Much has been written about the politics of fear that has overtaken much of the country since the Paris ISIS attacks and specifically about the House of Representatives vote that would require additional stringent checks on 10,000 Syrian refugees who yearn for safe haven in the United States, even though this group of refugees already is the most vetted and reviewed population of migrants to come into the country.
In the last week we have heard rhetoric stoking the fears of many Americans who are worried that terrorists may slip into the country despite the already stringent reviews of asylum seekers. We have heard some of our political leaders play to racist and Islamophobic feelings directed at Syrian refugees specifically, immigrants generally and the Muslim and Arab communities of the United States as a whole (e.g. Jeb Bush said he would only support the entrance of Christian Syrians; Donald Trump said that all American Muslim citizens should be registered; Chris Christie said that if necessary even Syrian toddler orphans should be excluded from the US; Ted Cruz and Ben Carson have also made equally offensive statements).
In a House vote of 289-137, a new bill drawn hastily after the ISIS Paris attacks will require new FBI background checks and individual sign-offs from three high-ranking U.S. officials before any refugee can come to the U.S. from Iraq or Syria, essentially preventing the entrance of any of the remaining 10,000 Syrian refugees that still need to be admitted under the protection of political asylum. Every Republican representative voted in favor as did 47 Democrats. The new House Speaker Paul Ryan, using the language of reason, said this is simply a matter of “common sense” to protect Americans.
To the contrary, the motivations of those who voted for this bill and more than a third of the nation’s Governors who said that they would not admit Syrian Refugees into their states, isn’t about common sense – it’s about fear.
It isn’t the first time that American political leaders have played effectively to the xenophobic darkness in the human psyche. During World War II, President Roosevelt, the man who told America after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (“We have nothing to fear but fear itself!”) issued Executive Order 9066 that interned 120,000 Japanese Americans, of whom 62% were loyal American citizens, in concentration camps on the West Coast.
Rabbi Fred Guttman of North Carolina, wrote last week on the Reform Judaism website: “What we need from politicians now is not certainty but assurance, not rectitude but sympathetic concern. We need politicians who are willing to say, ‘I understand your fear, but….” [We need our politicians to explain loudly and clearly that] “the U.S. has an extensive process for vetting refugees who desire to come to the United States.”
Further, we need our political leaders to remind the American people of the terrible cost of human suffering in the five-year Syrian civil war, that four million Syrian refugees have fled to Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and Europe, that eight million people have been internally displaced, that 200,000 have been killed and countless more injured.
Our political leaders need to remind the American people that we are a nation of immigrants ourselves, that ALL OF US come from someplace else, that so many of us, like the Syrian refugees today, were “the tired and the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” as the Zionist poet Emma Lazarus wrote that grace the Statue of Liberty in the New York harbor.
Our leaders need to say loudly and clearly that it is un-American to reject those legitimately seeking political asylum here.
After the bill came to the floor of Congress, 81 organizations opposed it including the Union for Reform Judaism, the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the National Council of Jewish Women, J Street, and Ameinu, as did Christian World Relief, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, the National Association of Evangelicals, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, and the Church World Service. The religious community of America, by and large, has affirmed what are supposed to be the higher angels of our spirit as a nation, and those who claim to be religious and have succumbed to xenophobic fears and prejudice, ought to take note.
Among the most challenging of the 613 mitzvot (commandments) in the Hebrew Bible is to “welcome the stranger” with compassion, empathy and human kindness. Thirty-six times does this mitzvah appear in our sacred scripture, according to the rabbis, signifying how difficult it is for us to be able to regard the “other” as like us, created b’tzelem Elohim – in the Divine image.
All three of the great monotheistic faiths demand that we do so, but sadly, too many of our political leaders are failing not only their own religious principles, but our American principles as well.
In this spirit, if you agree with me, I urge you to write or call your Congressional Representative and Senators and either thank them for voting against this bill, or tell them how disappointed you are that they supported it.