The conversation has spilled over into the Jewish community, with various commentators referencing the plight of Jewish refugees in Europe, just prior to the outbreak of World War II. A poll in Fortune magazine published in July 1938 asked the question, "What is your attitude towards allowing German, Austrian and other political refugees to come into the United States?" With the United States emerging from the Great Depression, and the events of Kristallnacht in Germany yet to occur, an overwhelming percentage, 67.4%, indicated, "With conditions as they are, we should try to keep them out." A few months later, following Kristallnacht, a proposal was presented to bring 10,000 refugee children from Germany, most of them Jewish, to be taken care of in American homes. Even given the escalating situation in Europe, 61% of respondents to the survey indicated that they would not support the government in welcoming these children to the United States.
In the Jewish community, we regularly display a strong penchant for using our tragedies, our pain, our suffering, and our humiliation, as a narrative, an analogy, for appreciating the plight of other human beings. All of us have heard the traditional texts. He who saves one life, it is as if he saved the whole world. Uphold the rights of the poor, the orphan and the widow. Love the stranger because we know what it means to have been strangers in the land of Egypt. Some would call this behavior empathy. Some would say that Jewish values must guide our behavior. Some would say that unless Jewish, moral, and human values guide our actions, then we are no better than the oppressive regimes from which refugees are attempting to flee.
And yet there are others who would argue that so much of what Jewish values have to say on this painful and perilous subject, seems naive, perhaps even downright dangerous. On this decision, to admit or not to admit refugees, and how many refugees to admit, the stakes are perilously high. In the wake of Paris, how can we be so certain that groups of Syrian refugees aren't harboring terrorists, with plans of masterminding catastrophic events on American soil? While neighboring countries have taken in a sizable share of Syrian refugees, if there are 57 member states of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, should this not be their problem before it becomes our problem? How can these member states ignore the plight of their own?
Consider also that a September 2015 study by the Immigration Subcommittee of the Senate indicated that from 2008-2013, the United States admitted over 115,000 refugees from the Middle East and granted asylum to more than 10,000. The Department of Homeland Security also granted permanent admission to over 300,000 individuals from 10 Middle Eastern countries. 91% are on food stamps, and more than 68% are beneficiaries of cash welfare.
And yet, one cannot ignore the stories and testimonials that are being plastered throughout all forms of news media. More than 75% of nearly 4.3 million refugees are women and children. And the vast majority has nothing, except for the clothing on their backs. One organization is supporting "...widowed mothers with multiple children, families caring for a disabled adult child, and others who simply had no means to flee the constant barrage of barrel bombs and air strikes" in the nearly decimated city of Aleppo, Syria. A woman who works for the organization writes:
Some days it all feels abstract until I load a batch of photos from Aleppo on to my computer; then I see the faces of those we’re helping. I look into their eyes and their stories of horror stare back at me. I just received several shots of this mother, carrying a baby with several more children tagging along with her. They all have the same beautiful eyes that tell me they’re living through a winter hell without heat, electricity or running water. Her hands are black from soot, her baby’s clothes are black with soot, and her two older boys are worse.
In all these photos she’s smiling and so are her boys. I wonder, “Who could smile in the face of such hardship?” And her answer to me shines through her face; she’s light- hearted this day because she received a month’s food supply [our] distribution point. That’s one burden off her mother’s soul, knowing her children won’t starve this month. Her eyes also tell me that her smile will only last until she hears the next helicopter carrying TNT and shrapnel overhead.
The author concludes that there is so little that she can do, except support humanitarian organizations, and tell these stories to anyone in the world with an open mind and an open heart.
Another story tells of a powerful effort to support the Al Salam School on the Turkish-Syrian border to help refugee children. There are presently 1.6 million Syrian refugees in Turkey in 2015; 816,000 of them are children of school age. The children suffer from trauma and serious psychological consequences as a result of exposure to violence and loss of loved ones.
What does it mean to even have to consider in our world, creating a space for free education and a secure environment where young Syrian refugees can continue to learn and to play as children should have the opportunity to do so? What does it mean that in the 21st century we are still arguing and debating over how to help people, and how to ensure safety for children? Not every refugee is a terrorist. And we cannot fall prey to the vicious and vitriolic thinking that every Muslim is a terrorist, no matter what wider society, and certain persona in the public domain may try to tell us.
One family's story is even more harrowing. Living in a refugee camp, in Iraq since August 2013, their twelve-year-old son was diagnosed with cancer and they have struggled to find treatment for him. The local hospital was shelled, and all the family wants is the opportunity to be resettled, so that their son will have access to treatment, and their two other children will have the opportunity to go back to school, free from snipers and gunfire.
None of us wants to imagine having to take our child for cancer treatment, under peril of shelling, and the potential of a hospital ceiling collapsing due to violent acts. When we speak of resettling refugees, or admitting refugees, is there not a simple moral and human duty to act and to care? Can we afford to isolate ourselves from this very great humanitarian need?
Jewish tradition tells us that we can't. Not because of the Holocaust and not because of people who would make relative comparisons between refugees in one instance and refugees in another, but because we are commanded by an Authority greater than ourselves to be merciful, compassionate, and loving, to recognize the plight of others, and from a place of awareness, to reach out with an open hand and an open heart.
Mind you, addressing the stories of these refugees doesn't solve the problem of the war on ISIS, or address the root evil at the heart of such an untenable conflict, a conflict that requires a response of a very different kind. And further, the stories of these refugees may not be our stories, but they also cannot simply be "someone else's problem."
One woman commented on The New York Times homepage, "I wouldn't exist, nor live in these United States, if it weren't for my immigrant ancestors, who fled occupied Poland prior to and after WWI. All nationalities, races, ethnicities and faiths are woven into the fabric of our identity. It's our strength. Embrace your story, America. Keep the door open." With proper awareness of a person's background and need, can we yet identify, "...the tired, poor, huddled masses, who are yearning to breathe free?" Can we recognize the call from our tradition, and from our own sense of morality, that calls us to be a more loving, more caring, kinder human being? Being Jewish doesn't permit us to ignore the suffering of others.
 Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 37a.
 Deuteronomy 27:19.
 Deuteronomy 24:17-18.