Ever since September, when TV viewers around the world were shocked to see the lifeless body of a toddler washed up on a Turkish beach, a tidal wave of sympathy began sweeping Western public opinion.
Jews are among those rushing to show their compassion for refugees from the Syrian civil war. Over 20 UK Jewish organisations are coordinating their responses. They have launched emergency aid appeals. US Rabbis have signed a petition asking Congress to welcome the refugees in. Meetings are packed out with people who want to know what they can do to help.
Jews, of all people, should ‘welcome the stranger’. President Obama has been among the politicians pressing Jews’ emotional buttons, reminding that they were refugees during WW2. He has been saying, “In the Syrian seeking refuge today, we should see the Jewish refugee of the Second World War.”
For a variety of reasons the analogy between Middle East refugees and Jews escaping the Nazis does not fit, and those who use it are being accused of being lazy and dishonest.
“When it comes to saving children and families from one of the greatest crises of our times, I remind people to look at history,” Bill de Blasio, the New Jersey mayor urged the congregation of a Brooklyn synagogue one Sabbath in December.
But the congregants shifted uneasily in their seats. They only applauded the mayor when he vowed to protect the city’s Jews in the wake of targeted attacks in Jerusalem and Paris.
“I was sitting next to a woman who is a Syrian refugee and she really reacted and it was uncomfortable,” one congregant told the New York Post.
Another congregant whose family fled Syria, commented:
“The difference between me coming here in 1991 with my family is that we were kicked out for being Jewish.”
The Syrian-Jewish congregants of that Brooklyn synagogue saw today’s refugees as yesterday’s persecutors. They might well be tomorrow’s. The Jews’ ordeal and escape was still fresh in their memories: they were rescued as recently as the 1990s from the clutches of the Syrians. The regime spied on them, treated them as hostages, abducted their leaders and murdered those trying to escape, while the people at large nurtured a fearsome level of anti-Jewish hatred.
“The Jews never had a history of being destructive,” one Brooklyn resident said.
Already Western governments are revising their ‘open door’ policies towards refugees. Scandinavian governments are sending back the sizeable numbers who are not bona fide refugees and asylum seekers. The mass rape of women in German cities on New Year’s Eve has prompted pause for thought. The German-Jewish community fears that refugees brainwashed by anti-Semitism will put local Jews at risk of attack. The fact that one of the bombers in the Paris attacks of 13 November arrived as a ‘refugee’ raises the issue of infiltration by jihadists of western Europe.
But liberal opinion and relief organisations are still adopting too broad-brush an approach towards the refugee crisis. Among Jews in the West, not for the first time, the Syrian-Jewish refugee narrative has been eclipsed by the Ashkenazi refugee experience.
But as the Syrian-Jewish refugees know only too well, there is a difference between people who are driven from their homes by war and people who have been singled out because of who they are.
There are hardly any Jews left in Syria. As the saying goes, ‘First the Saturday people, then the Sunday people’: Half a million Christian refugees – a quarter – have fled Iraq and Syria.
Today’s crisis demands that we prioritise Christian refugees. Indifference greeted reports of 12 Christian refugees thrown overboard into the Mediterranean by Muslim passengers . Where is the outrage when Christian priests in Syria and Iraq have had their throats cut ? Yet President Obama calls the appeal to give priority to the small number of Christian refugees ‘shameful and un-American’.
UK prime minister David Cameron’s strategy to weed out economic migrants by taking people directly from UN camps in Syria will not help Christians, who prefer to avoid them. These are places where Christians have been bullied, molested and their women raped. Yezidi refugees too, escaping massacre and sexual slavery, cluster in informal encampments, typically around churches.
The late Jewish peer Lord Weidenfeld, who found refuge in Britain after fleeing the Nazis, had the right idea when he funded the cost of flying 150 Christians by privately-chartered plane from Syria to Poland with the permission of the Polish government and Syria’s Assad regime.
The US and UK’s refusal to discriminate on the grounds of religion results in actual discrimination against non-Muslim refugees.
The West needs to eschew ‘political-correctness’ and finely target its help to those who most urgently need it.