Finding Safe harbor: Lessons from the Jewish Refugee Experience

It is a calm day at the end of May, and a ship is anchored in Havana Harbor.

As it rocks in the swell, nervous passengers look over the handrails. The docks of Havana are in sight. Children are heard laughing somewhere from below decks. Their parents are silent, eyes fixed on a port that they cannot enter. They have been at sea for three weeks, and despite the pleasant surroundings, the satisfying meals, and the dances(!), they know that they are not passengers on a cruise. They are refugees.

And something has gone wrong. Horribly wrong.

On May 15, 1939, the MS St. Louis left Hamburg carrying more than 900 passengers, most of them Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis. Shortly after reaching the coast of Cuba, they learned that the majority of the souls on board did not meet the country’s newly amended visa legislation, which required, among other things, the payment of a $500 bond insuring that newly landed immigrants would not become public charges. All but 30 refugees were turned away. A similar reception awaited them off the coast of Florida, where they came so close to the coast that the lights of Miami were in view. Despite cables to the president, FDR never responded, and the U.S. Coast Guard eventually arrived to escort the ship back to international waters. Attempts to land in Halifax followed, but Frederick Blair, the director of Canadian immigration, convinced the country’s prime minister to refuse to admit the refugees over fears of undefined threats posed by Jewish immigration. Almost 60 years later, Blair’s nephew would apologize for his uncle’s actions. The St. Louis eventually returned to Europe, and although many of the refugees would manage to survive the war, more than 250 died at the hands of the Nazis.

An apology can only do so much.

The St. Louis and those passengers staring out over the water to a shore upon which they never would be allowed to set foot have been on my mind recently. I think about those families who looked ashore as they were refused entry by one country after another. Parents and children, the young and the old, who heard nothing but refusals.

I think about them because some 70 years after we learned of the seemingly impossible atrocities of the Holocaust, too many of us are willing to say no to the people who need us the most.

In recent months, we have seen the current administration continue its relentless march to limit — if not completely block — the influx of refugees and asylum seekers to the United States. Their arguments are the same as those in 1939, that these “hordes” of newcomers will be drain on our treasuries, that they could overwhelm the communities in which they arrive with their “otherness” and lack of skills, and that they just might be harboring dangerous subversives among them. While there has been some needed sanity in responding to the policies borne out of the worst impulses of people like Stephen Miller, such as the recent injunction halting the requirement that immigrants jump through hoops to prove they will not become public charges (sound familiar?), major losses have sent shockwaves through communities across America. In recent weeks we learned that a court refused to rule against the government’s indication that it would not continue Deferred Enforced Departure status for 4,000 Liberians and almost 4,000 of their U.S. citizen children. And in the background, there is the impossible-to-ignore applause from the crowds at this president’s campaign rallies, a roar that rises to frenzied glee whenever the subject of building walls and driving out immigrants comes up. We are no longer the country welcoming “the tempest tossed” to our shores.

We are becoming the tempest

Despite the darkness on the horizon, I believe that hope remains. At the end of the day, we are a nation of immigrants — some just more recent than others. The concerns raised by critics of asylum and refugee resettlement, some valid and some pure fantasy spewed to sow division, can be addressed. Does the system we have now work? No, it does not. But that doesn’t mean that we cannot come up with commonsense legislation that can prevent the suffering of untold scores of men, women, and children who are fleeing real danger and oppression. Rather than slashing budgets, ending grants, and forcing local governments to figure out how to integrate newcomers on their own, we can dedicate resources and management that will ensure that communities can maintain their identities while simultaneously welcoming new voices and perspectives.

No one comes to America with the goal of remaining an outsider. Insular communities form as a defense mechanism, not as deliberate competitors bent on overthrowing the status quo. We don’t need immigrant communities, we need communities. We need friends and neighbors sharing and respecting an appreciation for freedom and a tolerance for the unique customs that provide the dizzying array of experience that can be found only in America.

As Jews, we know the value of history. Our traditions are celebrations of both life and experience, and we understand that forgetting the past or ignoring the present never is an option. We also are Americans, and we have seen that it is possible to fully embrace the values of a new nation while honoring the principles of our ancestors. When we consider the experience of the refugees onboard the St. Louis, or the millions of similarly suffering people before and after, from places like Ireland, Somalia, Bosnia, and Syria, we are confronted with a unique experience. We can see ourselves in those faces at the rail of the ship, staring at the shore and hoping to find safe passage.

It is up to all of us make sure that they find their way.

Michael Wildes is the mayor of Englewood and the author “Safe Haven in America: Battles to Open the Golden Door.” He is a former federal prosecutor and an adjunct professor of Immigration law at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in Manhattan.

About the Author
Michael Wildes is the mayor of Englewood, a member of Congregation Ahavath Torah there, and the author of 'Safe Haven in America: Battles to Open the Golden Door.' He is a former federal prosecutor and an adjunct professor of immigration law at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law.
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