Children of the Refugee

As Jews throughout the world currently read in our synagogues the stories about Jacob running from home, I want to suggest that distinct — though by no means all — elements of those stories form a foundation narrative about refugees that has always been a part of Jewish history, defining us since our beginning as a people.

Abraham creates the framework for who we later become:  a people moving restlessly in our search for something bigger and better for our lives until we find permanent settlement as promised to us by God.  Jacob, however, expands that framework: that restlessness of ours is propelled not only by vision but by persecution.

Jacob becomes a refugee, as he flees from his brother who wants him dead; he wanders homelessly until he finds asylum with a sponsor or a host, in his case extended family, whose treatment is appalling enough that he ultimately needs to return to where he came from, the one place he can call home.  At that point of return, he will be thwarted by his brother and his agents who will seek to keep him out of their land.

Since Jacob’s day and well into our own day, we the Jewish people have known what this refugee status looks and feels like.  It is why America has mattered so much to us and why Israel has mattered to us even more.  We are Jacob’s children. When we feel most secure, the scars of our status as wanderers impelled by oppression threaten to rip open ever so slightly, to reveal wounds that have never completely healed.

The horribly precarious position of our brothers and sisters in France and Europe in general over this last year is a terrible reminder of that oppression.  The violence we face even in the sovereign state of Israel is a reminder of that oppression.  The commemoration of Kristallnacht, which marks the beginning of the Holocaust, the week before last is a reminder of that oppression as well.  Yet, as I was also reminded during our observance of Kristallnacht this year, there have been rare moments when individuals and communities have modeled the singular courage to treat us like human beings, precisely when the rest of the world saw us as subhuman or as a refugee mass too despicable or too threatening to assist when we needed assistance most.

Between November 9 and 10, 1938, Nazi authorities fomented violence against the entire population of German Jews. Thugs vandalized and looted Jewish owned establishments, homes and synagogues, and dragged their Jewish neighbors into the streets, brutalizing and killing them.  Kristallnacht, the Night Of Broken Glass, is commemorated annually on those days.

To mark Kristallnacht this year, my wife and I attended a viewing of Oren Jacoby’s documentary, My Italian Secret, which chronicles the courageous activities of Italians who hid and saved Jews under Mussolini’s Fascist regime. The film shows how citizens ranging from Gino Bartali, the celebrity cyclist, to long forgotten priests and nuns living in the countryside risked their lives to hide Jewish refugees simply because it was the right thing to do. These stories are very personal for Jews, and they are especially personal for my wife’s family. She recently returned from a heritage trip to Germany, where she retraced her family’s history, including her grandparents’ expulsion from the Fatherland in the late 1930’s before Hitler grabbed them.

After the film, as she and I left the theater and walked in the rain, I turned to her and asked,

“So, where would we hide them?”

“Uh, hide whom?” she responded.

“You know, the people who would be persecuted in America if Donald Trump or some other demagogue comes to power?” I said.

She looked at me with that sarcastic eye reserved for spouses and said, “I guess we’ll need to put an addition on the house.”

“Yes,” I said, “That might be a good idea.  By the way, if the new Fascist government comes for us, where would we go?”

Wearied by my paranoid fantasies that I trot out when I’m anxious about the political climate, she responded, “Well, you know, as the descendant of German citizens, I’m eligible for citizenship.  We could just go to Germany!”

Aside from the fact that our family would make a beeline for Israel if American politics got ugly for Jews, there is something bitterly ironic about my wife’s suggestion, seventy years after the end of the Third Reich.  Perhaps in response to its dark history, Germany now leads the EU in hosting refugees from Syria and elsewhere who are fleeing genocide and other persecutions.  It is also home to a thriving community of over 100,000 Jews, along with a lot of judeophile non-Jewish Germans eager to exorcise their nation’s old racist demons.  Who could have imagined a rehabilitated Germany modeling politically just behavior for anyone?

I think about those Italian rescuers then and the Germans now, and I wonder fearfully about what we American Jews would do if we, the children of the wandering refugee, Jacob, needed to escape America.  Yet I also wonder whether we — Jews in particular, Americans in general — would find the courage to protect persecuted people, if the American government decided to turn its venom on a minority other than the Jews.

My wife always tells me that speculative questions like these are irrelevant. One can neither tell the future nor plan for a moral challenge this great.  Our integrity is tested quite spontaneously in the moment of confrontation, and it is nearly impossible to judge before or after the fact the choices that people make in such extreme circumstances.

Still, I want to believe that the values I have been raised with and am living, and my own inheritance as the descendant of Jacob the refugee, would compel me personally to welcome in a persecuted neighbor looking for a hiding place.  At the very least, I want to believe that these shared values and experiences would compel us Americans to support America’s continuing legacy of giving refugees from outside our borders a safe place to live.  Right now, thousands of terrorized refugees await the possibility of being invited to our shores, with the dark suspicion that ISIS terrorists are hiding within their ranks looming over them.  So far, the American moral legacy of commitment to welcoming refugees is taking a back seat to a shamefully cynical election year politics of emotional exploitation.  Those politics are feeding on our deep fears of a very real, monstrous Islamist enemy, using well calculated misinformation and xenophobic flame stoking that would put Machiavelli and Jim Crow to shame. Perhaps this is the new moment of confrontation which will test the angels of our better or our meaner natures as Americans.  What, if any, refuge, will we, the children of Jacob and a nation of immigrants, have to offer the ones who ask us for help?

About the Author
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama, which will be published by the Jewish Publication Society in April 2020.