The true spirit of what it means to be an American

The true spirit of what it means to be an American

 This letter is in response to Morton A. Klein’s Dec. 24 Chronicle Opinion piece, “Don’t endanger Americans by bringing in Syrian Muslims.” Klein is national president of the Zionist Organization of America.

Morton Klein quoted FBI director James Comey regarding Syrian refugees.  Comey said:

“I can’t sit here and offer anybody an absolute assurance that there’s no risk associated with this (referring to Syrian refugees who enter the United States).”

This is correct. But it is also correct that “absolute assurance” cannot be given regarding the 41.3 million foreigners currently living in the United States. Neither can “absolute assurance” be given for the 34.4 million foreign tourists entering the United States annually. “Absolute assurance” cannot be given for the total population of the United States, estimated at 320 million people in 2015. In fact “absolute assurances” can never be given — period.

Yes, there is risk. But, as has been abundantly demonstrated by recent events, the risk of offering compassion to refugees is much less than the potential risks originating from our own citizens or from the millions of people who annually come to our country to visit, study or do business; these people are subjected to far fewer security screenings than refugees.

Life requires us to weigh the potential risks of any action against the potential benefits.  Responsible leaders must take action to mitigate risk; they also must take action to maximize benefits.

Since a refugee is someone outside their home country and having a well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group, they are by definition people whose past history is difficult to establish – they fled or were expelled from their homeland. Security checks on our refugee population are far more extensive than security checks made on any other category of foreigners arriving in the United States; extensive security checks mitigate risk.

It is estimated that since 1980 about 1.8 million refugees were resettled in the United States with annual arrivals typically ranging between 40,000 and 75,000. Refugees who have entered the United States represent the major and minor religions, races and ethnic groups of the world. The vast majority of refugees successfully settle in our country becoming productive members of society, contributing to the economy — providing great benefit to the United States.

As Jews, we must learn from our history of being expelled from countries and rejected from new homelands, including the United States during World War II. Now, the United States has made a token gesture (to accept at least 10,000 this year out of 4.3 million Syrian refugees). We owe it to our European partners who are accepting vastly more Syrian refugees to assist in this mass migration. We owe it to the families fleeing persecution to provide a safe haven. We owe it to ourselves as a Jewish community to support people who are persecuted and without a homeland.

We want our children to look back on this period of our history with pride and say that we conquered fear to show the true spirit of what it means to be an American. Or do we want our children to look back on this period and remember it as yet another miscarriage of justice similar to many other unfortunate incidents in American history?

Aryeh Sherman is president and CEO of the Jewish Family & Children’s Service, in Pittsburgh