”

Excuse the pun, but we could surely take a page from our elders. The current state of discourse in America is paralyzing and poisonous. We must respect one another even when we disagree. Legitimate security concerns surround the Syrian immigrant debate that should give all Americans pause when considering this issue. Just ask the residents of Paris. At the same time, the Jewish tradition of welcoming the stranger as an imperative that trumps all other concerns ought not to be dismissed as naïve. At the highest level, I have no doubt that all Americans are eager to do the right thing; we simply struggle over the tactics. A compromise is possible.

Acknowledge that real evil exists

From 1999 to 2002 I spent nearly three years in Cairo and Jerusalem studying Arabic, Islam and international relations. During Ramadan and High Holy Day breaks, I traveled to Syria, Jordan, Ethiopia and Sudan. Regimes that spout anti-Westernism and anti-Semitism daily through their state media exist. Regimes that discriminate on the basis of gender and sexual orientation exist. Regimes who view religious minorities as groups to be subjugated and exterminated exist.

I visited an active human slave market in Khartoum. To deny these facts is intellectually dishonest and dangerous. Branding those who seriously question how residents from these countries might or might not melt into liberal Western societies as racist and xenophobic is dangerous and naïve. A brief review of headlines from Sweden, Britain and Belgium demonstrate the perils of unfettered immigration and halcyon dreams that peoples from radically different backgrounds will simply get along. It also denies the positive Jewish commandment to constantly appreciate that real evil exists: “Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey out of Egypt, how they surprised you on the road and cut off all the weak people at your rear, when you were parched and weary [from the journey], and they did not fear [retribution from] G-d [for hurting you]” (Deuteronomy 25:17).

Secure borders are necessary

Our government is currently ineffective at controlling the flow of people across many of the borders of America. How we solve this problem is a long overdue debate and will require great compromise by both sides. But to deny that porous borders are an existential problem for the United States is not open for debate: Secure boarders are necessary for any nation to exist. Deuteronomy 33:25 says, “Iron and brass are your locks,” which Rashi interprets to mean, “The mighty men of Israel would dwell in the border towns and lock the frontier so no enemies could enter; it was as if it were closed with locks and bars of iron and brass.” The Shulchan Aruch even goes so far as to allow one to violate the Sabbath when defending borders, “lest they (the invaders) take over the city and proceed from there to conquer the land” (Orach Chaim 229:6). Until we can assure that our borders are sound, we should tread lightly on introducing new immigration policies.

“Immigrants are America’s greatest natural resource,” said then-Attorney General John Ashcroft at a speech I once attended while working at the Pentagon. I couldn’t agree more! That we are debating welcoming tens of thousands of refugees in the future and not hundreds of thousands of refugees now undercuts the very foundations of this nation and the Jewish traditions on which it was founded. At the same time, we must approach the issue in a deliberate and thoughtful way. Anything less risks a further polarization of the American people and moves us further not closer to helping those who so desperately need it.

Daniel Berkowitz formerly worked for Secretaries William Cohen and Donald Rumsfeld at the U.S. Department of Defense. He is the managing partner of Atlas Development Co.