Sasso: Don’t give into fear of refugees

(November 26, 2015)

Recently, the Polish Literary News printed an open letter from 5,000 artists and creative professionals denouncing the Polish government’s announcement that it was backing out of the European Union’s distribution program for refugees. They wrote:

“We reject a Poland that is isolated and insular, a country where representatives of the government have no understanding of world events and mistake refugees for terrorists.”

The rejectionist position was evident in a frightening November incident in Wroclaw, Poland, where a group opposed to welcoming refugees burned a Jew in effigy. None of the refugees are Jews, but make no mistake, hatred is not specific; it is directed against all who are deemed “other.” Once that virus takes hold, it becomes an epidemic that is difficult to contain.

In the United States, we should know better. We have grown as a country of immigrants whose New York harbor offers welcome to the “tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

Police lead arriving migrants to a transport facility after gathering them at the border to Austria on Oct. 28 near Wegscheid, Germany.

Police lead arriving migrants to a transport facility after gathering them at the border to Austria on Oct. 28 near Wegscheid, Germany.
(Photo: Getty Images)

Sadly, there are governors and politicians who, despite strict security screening measures, spread fear. It is shameful. We do have reason to be afraid, not of an influx of refugees, but of an assault on our American values.

The refugees are not terrorists; they are fleeing terrorism. I visited a refugee center in Berlin just before Thanksgiving. I saw them: the families, women and children escaping oppression. They are in classes learning German. The children have painted a wall mural with the names of all the countries from which they have come. They love their countries, but they cannot live there. In the middle of the mural are words of thanks to Germany. The director of the center tells me of a 13-year-old boy who arrived alone. When she asked him where his belongings were, he told her that he was wearing them. I asked how the refugees came to Germany. She said, “They walked.”

Our country has closed its doors to refugees before with disastrous results. I think of the St. Louis and the Jews who were sent back to certain death. I think of Otto Frank’s letter, exhibited in the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, written to the United States pleading for admittance. It was ignored. I remember the 1938 Evian conference when 32 countries came together to address the Jewish refugee crisis. No country, including the U.S., was willing to accept Jews.

The terrorists responsible for the Paris attacks were not refugees. They were European nationals. Shall we now close our airports and seaports to all foreigners? Shall we be suspicious of everyone who is not white, Anglo-Saxon and Christian?

We are better than that. Our symbols are the Statue of Liberty, Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. We are a pluralistic country where immigrants have contributed to our culture, science and economy. Their creativity has enriched our lives and helped to save them.

In Berlin, the refugee center director told me that there were thousands of volunteers. She said, “People’s lives are empty; they are looking for meaning.” In the midst of this season of good will and generosity, how will we give our lives meaning: by saying no and closing our hands or by saying yes and opening our hearts and minds?

It is time for the voice of reason and morality to drown out the xenophobic rhetoric and fear mongering that are eating away at our national fabric and to remember what it means to be an American. “Let freedom ring.”

Sasso is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth-El Zedeck and director of the Religion, Spirituality and the ArtsInitiative at Butler University.