June 6, 1939, remains a dark day in the history of our people. On that day, the German transatlantic liner St. Louis, packed with Jewish refugees, was forced to return from New York to Europe. Federal authorities in both Cuba and the United States, pressured by the anti-Semitism and xenophobia of their Depression-burdened citizens, refused to permit all but a few of the more than 900 refugees to disembark.
Though the St. Louis brought its passengers back to Europe, the ship did not return them to Hamburg, Germany. Rather, the Joint Distribution Committee, along with other Jewish organizations, negotiated with four Western European countries to accept the refugees: Great Britain took 288; the Netherlands, 181; Belgium, 214; and France, 224.
Only one passenger who entered Great Britain died during World War II, during an air raid in 1940. Those taken to Holland, Belgium and France did not fare so well; 254 of them were doomed to become victims of the Holocaust.
The story of the St. Louis is but one more tragedy in the almost 4,000-year journey of the Jewish people. Deep within our Jewish soul is our memory of being slaves in Egypt. Our experience in ancient Egypt – and in the many other Egypts, or “tight places,” in which we have found ourselves – has taught us to reach out to the stranger, the other, the immigrant, the refugee.
Over and over again, our Torah instructs us: “You shall not oppress a stranger: for you know the heart of the stranger, seeing you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9). Indeed, our Torah goes even further, urging us to love the stranger: “As a citizen among you shall be the stranger who dwells with you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:34).
Given our history, it is no accident that a large majority of American Jews have been supportive of the immigrants and refugees who have come to our shores to live among us. It is no accident that, as of this writing, two Rhode Island synagogues – Temple Emanu-El, in Providence, and Temple Habonim, in Barrington – have joined more than 360 other American synagogues to become Welcome Campaign Congregations. The campaign is a project of HIAS, the venerable Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, founded in 1891. Participating synagogues are taking action through education, advocacy and fundraising to address the plight of the 65 million displaced persons throughout the world.
While most American Jews continue to welcome immigrants and refugees to our shores, a sizable minority see these new arrivals as a clear and present danger – and support President Donald Trump’s attempts to severely limit or even ban immigration from some Muslim-majority countries.
As far as I can tell, those of our fellow Jews who favor such restrictions are concerned with our physical safety. They fear that among the immigrants and refugees, there might well be terrorists whose aim is the death and destruction of Americans. After all, events in England, France and Belgium would seem to indicate that this threat is to be taken seriously.
To date, however, there is no evidence that, given our current extensive vetting procedures, further restricting the admission of immigrants and refugees would make us one whit safer. What is clear is that the fear of terrorism – in particular, the fear of Muslim terrorists – is destroying our nation’s social fabric as well as shrinking the souls of individual citizens.
Yes, there is some reason to be afraid; terrorist events have happened here and will happen again. Nevertheless, it is self-destructive to permit our reasonable fears to destroy our long-held national values. At heart, we Americans are a compassionate people who welcome the stranger: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free ….”
William Faulkner, winner of the 1949 Nobel Prize for Literature, delivered his acceptance speech at a banquet in Stockholm on Dec. 10, 1950. His focus on the corrosive and corrupting nature of fear is eerily prophetic: “Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear …. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself ….”
After issuing his warning about the crippling power of fear, Faulkner went on to express his faith in the future of the human enterprise: “I decline to accept the end of man … I believe that man will not only endure, he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.”
Faulkner reminds us that fear is constricting, that fear makes us less than we can be, while compassion, concern for the other – the stranger, the immigrant, the refugee – expands our capacity to be fully human. His Nobel Prize speech could easily serve as a keynote address for World Refugee Day, observed this year on June 24.
The time has come to hold our fears within appropriate boundaries as we go forth to embrace the other; for in coming to know the heart of the stranger, we come closer to knowing our own hearts.
JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim in Barrington. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.