SAN DIEGO – Sometimes the gods offer human beings a mulligan, a chance to right a past wrong.
When a 19-year-old white man shot up a synagogue in Poway, California, the attack got me thinking.
Jews have been terrorized for 5,000 years. And when they’ve sought refuge, they’ve been turned away.
Just think what Jews experienced as refugees during World War II. You can see that story on display in Yad Vashem, the Holocaust History Museum in Jerusalem. Visitors can see an enormous map of the globe – plastered on an entire wall – where, country by country, they can see who took in Jews fleeing Adolf Hitler’s reign of terror and who refused to take them in, usually because of fear, prejudice and hatred. The message comes through loud and clear: Jewish people are keeping score.
Good for the Jews. We ought to remember who served humanity and who failed it.
Americans failed. Ours is a remarkable country, but I’d count at least five great sins: the conquest of Native Americans, the enslavement of African Americans, the invasion of Mexico that created the Southwest, the internment of Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor and turning away Jews seeking refuge during World War II.
One of the most notorious episodes occurred in June 1939, when the German ocean liner SS St. Louis – and its 937 passengers, almost all Jewish refugees – were turned away from a port in Miami, where the ship had tried to dock after being rejected by Cuba. The SS St. Louis was forced to return to Europe. Historians say more than a quarter of the passengers died in the Holocaust.
And we can live with that?
It’s a sad but familiar tale. Regardless of U.S. policy, everyday Americans did not put out welcome mats for Armenians fleeing genocidal Turks, Cubans seeking liberation from Castro, or the Hmong who escaped the North Vietnamese intent on killing them for aiding U.S. troops during the Vietnam War.
These are the stories that bring tears to my eyes. That’s because I expect more of America. The country I love is better than that.
Yet fear, prejudice and hatred are powerful things. Because of anti-Semitism in the U.S., it wasn’t until 1945 – after the war and 10 years after the German Reichstag passed the Nuremberg laws, which restricted the rights of Jews – that President Harry Truman issued an executive order giving refugee preference to Jews fleeing Europe. Incredibly, even then, some anti-Semites in Congress pushed back.
Americans should ask themselves: How many Jews died in the decade that we dithered?
One hopes that, the next time we get tested, it doesn’t take us 10 years to conquer our demons and listen to our better angels.
Guess what. The test is today. The United States now has a whole new crop of refugees to contend with. This time, they’re fleeing Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, which are all hotbeds of violence.
There is your border crisis. These days, most of the people crossing are not economic immigrants from Mexico, whose numbers are way down. With more opportunity in Mexico, folks are staying put. Refugees don’t have that option. You can’t stay home when the house is on fire. You jump out the window – and pray for mercy.
Some will see the comparison. Others don’t want to see it. We don’t have to say that brown-skinned Latino refugees coming from Central America in 2019 are exactly the same as light-skinned Jewish refugees who came from Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. And we don’t have to argue that ruthless and well-armed drug gangs in Central America are the moral equivalent of the Nazis.
That’s not the point. This is about the common denominator: Americans, and how they treat the stranger. Despite what it says in the brochure, the answer often depends on just how “strange” the visitor appears to the hosts.
I’m sick of duplicity and double talk. It’s time to decide whether or not we’re going to live up to our brand. Is America still, as advertised, a nation of immigrants seeking opportunity and a safe haven for refugees “yearning to breathe free?” Or not?
If President Trump gets his way, the answer will be “not.” In remarks from the White House on Thursday, Trump complained that many of today’s asylum claims are “frivolous.” How would we ever know if that’s true if we don’t give people a fair hearing?
Americans have a chance to make amends to the annals of history. We can’t afford to fail again.
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